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Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Triumph of Defeat

The Triumph of Defeat
A few mornings ago, actually while I was in the midst of my morning prayers, I had a memory come into my mind from nearly 32 years ago.  It was from the fall of 1984 during a football practice on the Monday of the week leading up to the first game of my senior year of High School football.
I had worked extremely hard during the off season to come into fall camp in the best shape of my life, with the hopes that I would be the starting Center of the offensive line as the Madison High School Bobcat football team began its season.

The football team had just won two consecutive undefeated state titles the previous two years, and expectations were high as an experienced group of seniors led another talented team onto the fall gridiron.
We were led by a wonderful coach, Preston Haley, who somehow knew how to turn boys into men, pull every ounce of talent out of a bunch of scrappy farm boys, and then somehow even get a little bit more beyond that.

After two weeks of fall camp I was feeling comfortable in the starting spot at the center position… or so I thought.
We had 6 experienced senior offensive lineman, but only 5 starting spots.
Me in the back left corner
The biggest battle was raging between the two guys at the left tackle position, Darren Klingler and Dean Struhs. As we entered the final week of practice before our first game of the season, Dean had fallen into the 2nd spot behind Darren at that position going into the first game.  Determined to play, Dean talked to the coach and decided to challenge me for my spot at center.

It was announced before practice that day, and Coach Haley set up a series of physical skills against each other, culminating in a one on one blocking drill to see who could best the other and win the starting spot. Such a challenge could be issued on the Monday of any week, but only on that Monday, so the starters could practice together during the remainder of the team drills leading up to the game each Friday night.
I had one small problem going against me… Dean was bigger than I was.
(Me center, Dean on the upper right)
As the battle raged on I was determined to not lose the position I had worked so long and hard to win during the entire off season.  After a lengthy, grueling series of gladiator-like battles, both of us were beginning to fatigue.  Suddenly, one of my feet slipped, and I went down… and in and instant, Dean Struhs moved into the starting center spot going into the first game at the end of the week.
I was devastated, crushed, and needless to say, pretty upset at Dean for taking the spot I thought I had rightfully earned through so much effort leading up to that point.  Relegated to practicing with the second string that day, a searing anger began to burn within me, and I told Dean he better not get comfortable there, because I was going to win that spot back from him the following week.  But in my broken heart, I had doubt if I could do it.
Sensing the situation, and realizing that the hard feelings could be detrimental to our team effort that year, a wise Coach Haley and one of our senior team Captains, Stuart Cardon asked me to come into the office after practice that day.  Stuart was the smallest of our lineman and played at the left guard position, between center and tackle.  He was a tough kid and in addition to being the starting left guard that year, he was also the starting middle linebacker on the defensive side of the ball.  They suggested that for the betterment of the team, that Stuart would like to give up his left guard position to me, so that he could save his energy more for the defensive side of the ball, and that since I had good mobility for a lineman, that I would be able to fit the pulling guard spot better than Dean could.
I was still upset, and had been determined in my mind to want to stay at center, but as they talked to me, it just felt right… and I really wanted to start in that first game of my senior season, so I agreed.
Switching to left guard was the best decision I could have ever made.  I found that I loved the blocking assignments of that position so much better than at the center spot.  There was nothing better than pulling down the line on a trap play and plowing into an unsuspecting opponent to clear the hole for one of our talented running backs, or to pull around the end on a sweep play and come up against a much smaller defensive back that I could physically dominate to clear the way for a speedy tailback to sprint towards the end zone.
Our team went on that year to win our 3rd straight state championship title.

That year was the best of my football career, and I played alongside Dean as a trusted teammate instead of a bitter or defeated rival.  After the season I even received a scholarship offer to play for Snow College, a Junior college in Utah.

Life took me on different path to a church mission, and I fell in love with my wonderful wife, and I never ended up playing another down of competitive football again after our state championship game of that fall in 1984.
Looking back now, instead of the bitterness and defeat I felt when I lost my starting spot, I am now grateful to Dean for his challenge to me that day.  It taught me several valuable and important lessons that have helped me through my life.
I learned that sometimes, despite our best efforts, things don’t always work out the way WE want them to.  I learned that you should never get too comfortable, take anything for granted or feel entitled to what you think you may have earned, because it can be taken away in an instant.  I learned that sometimes when things don’t work out the way you expected, and a door seems to close in your face, that another and sometimes much better pathway opens up far greater than what you had planned on.  I also learned that when life gets tough, the Lord has often placed wise and caring people around us, like a Coach Haley and a Stuart Cardon, to show us kindness and offer to help us see our way through those difficulties.  That experience also taught me how to realize that our lives are full of different seasons, that things like football eventually come to an end, and other seasons like marriage, parenthood, and other rewarding endeavors can take their place, and that we should always enjoy each season of our life while it lasts.
These are just a few of the valuable life lessons I learned from the football gridiron throughout those early years of my life.  And I am grateful for Dean and what his challenge taught me.
Sadly, Dean passed away several years ago from a sudden heart attack, leaving behind a wife and family.  One of his sons Mitch now plays football for Arizona State, fulfilling both his and his father’s dream of playing competitive football.

I don’t really know Mitch or his family, but during my prayer that morning, when this memory was jolted into my mind, I felt I should reach out and share this story with him, so that he might come to know how Dean, his father, had a lasting impact on my life in positive ways.  And that perhaps it might inspire and help Mitch somehow in his own life and struggles on the gridiron.
And from this experience, I also learned how a wise and loving Heavenly Father sometimes brings things full circle, taking a hard experience for me, turning it into a way for me to grow in many ways, and later allowing that experience to come back around to Dean's family for their betterment as well.
Life is such a wonderful experience!  May we cherish the moments, both good and bad, and be grateful for the meaning behind all that we do!
Eric