The State Championship Game

Welcome to wherever you are. This is your life, you’ve made it this far.” — Bon Jovi

“Are we still going to go to the game?” I bounded down the stairs of our three story, 3500 square foot house.

Dad sat on the leather couch in our basement family room, his eyes glued to the TV as his high school alma mater competed in the division 3 state championship. I cared little about the D3 championship. Despite the snowstorm predicted, I wanted to go to our high school’s division 1 final tonight. All of my middle school friends would be there.

Dad smiled. “Of course we are Meg, we’ll get going as soon as this game is over. Mom’s going to stay home with your sisters though.”

“Great!” In fact, this plan sounded even better. As the daddy’s girl of the family — the one who watched sports with him — it seemed only fair that we’d be the ones to brave the cold while mom tended to my two younger sisters.

Mostly Dad and I watched college basketball together. We’d watched my first NCAA championship game two years back, when Michigan lost on a last second play. I think it was North Carolina who’d ended up winning? Other than Michael Jordan, I didn’t know much about them. This past year our favorite team — Duke — had lost to Arkansas. It was disappointing, but hey, tough to compete with a team who had the president of the United States in the stands cheering for them.

Tonight though, was about football. I headed back up to my bedroom, opened the door of my walk-in closet, and rummaged around for something warm to wear. Ugh, my clothes seemed so boring; I’d definitely have to ask for some new stuff for Christmas or maybe mom could take us on another shopping spree over Christmas break.

After a quick hug good-bye to mom, I climbed into the passenger seat of dad’s Infinity Q45. The car had been a recent purchase, an upgrade supposedly from his old Acura. I preferred the sporty look of his Acura, but Dad claimed the Q45 was a much better car. The leather seats, wood panel trim, were indeed nice touches. And it had a car phone too!

Dad and I chatted during the car ride; he said our team had a pretty good chance tonight, and if anyone knew football, Dad did. He’d even been trying to convince my eighth-grade cousin Connor, the soccer player, to switch sports after watching him punt footballs while camping this summer. Dad claimed Connor could be a star — that might be fun to watch.

We picked up a friend of mine and headed downtown for the game. Snowflakes fell gently as we strolled into the stadium. I glanced around in awe, definitely the biggest arena I’d ever been in. The words “University of Wisconsin” greeted us at every turn. I liked the Badgers a lot, and given how close the school was to home, it probably made sense to go there someday. I looked forward to it, but for now, I was way more excited to get to high school than college.

Our team took the field and I cheered for them, waving a handkerchief a family friend had given us. Her son, the team’s quarterback, was one of the better quarterbacks in our state; probably the best football player I’d ever know. I had a few cousins who played sports, but no one who seemed destined do much after high school.

By halftime of the game, the snow had picked up considerably. My friends and I headed down to the goalposts for a snowball fight, which continued into the fourth quarter. We were still down there when the team secured their 13-7 victory, celebrating what was surely the best night of our lives. When the paper came out the following day with that story on the front page, I put it in a plastic bag — a memento worth saving.

****

Tonight, my hometown football team will play in their second championship game in seventeen years. I’m not planning to go to the game. Instead, I’m heading out with friends from my graduate program in higher education. My focus in the field is helping low-income/first generation kids get to and succeed in college. It’s an area I’m passionate about since I was one of them. Due to my mom’s extremely low-income at the time I applied and the fact that my dad, living with his new wife in another state, didn’t have a job, I qualified for the majority of my tuition to be covered by grants.

I’m not disappointed that I can’t watch football tonight, but I’ll make up for it this weekend. Lots of my favorite teams are on TV, including my cousin Connor’s alma mater whom recruited him after he led his own team to the state tournament as quarterback and kicker. On Sunday I’ll probably check on the NFL team he played for after college. Oh, and don’t bother me during the game, it’s not a social event for me any more. After years and years of watching Connor and his younger brothers play high school and college football, I’m a pretty serious fan.

I’ll probably catch some college basketball too, and watch my alma mater, the University of North Carolina play. They’ve still got a lot of growing to do, nothing like the team that won the championship while I was in school. But I kind of like it that way; it reminds me of how special it is to see a team win while you’re a student. THAT might have been the best night of my life. I may turn on a Duke game this weekend too — to root against them.

I might watch some of the games with my dad. We’re pretty close again, given he’s been sober for 3 years. It’s been a long road, but we’re actually somewhat back to normal now, a place that in the midst of all of his numerous rehab spells, I never thought we’d be again.

A local newspaper issue sits on my kitchen counter, another one I’ll save, but this time it’s because of a story about me. The story discusses the book I recently published about what led me to go far away to college, and the incredible experience I had there. One of the themes of my book is to expect the unexpected, and to look for what you can learn from any situation.

It’s a theme that seems appropriate for today.

If you would’ve proposed half of the changes that occurred in my life over the next two years alone following that first state championship, I would’ve told you that you had a better chance betting on the team as three-peat champions. If you would’ve told me the people that would come to impact me, I would’ve stared at you blankly — I barely knew most of them. The defining moments in my life, those events that shaped who I am today, all occurred sometime after that game.

Some things are bittersweet to look back on, how innocent those days were, a time when I worried about a new wardrobe, rather than where my mom, sisters, and I were going to live. Some things are ironic; I include the story of my cousin Connor because it makes me laugh to remember that the person who made me into such a die-hard football fan wasn’t even playing that sport yet, not to mention his two younger brothers that followed suit.

Most things…are remarkable. That sixth-grade girl who by all accounts, had it made, I have no idea where she would’ve ended up, or what she’d be doing now. I can’t even imagine what my passions would be had my life stayed continued as I thought it would, cozy and secure. I only know the outcome of being forced to see things from a very different perspective. It’s why I’ve dedicated my life to helping kids far less fortunate than I was get an opportunity to succeed.

I still have the state championship paper, and that red handkerchief. They’re tucked safely away in my “save” box. I would’ve never thought it would take seventeen years for the team to get back there.

Then again, I would’ve never thought a lot of things.

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