Sunday, June 13, 2010

I9 Avalon Bowl Flag Football Benefit

Today was the end of our I9 spring flag football season, and if ever there was an arc of games serving as a metaphor for life, this past three months was it, culminating in bowl games to support a young girl with leukemia.

I9 has a philosophy of nine core concepts that are the league's focus. It's not about winning so much - although some of the coaches and parents seem to forget that in the heat of battle - but more about skill development and instilling suitable values into kids at a young age in the hope that some of what's taught will stick later.

Coaching a gaggle of 1st through 4th graders of varying experience levels is a lot like pushing a rope: The harder you push, the more sideways the rope moves. That's where focusing on teamwork, fair play, and skill development comes in. And we certainly had a mixed group of eight young men this time around.

Two were less interested in what was going on in practice and games than they were everything else going on around them. One was a six year old who was experiencing his first team sport and who, by the third game, had already learned which direction to run when handed the ball.

Five of the boys had played before and were each talented in different ways, each fighting the pre-pubescent combination of awkwardness, self-consciousness, and a burning desire to score a touchdown on every play.

But what made the season special was how our boys stuck together. We twice played a team that was hyper-aggressive, with the coaches and players each pushing the limits of what was allowed, often stepping over the line. In our second meeting, one of their players was suspended by the league after he stuck his foot out from where he was standing on the sideline and tripped our running back, who was sprinting for a certain score. Rough play, pseudo-tackles rather than flag pulls, trash-talking, parental poor sports - they had it all. But we kept our heads and continued preaching our kind of football. Let the other guys talk. We'll play hard, but clean. If they knock us down, we'll pop back up and trot back to the huddle. Let the ref do his job, and we'll do ours.

We beat them both times.

It was a rainy spring. We played in mud, and cold, and drizzle. One week we baked in the hot sun, and the next was long pants and sweatshirts. We won some and lost some, but we had a good time, and all the boys got better. Well, mostly.

Today was the last game of the season, a sort of playoff, not in our usual grass soccer/baseball complex but in a high school stadium with field turf, bleachers, a public address system, and real bathrooms. And it was a game played for a reason.

It was called the Avalon Bowl, named after a little girl who has battled leukemia since she was 17 months old. Her medical bills are enormous, and she suffered a significant brain injury in one of her recent treatments. So the game was turned into a fundraiser for Avalon.

Her favorite color is yellow. When she sees someone wearing yellow, it makes her happy, and Avalon believes people are wearing it just for her. So today, the coaches wore yellow shirts. The players sported yellow wristbands. Parents and friends donned lemon and saffron, gold and canary. For $12, fans could purchase bright yellow Avalon Bowl shirts, and they sold like sunny hotcakes. Some kids solicited monetary commitments for each touchdown they scored or flag they pulled. Lots of yellow wristbands were sold for $1 each. It was a big, heartfelt goldenrod hug.

During the trophy presentation after the games, Avalon's parents brought her wheelchair over to the canopy where we were all gathered. They thanked us for putting on such a show for their daughter and to express their gratitude for the contributions. It was an opportunity for all of us to reflect on how lucky we are to be able to run around and participate in a team sport, and it makes the challenges faced by pre-teen boys on a fifty yard field seem inconsequential. I could tell some of the players felt it. I know I did.

We worked hard all season to come together as a team, be good sports, and learn some football skills. I think we succeeded at all three. It seemed fitting that at the pinnacle of our time together, we were reminded that there are others who regularly face far greater challenges than first downs or poor sportsmanship, and that it brings out the best in all of us when we're able to come together to help those who need it most.

Good luck, Avalon. Thanks for touching our lives. We hope you win.

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