I am currently enjoying working with several of The Culver Academies’ humanities instructors who are teaching the nuances of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, the coming of age story of young men at a boarding school set in mid-World War II. The main characters, Gene and Finny are good friends who look at life from different perspectives. Gene is fairly intense and focused on working hard to excel in the classroom, while Finny, a gifted athlete, breezes along with a highly optimistic outlook on life. Gene suggests he is quite close to being a “Pollyanna.”I was particularly struck by one paragraph in the book in which the character of Gene, who is the narrator, refers to how Finny approached sports and life:
“But the one which had the most urgent influence in his life was, ‘You always win a sports.’ This ‘you’ was collective. Everyone always won at sports. When you played a game you won, in the same way as when you sat down to a meal you ate it. It inevitably and naturally followed. Finny never permitted himself to realize that when you won they lost. That would have destroyed the perfect beauty which was sport. Nothing bad ever happened in sports; they were the absolute good.” (p. 35)
A Defining Moment as an Athlete
Finny’s perspective on sports may sound a little over-the-top to some, but he also catches the essence of the non-zero sum game – a collaboration of win-win, something foreign to Gene’s jealous and competitive (zero-sum) focus. This reference triggered a strong flashbulb memory of a competitive and relational experience I had almost 33 years ago. During the week before our April 4, 1975 home game versus Middlebury College, we played Bowdoin College in lacrosse. I didn’t have one of my best games as the Boston State College (now UMass/Boston) goaltender. We were sufficiently drubbed 14-8. I distinctly remember Bowdoin’s flashy attackmen lighting me up consistently over the seemingly never-ending match. I was especially disappointed in my play, since Mort LaPointe, the legendary Bowdoin coach, was also on the 1975 North-South All Star Game selection committee, and my chances of that honor dissipated with each goal scored on me.
However, several days later, it was time to redeem myself against a highly disciplined Middlebury Panther squad. As we drove our cars over to Smith Field from Boston State (our home field was in Brighton, approximately three miles from campus as the crow flies), we found ourselves in gridlock trying to navigate through the traffic just coming into the city for the Boston Red Sox opener (little did they know that they were still 29 years from winning a World Series). As we arrived late for our own home game, Middlebury, in their matching navy helmets, jerseys and shorts were in formation doing their warm-up. I rushed out of Danny Hayes’ car (freshman middie) and we went down to the south end of the field to unlock the chain that kept our goals safe from the neighborhood vagrants.
My ensuing warm-up in the goal was mediocre, and I feared another Bowdoin fiasco. True to these thoughts (I wish I knew as much back then about sport psychology as I do now), Middlebury pumped in two quick goals and at 2-0, I could hear the home crowd of 43 people – I am over exaggerating – muttering the “Oh, no, Yeager s___ today,” which I am under-exaggerating.However, I stayed the course and took the next shot off my helmet as the small crowd cheered my ability to have my “head” in the right place at the right time. Somehow, I began to feel a bit more in control and several moments later, Middlebury’s face-off midfielder won the draw and charged down towards our goal. He took a hard overhand shot – I anticipated and dropped my stick and caught the ball off the bounce. Immediately motivated, I threw a slightly arced clearing pass to my center midfielder, who set off on a fast break with two subsequent passes and our first goal.
From that moment on, 32 saves later, I was in the zone! The ball seemed to come to me in slow motion. All the sounds around me were muted. The only thing I saw was where the ball was on the field. It was an incredible feeling of “flow” as we won the game, 6-2. Although it has been more than three decades since this event happened, and I probably have embellished it slightly (aging, you know), the event stands out for me as a defining moment as an athlete.
Another Peak Experience
This peak experience, however, was coupled with another wonderful event that happened that day. I will always remember a brief interaction between one of my fellow teammates and the opposing coach. Rob Pfeiffer, then the Middlebury College men’s coach, remembers calling time out in the middle of the game: “It was a hot day, and I wanted to give the players a breather. Suddenly, I felt the thud of a Boston State player jumping on my back from behind, yelling Lt. Pfeiffer, Lt. Pfeiffer! My players are all running towards me to defend their coach. There was this big hush and time stood still for a moment. I think we all were a bit befuddled.” Evidently, Coach Pfeiffer’s voice had registered with Ronny Ingemi, one of our midfielders. Ronnie had been playing lacrosse for a couple years since his return from Vietnam. To Ronnie, Pfeiffer’s voice was clear as day, as he heard it in the rice paddies of Vietnam, when Pfeiffer was his platoon leader. This unexpected tearful reunion still resonates in the minds of many of the Middlebury and Boston State players who were present that day. Several years ago, I interviewed a variety of players and coaches from both teams about the event, in a book entitled: The Character and Culture of Lacrosse. I asked them to recall what they saw and heard, and there was a 95% positive correlation of the memory recall.
Maybe, A Separate Peace’s Finny had it right on that sunny April day. “Nothing bad ever happened in sports; they were the absolute good.”
Knowles, J. (1957/1987). A Separate Peace. New York: Scribner.
Yeager, J. (2006). Our Game: The Character & Culture of Lacrosse. National Professional Resources.
Getting set courtesy of rowens27