Grit and heart


I write all the time about the confounding, mysterious nature of memory, and of how it is the smallest, most minute moments that often endure the most sturdily for me.  Once in a while, though, there is an experience that trumpets its power even as I live it.

Whit’s championship hockey finals were one such moment.  His team (Mite AAA) made it to the finals in their league.  I can’t speak for the other parents, but I know that this team came together in a way that I never imagined back in September.  The playoffs occurred over the middle weeks of March, and lots of kids were out on spring break.  Whit missed the two semifinal games, in fact, because we were in the Galapagos.  But he was back for the championship game, albeit basically fresh off a 24 hour trip home and a redeye flight.

At full strength, our team has 12 players.  The day of the finals, we had 8.  One was a goalie, which left 7.  That means only two subs.  The other team had fully three times as many subs as we did.  They were favored.  We lost to them the last time we faced them.  I admit I watched our boys – who seem simultaneously so little and so big when they are on the ice – with a vague sense of trepidation.  This might be ugly, I thought to myself.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Those boys – and I say boys because our female member was not there – skated with more grit and heart than I have ever, ever seen.  They were absolutely exhausted; the lack of subs took a major toll.  But the other team never led and with 5 minutes to go we were up 5-3.  When the third period ended we were tied 5-5.  This led to a 5 minute sudden death playoff, and somehow, with determination I’ve never seen before, the boys kept it tied.  Nobody scored.  We screamed ourselves hoarse, and a wild hope – we could actually win this – galloped in my chest.

Next came a shoot-out.  I’ve never seen a shoot-out before, but basically the teams take turns skating from the middle of the ice and shooting on the other goalie.  The first round is 5 players each.  We were down one goal by the time it was Whit’s turn.  I knew – and he knew – that it came down to this.  It was up to him.  He had to score or the entire game was lost.  I can’t imagine the pressure that he felt on his tiny shoulders, and my eyes filled with tears as I watched.

He did not score.  36 minutes of regular play, 5 minutes of overtime, and 4 rounds of shoot-outs came to an end and the other team flooded the ice, jubilant.  I could see from my perch in the stands, through Whit’s mask, that he was crying.  By the time they came off the ice I saw that most of the team was.

Whit was irate and upset all the way home and we let him rant.  But by the time he went to bed, he was sorrowful.  “I let my team down, Mum,” he told me in a whisper.  I lay next to him in his bed and talked about how proud I was of him and his whole team.  I told him I had rarely seem him dig deep like that.  I told him he had been tenacious and brave and strong in the face of long odds and deep exhaustion.  I told him that sometimes things don’t go our way, and this one didn’t.  I told him I understood that it felt like it was his fault, though of course it was not that simple.  I told him I was wildly, incredibly impressed with how his team played and held off the #1 seed who so outnumbered them.  They had been the underdogs and while they didn’t win, I’m pretty sure everybody in that rink was impressed by their play.

Matt came in to tuck Whit in and offered that it was way better to have gotten to the finals, and to face that disappointment, than not to have gotten there at all.  Right?  Whit thought about this for a moment before grudgingly agreeing.  I considered it too: not making the championship and not having lived through that white-knuckle game would have hurt less.  But what an achievement that game was.  Just before bed we’d gotten an email from Whit’s coach sharing the image of Whit lying on the ice after being checked into the boards, with 3 minutes of time left, doing everything in his power to keep the puck from going down towards our goal.  “What else could a coach ask for?” he has asked, and reading that, I cried.  All eight of those boys gave it everything they had.

Matt left and I lay with Whit for a few more minutes.  “It was a really great season, Whit, and an absolutely remarkable game today,” I told him in the hushed darkness.  He sighed and I felt him nod on the robot-print pillow next to me.  He rolled on his side, pulling his monkey, Beloved closer to his neck.  “I’m really, really proud of you.  And I think you’ll remember this day for the rest of your life.”

And so will I.

26 thoughts on “Grit and heart”

  1. This is so lovely and my heart goes out to Whit; I can only imagine how he feels! I have a 6 year old boy who, although is very capable and athletic, doesn’t have the self-confidence yet to join a team or put himself in that place where he might ‘fail’ or let himself or anyone else down. (We’re Irish and so there’s not much ice hockey here in Dublin! Rugby is Liam’s favourite game). Well done Whit for being brave! And lovely responses from his coach; isn’t he lucky to have that support from all of you!

