It Is Good to be a Sage: Fall, Football, & Fidelity

by Edward Traub
The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now concerns itself no more, and longs eagerly for just two things - bread and circuses!
— Juvenal, Satire X
Winning is not the purpose, but it is the point.
— Anonymous

The ancient Roman satirist Juvenal (c. 55-127 AD) lamented the way in which Roman citizens abdicated their civic and cultural responsibilities for “bread and circuses.”  It was the Plebeians, or working class, who were kept from rising up against emperor Augustus through a state policy of free spectacles like the gladiator games and cheap food.  At it’s worst, sports in our society borders on that type of pacifying activity.  We have entire television stations devoted to sports, and whole sections in our newspapers.  The Super Bowl is virtually a national holiday, and let’s not even get into the insane salaries some professional athletes are paid.  These are the realities that bother me about our over-emphasis on sports, and the similarities to ancient Rome are food for thought.  On top of that are the realities outside of the sports scene all over the world where lives are hanging in the balance.  These brutal and humbling realities should remind us that sports fans and athletes may use language of warfare in preparation to face an opponent, but playing a sport is not a true “war” nor is the opponent our true “enemy.”

I loved Friday nights and Saturday afternoons as a football player at Monticello, though.  During pre-game it was the smell of that grass as I stretched out on the ground with the rest of the team, or the calm and quiet we experienced as quarterbacks warming up long before others came out to get ready.  I also remember the smell of the gear and the usually ill-fitting practice uniforms we had to wear during “two-a-days” which seemed to go on forever.  I remember during my years playing at Monticello and falling in love with our game-field. Our home field is still one of the coolest places ever had the privilege to play.

With Moore Gym looming over the field on the north end and no track between the sidelines and the bleachers our field had a small, stadium-like atmosphere.  The energy was unmatched, especially during playoffs.

During my years there were bleachers set up at the north end as well and younger kids were always watching the game from there...or socializing, whatever the case may be.  When I was in “middle school” at White Heath there were arm-wrestling contests between the kids from White Heath and Monticello in those bleachers.  It was a rite of passage.  I remember arm-wrestling Tony Galbo, and I think I won but I’m not sure, you’d have to ask him sometime.  No matter what happens in the future of Monticello’s facilities I hope varsity football games will always be played there.  To move from that field would be as tragic as the Cubs not playing at Wrigley Field anymore.

Our head coach was Hud Venerable.  John Beccue (who later became head coach and had a ton of success) was our defensive guru.  The other assistants were Kyle Ness, Larry Albaugh, Butch Sawlaw, and Brad Auten.  I looked up the word “venerable” a few years after I graduated because I kept hearing it used in other contexts.  It means “someone accorded deep respect because of age, wisdom, and character.”  I’m fascinated by that name, it defined Hud, and it (to me) defined the program for his time there; and it remains over the Sages football tradition.  Everything was about excellence and that sense of honor.  One of the hardest hits I ever took during my 8 years of football came from Coach Beccue himself.  It was during practice when he demonstrated a technique on me, but it did not feel like a “demonstration.”  It hurt!  That was the mentality that permeated Sages football.

Another deep-seeded memory from my era was the attention to detail and perfection Hud instilled in every aspect of our game.  There was one practice when the offense was breaking from their huddles and sauntering to the line of scrimmage.  No urgency was expressed, zero energy.  Coach Venerable became as angry as I had ever seen him about the lack of “it” that he lit into the offensive units and made us practice the “break!”  If my memory serves me correctly, we spent what seemed like a half-an-hour breaking from the huddle the right way, and that’s a ton of time in a 2 hour practice.  To this day, when I watch football I become so frustrated when I see offenses “saunter” to the line.  It drives me nuts when players “walk” onto the field of play in general, no matter what the sport: soccer, football, lacrosse, etc.  For Coach Venerable, and now for me, it was all about readiness and enthusiasm.

