For the Love of the Game

by Jonathan Gault | 3/24/13 11:00pm

For every person who reaches their goal in sports, there are from 10 to 100 times as many who don't. I am going to look past childhood dreams of winning the Super Bowl or going to the Olympics because, while those pay off for a select few, they are little more than a pipe dream. They might come true once in a blue moon, but since only 53 people win the Super Bowl every year, the probability that you grow up to be one of them is astronomically low.

I am not going to weep for those who realized they were not going to be a pro football player at age 10, mainly because they cannot get their hearts broken in the same way that a 14-year NFL veteran can.

Only once you pour your heart and soul into something and work thousands of hours toward a goal, only to come agonizingly close to achieving it, that's when I will weep for you and curse the harsh realities of sports.

What do you tell someone who never achieved their dream? How do you soften the blow? I have thought about this for a long time, and I still do not have a good answer. You cannot just serve up platitudes like "You tried your best" or "You are still better than 99 percent of people in the world at your sport," because the defeated athlete knows this. He would never be in that position if he did not give his best and he was not extremely talented.

I have never had my heart broken by a girl, but I have had it broken by sports, and I think the remedy is the same in both cases: time. Still, this is not that good of a comparison. If your girlfriend dumps you, there are other fish in the sea. If you retire from baseball without winning a title, you do not get another chance to win the World Series. That chapter of your life is closed.

There is a silver lining here, though it is not much sympathy for the scores of retired athletes who never met their goal. Failure and time invested makes success that much sweeter for the victors.

This might not sound like much of a silver lining, so I will elaborate.

When a bunch of rookies enter the NBA, they all have pretty much the same goal of winning an NBA title. If every player wins an NBA title, then it is not much of a goal. What gives the goal meaning is the understanding that not all players win a title, so if you win, you really have accomplished something.

Add in the knowledge that everyone else out there was working as hard as you to achieve this goal and you, not they, succeeded, and you will understand why you see athletes breaking down in tears with championship trophies.

When rookies enter the league, they have no idea if they will realize their goal, but they still pursue it with dogged determination. If they all buy into this mindset and place meaning on a championship, it becomes significant. If no one cared about a championship, winning one would not feel as great. Pursuing the ecstasy of victory leaves one open to probable agonizing defeat. But athletes make that tradeoff, because that is what sports is about.

I cannot say for sure that every athlete feels this way, but I know that is the way I feel about my college running career, and I am sure it's the way someone like Michael Jordan felt about his basketball career. I never won a title like Jordan, and I do not know if I will ever get over it. But I will always treasure chasing that championship and working toward one goal with a team. And even though I never felt the ecstasy of victory, chasing something that mattered still felt pretty good.