  2. Oh how my heart swelled (and then my eyes) while reading this because I think I knew how it ultimately turned out for Whit and his team. There’s nothing so moving as seeing your child endure a heartbreak like that, knowing that they gave it their all and still did not get the outcome they’d hoped for. I think you’re right–the hardest moments are the ones we remember more in the long run, especially when we learn something about ourselves (and others) in the process. You captured this so eloquently here. Though I have a new rule for myself: no reading your blog while my daughter is around…too many questions about why I’m teary eyed!

  3. I felt like I was in the stands with the way my heart was pumping and my eyes welled up while reading this. I know it must have been hard for Whit, and that I don’t even know him, but I am so proud of him, and all these kids who put their amazing spirits onto the field/rink/court/stage/canvas. You can tell him that there is a lady in Illinois who thinks he is a champion.

  4. I am reading this waiting for my train to CT and I am crying and people are staring at me and I don’t care! Wow- what a game and what an experience for all of you, esp Whit!! Xo

  5. Oh… what a moment for you and your little man. It is truly amazing the things that these little people can learn from their time playing sports. I can only imagine how upset Whit must have been but then also how much he must have learned…

  6. I love this post, what an important reminder for my future… right now my kids are 5 and 2, and we haven’t entered the world of competition yet, but I sense when we do it will be a challenge because my older kid, my girl, is as sensitive and tender as I was (am) and I had a tough time with losing. To the point where I opted NOT to play (which is another story entirely).

    But what a win for you – and your family – to have this poignant perspective. I think about children whose losses are felt with shame and it breaks my heart. This post, however, is heartening.

  7. Tell your boy he, and his team, are champions. Champions don’t always win, but they always play full-out, giving it their all. And they al did that day. That’s what it’s all about.
    Well done Whit.

  8. I think kids’ athletics often get a bad rap, but your story, both heartbreaking and uplifting, illustrates to me the important lessons they can teach in camaraderie, self-confidence, and poise under pressure. I wish your tale had ended with Whit making a game-winning goal, but, as we all know, life doesn’t work that way. How lovely of the coach to help demonstrate the silver lining in that particular cloud. xo

  9. I hope so. I never played team sports and so I’m experiencing it all for the first time too. So much learning. xox

  10. Oh, wow, yes. What a good point you make, and one I hadn’t really considered – that some would be shamed and criticized for this loss. Honestly I can’t even imagine reacting that way and it would be truly cruel, in my opinion, to have done so, but I know it happens. Those poor kids. xox

  11. Yes, they do get a bad rap, and I’m as critical as the next person of how seriously people take sports, and of how early kids specialize, and all of that. But at the same time I’m pretty damn clear that neither of my kids is going to be a professional athlete or to play in college, even. There’s still so much benefit that I see, I have to admit. xox

  12. When I first started reading, I thought you were going to tell of the upset, and in a way I’m sorry for Whit that was not the outcome, but what a better team member, athlete and boy he will be for all of the beautiful lessons learned in this single game and the conversations that took place after it. It seems to me that he won in more important ways.

  13. Oh gosh – I wanted this for him so badly..but what an AMAZING accomplishment. This is the hard part – how to explain those things when part of our heart lies right there in them. Oh gosh. My mother heart. xoxo

  14. You are SUCH a good mom.

    “not making the championship and not having lived through that white-knuckle game would have hurt less.But what an achievement that game was.”

    This line mothered me. Thank you.

    Even though I don’t know Whit, I am so proud of him for being such a fierce competitor. This essay highlights everything I love about sports and what incredible – and often tough – lessons they teach about not giving up.

  15. Coming from someone who let a winning goal go in during a shoot out (goalie for field hockey team), it is such a great life lesson to have to pick yourself up, show your face again and move on. My husband and I talk about this often (he DQ’d in the regional swim finals for his HS which led to his team losing the first place spot)…children need to learn that they can fail, pick themselves up, learn from it and move on. I think sports is a great way to do that! Love your post!

  16. My mama heart felt this one! I want to feel sad for him but at the same time cheer for him for being in that situation in the first place. That may be once in a lifetime game! To play undermanned, going to end of regulation, OT, AND a shoot-out may never happen again and he was a part of that! What a cool thing!

    As parents, it’s so hard to watch our kids suffer but, as you and Matt showed, there is still something to celebrate. Their effort, passion, and never quit attitudes are what counts, win or lose. I like to think that in those difficult moments for our kids, something inside them shifts. As if they shed a layer and morph into a stronger version of themselves. Watching this happen makes parenting almost magical.

    Thanks for sharing this special moment, Linds. And tell Whit a total stranger is very proud of him. Trophies don’t always go to the true winners. 🙂

  17. Amazing story. I’m glad Whit got a chance to experience the highs and lows–experience, not protection, is what we should offer our children.

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