Whether in athletics or the arts, some of the most important lessons in college come when students are allowed to let their spirits soar.
Some of the most enduring lessons of my life I learned at the 50-yard line of a football field. In high school, I played sports for the Boiling Springs (Pa.) Bubblers. That’s right . . . we were the Bubblers—unabashedly, our mascot was a bubble. Our school colors were purple and gold. As I look back, my primary role on the team was to hold the tackling dummy. But there came a game day when I got Coach’s nod to line up for the kickoff.
In the locker-room, Coach gave us the obligatory pre-game pep talk: knock somebody down . . . the game of life . . . school tradition . . . we were gods among men. We were breathing fire when we hit the field.
We lined up for the kick—to the left were my purple and gold brothers; to my right the long Bubbler line. Before us the foe. I picked the opponent I was to obliterate, #57. My mouthpiece I clenched into my bicuspids. The whistle trilled. We sprinted to the melee.
The exhilaration and fear one experiences on a football kickoff is nigh I imagine to the adrenaline rush of the French cavalry charge at Agincourt in Henry V, or perhaps it’s akin to the Greek phalanxes crashing into the Persian infantry at Marathon. I heaved my 145-pound self into #57. A collision of worlds . . .
When the white light cleared, I found myself still upright in my cleats—as was #57. The progress of the scrimmage had passed us by. My foe and I stood poised seemingly alone in the stadium at the 50-yard line. “Go ahead,” #57 jeered. “Hit me again.”
It was in those moments that I learned a great truth: never under-estimate your opponent.
I attend many of the games, matches, and meets here at TROY. As a result of my own experiences on the playing fields of Boiling Springs (Pa.), I can relate to the thrills and heartbreaks of Trojan athletes. I watch the athletic contests and I reminisce about my own youth, and I enjoy seeing mentors “coaching up” players—but most of all I enjoy watching my classroom students in their other capacity at TROY, as student-athletes. They are every one of them a better athlete than I ever hoped to be.
In truth, some of the best students I’ve taught were athletes; on the other hand, some of my biggest disappointments were jocks. It begs the question: why do we as a university invest in athletics? An even broader question is why do we invest in anything outside of the classroom, library, or laboratory? The answers are easier to sustain when we’re winning, but no team wins all the time, and sometimes a fan can get downright dejected.
But I think the best explanation I’ve heard is contained in the TROY motto, which was resurrected by a faculty member during the university’s 125th anniversary timeline project and actually dates back to the school’s founding in 1887: “To educate the mind to think, the heart to feel, and the body to act.”
In track and field there is a term called “personal best” or PB. Even when one doesn’t win the race or throw the farthest, one can strive for a personal best. In a sense, the athlete is in competition with herself—and remember, never underestimate an opponent.
To extrapolate to other areas of student activity, I want all of our students to experience their PB at TROY. And for the same reasons why I go to the athletic contests, I like to attend the university’s plays, dances, shows, recitals, concerts, and displays. My amazement at our students’ talent, grace, and commitment is replenished every time I watch or listen to them. I like to see them at their PB . . . I like to see their spirits soar.
I wish that state legislators could see what I see. Year after year, funding for higher education in the State House is a struggle, year after year students and their families assume more loan debt, year after year universities have to do more with less. The current catchphrase in legislatures is “return on investment” or RoI. University programs are evaluated on criteria such as how many of their graduates are employed in their field a certain number of years after the degree.
However, many of the benefits that accrue to students at a university are intangible . . . the RoI may involve deeper changes in how they think, feel, and act. One observer put it this way to students: “A good job is important . . . But you are not just a job. And for all of the stress we put on college, we almost never ask how it can help us achieve not just a good job, but a good life” (www.college-choice.org).
And speaking of jobs, Steven Pearlstein, a business and economics writer for The Washington Post notes, “The good jobs of the future will go to those who can collaborate widely [think: team mates or dance troupe], think broadly [think: acting Shakespeare or becoming a conversation partner], and challenge conventional wisdom [think: creative writing]—precisely the capacities that a liberal arts education is meant to develop.”
As a faculty member at TROY for 28 years, I’ve seen my job here as one of challenging, guiding, correcting, and supporting young people. All of my colleagues want our students to succeed—I daresay to soar. There have been some soaring times over the years: Junior Louisant’s fumble recovery and touchdown against Missouri; every time the Sound of the South and the massed bands play “My Home’s in Alabama”; or the Concert Chorale’s premiering “Confessions,” based on text from St. Augustine.
In consideration of all that the university offers its students, I would humbly submit that we expand the school motto:
To educate the mind to think
The heart to feel
The body to act . . .
And the spirit to soar.