Here's to athletes who give it all

Tuesday, November 13, 2001
Renae Bottom

Call me crazy, but if someone offered me courtside seats for every game Michael Jordan competes in, from now through his next three retirements, I'd have to decline.

If I won a sweepstakes and received season tickets to any NFL stadium in the country, I'd have to give them away. Professional sports are fine, but for the real thrill of victory, there's nothing like high school or college athletics.

Maybe it's the absence of multi-million dollar salaries. Maybe it's the fact that the team members are still kids, playing for the love of their sport and the challenge of honest competition.

All I know is, if I'm going to drive five or six hours to watch a championship game, regardless of the sport, I want to sit in the stands beside students with their faces painted. I want to rub shoulders with parents who packed sandwiches for the players on the bus.

I want the hometown magic, where all the businesses on main street hang up signs and close for the game. I want the shutters drawn, the streets rolled up, and everyone turning out to support the local sons and daughters.

Balloons, homemade posters, streamers, and megaphones add to the atmosphere. Elementary students run along the sidelines, imagining they have the ball, like their high school heroes. Or they watch from the bleachers, pretending they made the last ace kill, or the game-winning three-point basket.

They run onto the court or the field after the game, hoping to catch a glimpse of their larger-than-life heroes. It doesn't matter to them that the players they admire don't earn big salaries, or appear in television commercials, or have their pictures on a cereal box.

If they see those athletes driving down the street, or up on stage performing in the school play, they're every bit as awestruck as if they'd seen them play at the biggest sports venue in professional history.

And as for the competition? I've seen professional contests that captured my imagination, big games where the action suddenly seemed less scripted, and the spirit of the athletes shone through.

But I see that, many times over, in high school and college athletics. Maybe it's knowing that most of these kids will never compete this way again. They 'll go on with their lives, their careers, and these moments will become memories.

For a few years, they have the opportunity to experience the same thrill that any athlete feels, famous or not. They know what it is to do more than they imagined they could, to rise to the occasion and make a difficult play, to step up and make something worthwhile happen.

Whether their efforts yield a victory or not, they still reap the rewards of their labors. They enjoy the satisfaction of self-respect. They earn the admiration of their fans, young and old alike. They learn what it means to be part of a team.

So, I'll pass on the season tickets to the professional games. I'll save my energy to root for the area high school teams, and the college teams that play on Saturday television. I'll stock up on chips and dip for March Madness. I'll follow college volleyball.

I'll tune in to the bowl games, and get my hotel reservations for all the state high school competitions I can attend. If kids are going to lay their hearts on the line, we can do no less as fans. Long live face paint, megaphones, and magic. Long live high school and college athletics.

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