Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Agony of Defeat

So, there I was on my lunch break, tearing up over a You Tube video.

I was catching up on EW's blog and played this video, which they commented on today. At its basic level, it shows adolescent girls doing what adolescent girls do best: freaking out. TOTALLY freaking out. As a mom and former teenage girl, this video both cracks me up and makes me shed a tear or two of nostagia. We may laugh at these girls' over-the-top emotional reaction to, of all things, an American Idol winner being announced, but their pain is real. I know. I remember.

My misty-eyed-ness really comes from two things: as a mom of a little girl who wears her heart on her sleeve, my heart breaks when a little girl cries. No matter the reason.

The second thing is a memory this brings up. It's one of my favorite memories having to do with my dad, and I haven't thought about it in a while. Those girls in that video? That was me on January 22, 1989. And the only person who could talk me down was my dad.

In January of 1989 I was 14 years old and had found myself, for the first time in my young life, hopelessly devoted to a local sports team. Oh, I was weaned on University of Kentucky basketball, but that wasn't purely local. There were a lot of us UK fans in northern Kentucky, but not enough that life stopped when they played. In Cincinnati, in the fall and winter of '88 and '89, life stopped every Sunday to cheer for a team that would make the area proud.

I found myself actually watching football games for the first time ever. I paid attention and learned a lot about a game I had largely dismissed as a kid who didn't like losing the TV every Sunday. I did the Ickey Shuffle, screamed along with "Welcome To The Jungle", and rooted for a QB called Boomer. I knew names, numbers, and positions of the key players. My brother-in-law, who had been a season ticket holder until my nephew was born, passed along some of his Bengals sweatshirts and tees. It was a good time to be a Cincinnatian.

The day of that Super Bowl in 1989 I sat glued to the TV wearing black and orange. I watched some of the pregame stuff with my dad before he had to go to Marion. During most of my high-school career, Dad worked at a GM plant hours away in Marion, Indiana, and lived in a teeny apartment there during the week. He was home on weekends, and normally waited until after the Bengals played to commute back, but on the very important day he left early enough to catch the game in its entirety in his apartment.

It was a great game. It was well within reach by my beloved Bengals until the very end.

But they did lose.

My heart broke. When you're 14, and you want something that badly, it seems impossible that you won't get it. Call it youthful optimism, call it naivete. Whatever it was, it hurt. Losing hadn't been an option, and yet there it was. I actually broke down crying, the kind of crying young girls excel in (and that you see on that David Archuleta video). The kind of crying that makes you lose your breath and feel like throwing up.

My mom was standing there, frustrated that I couldn't get myself together, when the phone rang.

She picked it up, and then immediately handed the phone to me.

"Your dad wants to talk to you."

I don't know everything we said. I am sure I went on about how it wasn't fair, and we were robbed, and we were the better team, and on and on. I do remember that, for a man who regularly raised his voice at the sporting events on TV, a man who lived for watching sports in general and UK basketball in particular, he was very calm.

"They played a good game," I do remember him saying. "They have nothing to be ashamed of, and you should be proud. They gave us a great season. Hold your head up. You'll be okay."

The next day I wore a Bengals shirt to school. I caught hell for it from a couple of students who were pretending to be 49ers fans. I didn't care. My dad, the biggest sports fan I knew then or since, had said to hold my head up. So I did.

I look back and think about that phone call. The fact that my dad, probably dead tired from driving and watching an emotionally draining game, knew I would be upset. The fact that he didn't call to talk to my mom; he called to talk to me. He wasn't a big hugger with us kids, but I felt a reassurance from him that night that quelled my little teenage fit. He understood me. And I learned how to lose without falling completely apart, and that sometimes there is something to celebrate even in defeat (lessons that served me well in the 1997 NCAA championship and the 2000 and 2004 elections.)

I know those girls so devastated over David Cook's victory ("He doesn't even shave!") will grow up, grow past it, and move on. It might have been the first time in their lives they wanted a victory so bad that they could taste it, only to experience defeat, but it certainly won't be the last. It's a tough lesson, how to lose. Some people never master it.

Hopefully, whether in the next room or two hundred miles away, there was a calm, loving, understanding voice somewhere to tell them to hold their heads up. That it would be okay.

Hopefully, they have a dad like I had.

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