Ahead of the Game: Loving Sports, Not Just Winning

Faced with an incredible challenge, my unstoppable son has never played it safe.

When I was in eighth grade, I was elected to be captain of the White team. White and green were our school colors, and every girl was assigned to be on one of the two rival teams throughout her time at the school. The teams competed in field hockey, basketball, softball, swimming, even dodgeball, and at the awards ceremony at the end of each year, the captain of the team with the most points accepted a huge trophy while all the Whites or Greens yelled deafeningly. The irony of my being captain was that I hadn't even competed in any of the sports.

I thought I wasn't good enough, so I refused to try out and (along with plenty of other girls) would just watch and cheer. My parents had never dealt well with any sort of failure or loss -- they seemed to see it as a form of public humiliation. So I learned the lessons that my family unwittingly taught me: Only do things that you know you'll succeed at. Only try out if you know you'll make the team. Only play a game if you are sure you can win.

My younger child, Sam, was born without a left hand; his arm stops just below his elbow. When he was a few days old, my family visited us briefly, but no one cooed over him or even held him. A few weeks later, they later sent him a large navy wool rug. When the FedEx man delivered it, he commented, with just the right touch of sarcasm, "I bet the little guy will really enjoy playing with this." He helped me understand the simple truth of what I'd been feeling all along: In my family's eyes, my baby had lost before he'd ever entered the game.

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Sam runs the bases
Courtesy of Michelle Blake

Against All Odds

During the early months of his life, doctors told us there were many things my son wouldn't be able to do, including crawl. However, he was crawling at 5 months, and I had to race to keep up with him. The moment he could walk, he disappeared into our neighbors' backyards. He mastered the monkey bars and learned how to pump himself sky-high on the swings. For nursery school, I bought him red tennis shoes with Velcro closings, but he insisted on having shoes with laces and taught himself to tie a bow.

By kindergarten, he was already a sports fanatic. He wanted nothing more than to whack, kick, or hurl a ball. With some trepidation, we took him to his first micro-soccer practice, where the team was made up of 5-year-olds he'd never met. Kids had different reactions to his arm, and occasionally a child would get obsessed, following my son around and repeatedly asking him what had happened. Of course, this was a normal enough 5-year-old response, but it was hard on our son and painful for us.

Through trial and error, we'd discovered that the best way to deal with new groups was to talk about his arm right away. So when the soccer coach had each player stand up and say his name, my son announced that he had only one hand, that God had made him that way, and that he could do everything anyone else could do. My husband had to walk away so no one would see his tears of pride.

Throughout elementary school, Sam played soccer, basketball, touch football, and Little League baseball. He got a late start in Little League because we'd been afraid he wouldn't be chosen for a team and didn't take him to tryouts until he was in third grade. When my husband finally took him, the guy in charge said all the coaches were arguing over who'd get the one-handed kid with the great right arm.

Halfway through high school, he transferred from a small private school to the public school that had 2,000 students. He had wanted to go there all along, but we'd worried that people might make fun of him in the raucous hallways and that he wouldn't be able to play any of his beloved sports. Indeed, at the end of the three-day tryouts for the basketball team, he found out he hadn't made the cut. Instead, he took two gym classes, in which he played basketball, volleyball, and baseball every day and made a few close friends. Then he taught himself how to handle a lacrosse stick and played for the varsity team in the spring, while also serving as assistant coach on his old Little League team.

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Sam with a basketball
Courtesy of Michelle Blake

Lessons Learned

I don't know how my son learned that playing a sport he loves means more than winning the game, that doing what makes him happy is far more important than looking good. But as a family friend once told us, he was born with a small arm and a big heart. As he's grown older, he's made it clear that snubs and skepticism from kids -- and sometimes adults -- mean nothing compared to the pleasure of playing his heart out on the field, any field. Over time, we've watched him develop that attitude toward every effort he undertakes.

During his senior year in high school, I took him out to dinner at a nearby French bistro -- a place out of our price range that we usually save as a treat for special occasions. He ordered steak, and as I watched him cut the meat -- a smooth procedure that he's perfected over time -- I told him that he'd taught me more about life than anyone I know. When we'd finished, he reached into his wallet, and with his savings from a part-time summer job, he treated me to our expensive meal.

I have learned from him that what deserves to be celebrated in life is not just success but also the long, sweaty afternoons of practice -- including the missed swings, the dropped passes, the hard thwack of the wood bat on leather, and the ball's graceful arc into the tall weeds in foul territory -- until it becomes too dark to see anymore and the players head home, hearts filled with a deep love of the game.

Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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