Losing to Win

Beginning empty handed and alone frightens the best of men. It also speaks volumes of just how sure they are that God is with them. (A Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness) ~Gene Edwards

Her height varied from 4’ 11” to 8’ 3” depending upon the tone and pace of her voice but her heart was always in the right place. She was one of the hundreds of volunteers, and members of the ARC, FEMA, local and state law enforcement, and other religious and support organizations who have toiled under exceedingly physical and emotionally challenging conditions while working at the relief center located at the Long Beach Recreation Center following the rude entrance and ugly exit of a Hurricane named Sandy.

My niece and ex-sister-in-law lost their cars but other friends lost their houses, family heirlooms, and wedding pictures. Boats ended up in car washes; raw sewage coated square miles of suburban neighborhoods. Trees died.

People died.

Go outside and stand in front of your house; if your entry is on the street level and you have a mailbox next to the door, put your hand on the mailbox: This was the surge height of the water at sea level. We’re talking about a real car pool.

Sandy decimated the Long Beach High School athletics program, taking away facilities and whatever equipment remained at the waterfront school; the playoff-bound football team was unable to practice leading up to the game and its players relocated to other parts of the country – even to equally destroyed Staten Island – in search of places to live, many with their families who left with the just the clothes on their backs.

Boomer Esiason’s Foundation heard about the plight of the team; so did Hofstra University. The players heard about it too and found ways via carpools and the kindness of their coaches and parents to get to practice; they jumped around like they probably do on Christmas morning as they tried on their donated new gear. They were at this one moment in time faux-men acting like little boys in the middle of a storm. All wore the same clothes; there were the embodiment of a real team.

I saw the eyes in each person on the coaching staff dancing with the joy of getting football back and the anticipation of the upcoming game; no, winning the game. It didn’t matter that in the two weeks leading up to the game the team would only have three days of practice, a two week period in which many of the players lost their houses and had to wade through polluted waters to save what little that wasn’t destroyed.

There was Arnie Epstein, Long Beach’s Athletic Director, burning up every minute he had on his cell plan, fielding calls from high schools, major sports equipment manufacturers, and news reporters looking to follow the team’s path to the playoffs. There was also another side of Arnie – the person who offered consolations to all players and coaches who simply needed a hug. For three days I was with the team during their practices at Hofstra – unloading boxes, affixing “LB” and stripes to the brand new Zenith helmets with others who were helping, chilling water, and Tweeting out a few pictures and videos to anyone who cared (especially Boomer Esiason)…

The mettle of a real leader is tested when all odds are seemingly against them; say what you will about educators these days but the Long Beach High School coaches, the teachers, social workers, guidance counselors, and friends of Long Beach Football – Boomer, you’re now a Lifetime member of the team – put together their collective arms and hugged these kids. They gave them a massive rainbow of hope. The team left Hofstra on Friday night believing they were going to win.

They lost the game…big.

The coaches gathered the team in the middle of the field after time ran out. When used in a sports context, pride is often quoted when a coach or a team leader wants others to raise their game to achieve a goal of not being humiliated by the other team. This was a very different category of pride; not one of forestalling humiliation but of pulling oneself from an abyss of despair all by the hands of a community.

“We are rarely proud when we are alone.” ~Voltaire

The players weren’t happy but more and more smiled as they left the high school field – some for the last time. Then there were the coaches…

I don’t think that truly great coaches are anointed (and I use the word specifically in a quasi-religious tone) the accolades they deserve. The Long Beach High School Football coaches were visibly downtrodden as they picked up the last vestiges of the game; some had housed players during the preceding weeks, all had reached into their pockets to help. I know these guys felt that somehow they had let down the players but time will show that the efforts had given the players lessons in “hope” and “teamwork” that under the circumstances would never have been taught in a classroom or on the field. Even more, I suspect that the players, coaches and Arnie learned that no matter how dire a situation might ever get, that they’d never be alone. Community pride is always more powerful than individual pride…

On one of the days at the Long Beach Relief Center, I’m certain I personally moved at least 5,000 pounds of pet food and at least that much in cases of water. How bad was it? When a member of Long Beach Police Department comes by and asks if he can have a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and a razor so he can clean up – because he lost everything – yeah, it’s bad. A middle-aged woman who clearly hadn’t time over the past days to take care of herself came to me and asked for, among other basics, cleaning supplies and #2 diapers for her grandkids. The center was running very low of some of the basics but I knew she really needed the few items for which she was asking (unlike some of the slithering people who came by to shop for “free” stuff – everyone working knew who these folks were – this person was also in dire need) so I ventured back to the hockey rink full of inventory, put together a care package and carried it out to her car.

It was a fairly new Jaguar…

Being the sensitive type, I asked her if she ever thought that she’d be driving a Jag and coming to a relief center for cleaning supplies (yes, I inserted my entire leg into my mouth) – and she burst into tears. Seems that the car had been designated as “totalled” by the storm – it smelled really bad inside – but it was where she was sleeping because her house – and the houses of her friends and family – were destroyed. Everything she had in the world was stuffed into the car.

I stayed and talked and made sure she had taken the necessary steps to meet with her insurance companies and FEMA; said if she needed anything else to come back and ask for me.

Then she said to me, “Thank you so much for doing all this.” All this? I made an insensitive comment and carried cleaning supplies to her car.

But she smiled as she opened her car door, dropped in and drove away. I’m sure she’ll be fine.

It’s easy to let “losing” shake you to your core and stay down on the ground. When you think that no one cares about you, it’s very difficult to get up off the ground. Yet when you realize that community pride can help unlock personal pride when personal pride has taken a beating – that there are always others around you who will help – it makes giving up a very unattractive course of action. Perhaps this is the best Thanksgiving message I can offer: Whether it’s after a natural disaster or with someone you know is having difficulty finding a job, communities do pull together to help.

People can lose but communities can win…

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