PARTING SHOT: Sport and Literature Provide Lasting Life Lessons

It was the most basic of stories—one of the underdog defying the longest of odds. Sports are usually pretty good for that, actually. In the context of running and jumping, catching and throwing, we often derive some greater meaning out of the athletic exploits we engage in (or, as was the case for me, write about).

But sometimes, life can be a microcosm of sports, too. When a kid loses both parents, lives an adolescence defined by constant change, and uses his naivety to break down the barriers of segregation, we assign to him the most fundamental tenets of sport: winner, champion, victor.

This is not my story. It’s the life of a boy named Jeffrey, the protagonist in one of the greatest stories ever told. An orphan with nothing, he’s best known as Maniac Magee, the title character from Jerry Spinelli’s timeless Scholastic classic.

For the children he meets, he is their version of the ideal, engaging in their playground games so effortlessly and with such prowess that he becomes legendary.

He runs fast, jumps high, hits home runs and catches touchdowns. For them, it is sport as life.

For the adults, he is something else: a uniter, someone who brings people together, someone who accepts people despite their flaws in order to accomplish a lofty goal in the face of long odds. For them, it is life as sport.

I tell Jeffrey’s story not as an example comparative to my own, but because I have done my best to apply the lessons learned from Maniac Magee during the past four years. We sportswriters are the aspirant athletes who were not blessed with the skills to excel on the playing field. Instead of playing, we do the best we can to engage ourselves in the pursuit of victory that we enjoy so very much, in the closest way possible.

The single commonality shared by each of my colleagues on The Crimson’s Sports Board for the past four years is a love of the craft. That love of the craft of sports has translated into a life choice, the choice of this institution as our principal extracurricular exploit. The pursuit of writing, editing, and reporting has symbolized the very events we cover: we aim to be our best, engage in (friendly) rivalry with publications both down the street and down the interstate, and we become close because of our mutual goal to make the best product possible every day.

Sometimes, though, it’s even simpler than that. Sport is life in our basic joy—even if such an emotion is a violation of our ethics as journalists. I will never forget the moment, nearly four years ago, that crystallized this reality for me.

As a humble freshman, lacking even front-door access to the organization I would one day lead, I traveled down the road for a Game. A Denver native, I didn’t understand the significance of The Game, but my love of football brought me there.

And in New Haven, on a late November day as the sun set, my fellow writers and I did not intend to learn a life lesson, and we entered the Yale Bowl with no hopes of deriving any great meaning—nor did it ever come.

But what did come was a shriek of unbridled joy from the mouth of one of my colleagues, in response to the remarkable fourth overtime turnover in the triple-overtime edition of The Game that still sits with me as the most amazing athletic competition I’ve ever seen in person.

On that day (which ultimately turned into night), there was no greater meaning to what happened on the field. All in the stadium were privileged, and the outcome didn’t even deliver trophies to the ultimate victors. On some level, it wasn’t even about The Game—it was the game that we really cared about.

I guess that’s still sport as life, though. That’s certainly the case for Jeffrey, who never quite understood why a white kid catching passes from a black kid on the “black” side of town was such an extraordinary achievement. For him, it was the simple joy of being able to run, to compete and not to worry about anything else in the process.

Perhaps that’s something we should keep in mind more often. We as sportswriters are among the most guilty of describing a performance as “heroic,” or writing about the “battles” in the “trenches” during a contest between students. We’d be remiss not to acknowledge these things for what they really are, too—just games.

Sometimes they do matter more than that. Sometimes there’s greater meaning to be found in athletics. Sports can break social barriers and make broader statements, as Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, or Maniac Magee would be quick to tell you.

But just like in life, sometimes we just love things for their core value, and we keep coming back not because of anything other than what they are in their most fundamental forms.

There’s meaning in being first, the champ, or even a maniac. But there’s meaning in simply doing (or watching, or writing about) what we love, too.

That’s what I did, and I’m so much better off as a result.

—Staff writer Malcom A. Glenn can be reached at mglenn@post.harvard.edu.

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