Coach Venerable had a look of intensity, he walked with purpose, and you couldn’t help but want to play for him.  Even with that “intensity” he often sported a grin that would accompany his confidence in what we were out to accomplish.  I wouldn’t call it “cockiness” but an air of confidence and, even better, joy, at the prospect of playing another day. Contrast that intensity with a crazy-striped-winter hat complete with a fuzzy ball on top during extra cold games, and you get the picture of Hud.  Serious, with that glorious playfulness thrown in almost against his will.  He reminded us that if he wasn’t on our case then there was a problem, he cared and therefore he pushed us.  He was never abusive, but he made us envision success.  And then, for me, there were also those glorious moments when you would see into his world outside of football when he’d have players over to his house for a meal, or when he chaperoned the prom dance.

I’ll never forget the Monday after a particularly hard game for me when I was a sophomore.  I’ll admit that I didn’t fully understand how to “play” football early on and he called me out during halftime when I sort of “danced” around a tackle and in turn missed it (turns out that’s an important part of the game!).  Anyway, that next Monday, after P.E. class (he was my teacher), he put his arm around me and checked to make sure I was doing ok.  You see, the best teachers and mentors really do love their students.

We enjoyed a great deal of success (four straight undefeated regular seasons, one quarterfinal and three semifinal appearances).  We never got to that coveted State Championship, but we had a ton of fun and started a tradition that I believe still influences Monticello football.  There’s nothing like those late nights riding the buses home from a far-off playoff game in “nowhere” places with a hundred cars following, and then being greeted by our families and friends at the school celebrating the delight of a win.  If you’ve seen the movie Hoosiers you will remember the scenes of the cars lined up behind their team’s bus.  It was like that.  In fact, I happened to be home last year after the MHS Boys Cross-Country team returned from their state championship! Again, a convoy of fans, car horns sounding off, and sheer delight in our school’s first team title.  That was no small feat and no matter what sport our kids may play, as a community those are things to celebrate.

I could tell dozens more stories and so could many of my former teammates.  But what stands out to me is the image of community.  There was an authentic feeling that we were actually playing for our hometown.  

The importance of this cannot be overstated.  Where my family currently lives there is a whole “club” system for most of the sports, and although there’s a great benefit for kids honing their craft as players and that in turn helps the school teams, what it can and sometimes does create is a division between kids who do and kids who do not play for a “club.”  Further still, it can at times lessen the significant role school sports play in any community.  To their credit, Coach Venerable and Coach Bob Trimble (our basketball coach, who I’ll write about as hoops season approaches) always encouraged us to play multiple sports because it wasn’t just about their sport but about the community.

My son has played Lacrosse the last few years and like other sports there’s an entire system for kids to play during the off-season.  One of the other purposes of the club system is to give kids exposure to college coaches.  I said to one dad of my son’s teammate last Spring how much I appreciated the way his son played under great pressure.  I asked this dad if his son was easily rattled and how he generally handled the pressure of his position as goalie.  He said to me, “he really doesn’t feel much pressure in these games, there aren’t any college coaches watching these games anyway.”  Now this may not be the attitude of all families, but it is telling.  This young man is a great player on our school team, in fact he broke some school and state records for saves, but the mentality of the team and school’s program being insignificant is telling.

I played three sports at Monticello High School and then went to Taylor University where I competed in two.  Now that my oldest two kids are in high school this year, I’ve begun once again to reflect on what playing sports is all about hopefully in a non-living-vicariously-through-my-children sort of way.  Ultimately, it is about community.  To play for your hometown, be it Monticello, Grand Haven, wherever, it is a privilege.  Coach Venerable said that to us on day-one of my freshman year.  He said what we were doing is a privilege.  It didn’t make us better than other people in our school, but it is a deep honor to be a part of a group working together for the purpose of representing our community in the best possible way.  I had never heard of playing a sport as a “privilege” before that day; and as you can tell, it shaped me ever since.

But let’s be honest here.  Winning makes it even more fun.

During my sophomore year we went to play St. Teresa in Decatur.  The game was highly anticipated that week because both our teams were at the top of our conference and looked to play deep into the playoffs. St. T was known for their size and athleticism and Monticello, well, was not.  

