After 14 years as a player and 25 years more as a football coach, I know what it feels like to lose.
Fortunately I was a part of a winner more than a loser. That is not bragging. I hated losing. I remember a coach I had in high school who came into our locker room after a loss and said, “You guys should throw up on the guy next to you … that’s what losers do!”
The guy next to me was about 6-2 and I did not think that was a great idea. I might lose twice in one day. But we are not born losers and nobody I know likes to lose.
I must have been about 7 years old, growing up in a very tough, blue collar neighborhood, and I got in a fight with a neighbor kid and went home with scratches and mud all over me. I told mom what happened and, like most mothers, she ask me if I told the other kid that I was sorry.
My tough German father, sitting in his rocker with a cold beer in hand, simply said, “I hope you had to look down at him on his back if you said that.”
Lots of fights in that neighborhood, more wins then losses.
The very tough Leo Durocher, who managed the Dodgers, Giants, Cubs, and Astros, is claimed to have said, “Nice guys finish last.”
Well I knew a lot of people in sports that were so called “nice guys,” and they were winners.
However I knew a lot more that would bite your ears off if it took that to beat you. I have known coaches I never saw smile. Even at meetings or social events, they always looked ready for a fight and I did not like to play them.
Jack O’Rourke, Blanchester coaching legend, contradicted that statement. Off the field he was a saint, one of the nicest men I ever knew, but across the football field on game night, he was a devil, mean like a rattler, and he got in my face a time or two. More on Jack later.
In high school, one of my teammates and best friend, was a big guy named Doug Beckman. We played on different grade school teams in a seven-team parochial football league that did battle every Saturday morning.
I called a quarterback sneak against Beckman’s team to get a first down, and got it. I also got a broken nose. Before face mask or teeth protectors, I came through the line and he caught me with an upper cut and flattened my nose. As I came too, my mother was looking down at me crying. She never went to another game.
I never let Beckman forget that play and I am still reminded of him daily, looking in the mirror at the bump on the middle of my nose.
Several years later, Beckman and I were on the same high school team and at practice, I blind-sided him with a vicious block. He limped for a couple of days and he always claimed that block was a clip. Maybe so but he also said we were even.
Vince Lombardi is credited with saying, “Winning isn’t everything, it is the only thing.” Actually UCLA coach Henry (Red) Sanders should get credit for that famous saying. Many coaches have used it, but regardless, that statement says it all.
I have long thought about this famous statement and you can look at it several ways. I have played on big-time winners and some sad losing teams. Winning is easy, but playing for a losing team takes much more courage. You see players drop off losing teams, their uniforms collecting dust in a locker. You hear all kinds of criticism about everything.
But for those who play any game, win or lose, you learn a lot, yes, but you learn much more on the losing team. You just don’t get a trophy.
If I sound like I promote losing, you are dead wrong. If anything I am a huge proponent of winning. Ask any of my former players. But as I age and my job does not depend on winning, I have given this some thought. There are many ingredients in both winning and losing. When you win, the breaks many times go your way. Recovering a fumble, intercepting a pass that bounces off an opponent’s helmet, even a bad call by an official that goes your way.
Let me give you an example of a good call, bad timing by an official while playing a very good Jack O’Rourke Blanchester team in 1973. I ask an official early in the game to keep an eye on a Blan’s offensive tackle who was holding my player on every play, and he said he would.
The game came down to the last minute, we were leading 15 to 8 and Blan was driving for the winning score. They had the ball on our 15 yard line. The official had not called holding all game, and Blan runs off tackle for what looked like the winning score. Out comes the official flag. “HOLDING” on Blanchester.
The ball is moved back to the 30, we held and won the game. The official could have called that hold 25 times but he made the call on that TD run which gave us the game. Correct call, terrible timing. It marked the ninth straight time Clinton Massie beat Blanchester and was a big win for us and a very hard loss for Blanchester. This game, especially that last holding call, is a great example of how close winning and losing can be.
As a coach, one of the biggest things you have to deal with is how to get across to your team that you are not in a uniform to lose, but that is a part of life and if a game loss is the worse thing that ever happens to you in life, you are in for a great, great life.
Tony Lamke is a former coach. He has researched the history of Clinton County sports and writes a periodic column for the News Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.