“How can there be a best in a world of individuals?” Hugh Prather, “Notes to Myself.”
I walked away from the television the second that Ted Ginn Jr. got tackled and the Ravens began to storm the field. I couldn’t stand watching the celebration because my team was not the one taking part in it. The family and friends in my house quickly evacuated the scene, sensing the despair that I was trying desperately to shield from the open air through statements masked with words of thanks and appreciation for their presence. My favorite team had played in the Super Bowl, and yet at that moment I felt as if they hadn’t won a game since I started cheering for them as a child.
A few days ago I finished watching the San Francisco 49ers most recent season, from the first snap at Lambeau Field through the final tackle in the Louisiana Superdome, for the second time in the last calendar year. I have been a huge fan of the red and gold for the past two decades of my life, and after a considerable amount of mourning, I finally pushed play on the fresh footage in the DVR to reminisce about and enjoy this great season the team just accomplished.
At a young age, we learn to compete with our surroundings. We try to get in another few moments of fun before the sun dives completely behind the far edge of the earth. We push and pound the buttons on the controller through one more level before Mom shuts the game system down for the night. We reach for one more cookie before our hand is slapped away from the jar. We whisper one more giggle to a friend before our eyes are cloaked with the lids of evening, our ears with the sound of dreams.
As growth surpasses the infancy of age and stretches our physical borders outward and up, we begin to understand more about competition through the incorporation of social interaction. We develop an intimate understanding of the words winner and loser. We shimmer like mad, weightless animals in the spoils of victory. We crumble like sandcastles in the oceans of defeat.
For all the inspirational parents and coaches out there, vastly informative of character construction during those moments of competitive setbacks, there are creeping and cowardly sources of scorn that ensure us losing implies we are worthless and obsolete, securing one of infinite negative results rather than the single positive one. I’ve felt great after winning many contests I’ve come across, and yet I’m sure the amount of times I’ve encountered a loss easily outnumbers the entirety of victorious recollections in the memory bank.
I have always been a sore loser, and although I’ve gotten better with it lately in life, I was still yelling vulgarities at the TV screen a few days ago while watching a game of which the results had been cemented weeks prior. I wanted to despise each Baltimore player that danced excessively after barely lifting a finger toward the overall body of work. I wanted to scream at the referees to get their glasses checked on a handful of missed calls. I wanted to laugh and hug and seemingly float with joy above the ground for a few minutes as the clock struck midnight. I wanted Crabtree to catch that ball on fourth down.
But he didn’t, and I won’t because I can’t. My favorite team lost the most important game of the season, by social standards, and yet they are not losers. They won in every way I could have hoped for this season. They grew as players, and as men, and thanks to the entire experience, I did as well. I got to celebrate great individual efforts that concluded in collective force week after week, and had the honor of cheering on my team until there were literally zero seconds left on the clock. If you want to claim the wins, you have to own the losses.
I caught the ball once in high school when we were down by a few and racing the clock, and I turned up field to see the greenest grass I ever had, nothing but the end zone in sight. I ran like I was coming home from war into the arms of a lover, but someone caught me, and as I hurried to the sideline for coach to give me the next play, I remember the crowd screaming with adulation as if the enemy had already fallen. We didn’t end up winning that game, but I sure don’t remember losing.
So after all this time ... thanks for an unforgettable season ‘Niners! We’ll catch that pass next year.
Eric Engel, formerly of Tiskilwa but now of Madison, Wis., can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.