Don’t get me wrong, we had great athletes who made a huge impact like the farm-strong John Lieb (whose son is on the current team), but what made our team truly go were the generally unheralded “small” lineman who didn’t look like “lineman.”  Stan Johnson in particular was one of those guys.  One could have made the case that he was one of the smallest players on our team, but what I remember about Stan was him running off the field after a score where he once again surprised and dominated his opponent (wearing those classic padded gloves) yelling, “I LOVE THIS!”

Anyway, back to the game at St. Teresa.  I was more nervous than usual that night and I wasn’t even a starter.  I remember when we first ran single file out onto the field as a whole team and I was running behind Ryan Perry, another player like Stan (padded gloves and all), who exceeded all his limits as a lineman and made the team go.  What I heard as we came onto the field were a bunch of folks on the St. Teresa side literally laughing at us!  Comments regarding our stature and competence flew, and I do think I wondered for at least a moment if it might be true.

None of that was true.  We won in convincing fashion.

Although winning isn’t the purpose, it is the point.

It’s amazing, for me anyway, that although most of my life has now been spent outside of Monticello, those memories remain vivid.  Now in the Facebook World especially I’ve awakened to the truth that what truly mattered in all this was the people.  I may not have seen someone for 20+ years, but I still care about them.  I’m still moved and saddened when I hear about deaths, divorces, life-threatening accidents, that classmates and teammates experience.  I’m also moved to see photos of friends’ kids now in high school as well, and then realize how time really does move quickly.

Juvenal was right to call out his fellow citizens and warn them of the complacency that accompanied the gladiator games with their cheap food and entertainment.  Our society has certainly taken things too far with our obsession with sports.  However, what we learn by playing sports for our hometowns and communities has to do with fidelity.  Fidelity to the reality of our connections to others for whom we play.  We train in the off season because we care about what we will be doing during the season, even when game days are far off.  We endure the mundane with the hope that there will be moments in the future when what we have chosen to do, the people we have chosen to do it for, and our deepest desires for delight are one and the same.

This fidelity manifests itself in our adult lives.  As frustrating as it is, it’s in how we handle adversity and suffering and loss that we learn the most about ourselves and how to relate to others, and sports is one experiential “classroom” where kids get to learn some of those vital lessons.  Several years ago, Ryan Dyson had a horrendous accident that nearly took his life, he’s survived and persevered in heroic ways consistent with what I always knew of him since the 1st grade.  He now has a son who is a student-athlete at Monticello and some of those traditions and lessons are finding ways to breathe life into the current generation.

Tony Galbo and his wife Liz, as most in Monticello are aware, lost their 5-year-old daughter, Gabby, through a series of events that no one can explain or rationalize.  Not everyone survives such a loss, and I know Tony might argue that he’s not “surviving” very well but he’s still there for his family especially. Now on top of that, they have persevered on behalf of other families with their work in passing “Gabby’s Law.”  Tony and Liz will never be done mourning their loss, and they should not be expected to do so either.  What made Tony a great teammate wasn’t just his blocking as our center, but his absolute loyalty (his fidelity) to his teammates, and it is this same loyalty that won’t allow Gabby’s life to be forgotten or for the rest of his family to be left alone.

These stories are what playing for your hometown is all about.  When we know our “neighbors” we will do anything for them, even those who we don’t normally get along with.  The “life-microcosm” of sports like football is one place where some of us were allowed the privilege of learning those things.  I’m amazed at how powerful these truths are for me, even as I live in another state.

I don’t know Monticello’s current head coach, Cullen Welter, but I’ve been following Sages football from wherever I’ve lived.  So far this season looks like another great one!  I know that the traditions I experienced remain in part, plus a Twitter account!  [@SagesFootball]  I know we’ve been on the verge of some great things and I’m hopeful the team this year will take that next step and complete the task that even all our great teams could not accomplish.  My senior season, sadly, we did not make the playoffs.  All four years of my college career I never had a winning season either.  I have experienced lows and highs. But no matter what, autumn still brings about another season of anticipation of success for a bunch of boys committed to each other and their hometown.  I like to think Juvenal would enjoy watching games at Monticello for this very reason.