Being a successful person is not necessarily defined by what you have achieved, but by what you have overcome.” -Fannie Flagg
“Hey, you’re really taking it like a champ. I’m impressed.”
My stepdad’s words stayed with me as he walked out of the room after the NCAA championship game Monday night, my face not in a frown — certainly not in a wide smile — but yet… content. At peace. Even after a loss.
Why? I thought. Why wasn’t I more disappointed about Carolina? And then it hit me.
This team was just like me.
I had perhaps never identified more with any sports team than the ’04-’05 Tar Heels. How could I have not? Given the majority of their best players had started at Carolina as freshman with me.
That freshman year of ours’ was a tumultuous one. For me, a roller coaster of emotions: homesickness, anxiety, fear, and mixed in there midyear, happiness, contentment, and confidence. For the team, a roller coaster of wins and losses, capped off with a decent run through the NIT tournament. Nineteen wins — suitable for many programs, but not enough for the Carolina faithful.
A new coach was brought in.
As a sophomore, much of my anxiety had subsided, paving the way to a more solid footing at the school. More involvement, more friends, more… fun. And that basketball team sure had more fun too. From Roy’s Midnight madness variety show to open the season, to a great run through the ACC and NCAA tournament. A tough loss to Texas ended the season, but a world of promise awaited in the next year… promise I never doubted.
As a confident, outgoing, happy junior, I cheered all tournament for us to play the #1 team. We’d spent the year at number 2, never faltering too badly, but still riding the coattails of that top spot. I knew we could beat the Illini, I felt it in my junior-year-I-can-take-on-anything bones. And at 8pm on April 4th, 2005, I got my dream match-up. 3 hours later, I was rushing Franklin Street with 14,000 of my classmates.
In 2009, life felt pretty grand. My job was proceeding splendidly–after a successful first customer, I’d received the coveted and highly-anticipated 3rd year salary raise, and to top it off, my bi-weekly travels now took me to Palo Alto, California. My off-weeks were filled with friends and travel-planning — including an initial foray overseas. Nothing could make things better.
Which also happened to be the case for my Tar Heel basketball team.
With a slew of seniors including the now legendary “Psycho” Tyler Hansbrough, the team started the season #1 and never looked back. Even with the confidence I had in their skills, I’m not sure I could’ve ever anticipated sitting down to the championship game, and realizing within ten minutes that even that event would not be a nerve-wracking affair.
We never held less than a double-digit lead in the game.
The 2012 team seemed poised for a championship as well… and what better year for them to win it all again: I was heading back to graduate school in the fall to pursue my passion, everything seemed perfect…
Until the point guard broke his wrist halfway through the tournament.
What followed for North Carolina in the months after the tournament was even more difficult to swallow than the missed championship opportunity. Sanctions against the football team for NCAA violations, the firing of the Athletic Director, Football Coach, and even Chancellor. Suddenly a University that seemed at the top of its game had found a spot near the bottom in terms of respect.
The seniors on this 2016 team started college in that fall of 2012, the same time I started my graduate program. Even at the beginning, I questioned whether I’d made the right decision to leave my well-paying job and start over as a student again. Amidst all of those allegations, I’m sure the new team members questioned their decisions too.
I don’t have to remind anyone who follows this blog that between my dad’s death and a debilitating injury, 2013 remains the worst year of my life. My Tar Heels didn’t have a much better time, making the tournament, but losing early to a bitter rival. Questions continued to swarm the team and the university.
Carolina is not a school that often has to do a lot of rebuilding, but over the next couple of years, that’s exactly what they did. While the school brought in a new chancellor and enacted overhauls to earn back its academic standing, the basketball team added new players each year, trying to get them to gel with existing ones, working all that while to make it back to the competitiveness possessed by the teams of 2012 and before. Several announcers pondered whether they could do it. Sure they’d be good again… but could they be great?
Success is not the absence of failure, it’s the attainment of ultimate objectives. It’s about winning the war, not every battle.” -Edwin C. Bliss
The past couple of years for me have not been without their setbacks — my injury has persisted and even now is not fully healed.
But I can run half marathons again.
I’ve had days where I miss my dad so much it hurts…
But the smiles of his memory now outweigh the tears.
I’ve had to leave behind close friends…
But I’ve made many new friends too, all the while keeping up with the old ones.
I’ve had to make big decisions, go out on a limb…
But none of them have resulted in regrets.
Somewhere in the past 12 months the word defeat finally vanished from my vocabulary. Regardless of what may seem to block my path, I’ve found my way to a place where I trust myself and my decisions again, and know exactly who I am and what I’m capable of.
I have no doubt that the team on Monday night looked at the Championship game as their “war.” But as I watched them sulk off the floor hanging their heads, all I could think about was the fact that they’d gotten back there.
They’d fought through years of adversity, they’d come back after losses, won enough games to still earn the highest seeding, and proved they could stand with the best of them on the biggest stage.
I went to work with a smile on my face Tuesday having realized that the game itself played Monday night was merely a battle.
By getting back there… we’d won the war.