Love thy opponent?
Are you kidding me? I know, it sounds crazy! In the heat of battle I don’t think anyone can really bring themselves to think this way, and yet, it can happen; it does happen. So, what am I talking about? Well, let me tell you a story.
I was once sitting around with several guys who I had played college football with and we were reminiscing about our “Glory Days.” It was fun to look back and remember days gone by, but then one of the guys threw down the gauntlet and asked this question…of all of your football memories, from grade school on up, what was your
absolute favorite memory?
Wow! I was fortunate enough to win league championships my Junior and Senior year in high school; there were plenty of great memories from each of those seasons. Then
when I was a Sophomore playing at the University of Buffalo I did have a nice interception against Holy Cross in a game that was televised as the ABC-TV Regional
Game of the Week. That was kind of cool. Then, I have the wonderful memory of a locker room celebration after we closed out an 11-0 season at Ashland College (now
Ashland University, OH) and also the memory of playing in the first-ever All-Ohio Shrine Bowl (1972) at Ohio State University. But, when it came time to tell my story, it was
none of these I would describe.
The date was November 7, 1970. The University Buffalo was playing Boston College. I was a Sophomore Defensive Back playing for UB and while we were having a pretty
miserable year (2-7 at the time), we were pumped to go to Boston and upset the Eagles. Even having the terrible year we were having, if we could somehow rise to the
occasion and knock off Boston College on their home field, it could make our season.
Well, as fate would have it, his Eminence, Richard Cardinal Cushing (1895-1970), an Alumnus of Boston College and a well known priest in the Boston area passed away on November 2nd, just days before our game. A major donor who made Alumni Stadium a possibility and donated funds to numerous other building efforts on the BC campus, his loss would certainly provide plenty of inspiration for the Eagles come game day. In fact, they put a picture of Richard Cardinal Cushing on the cover of the Game Day program for our game that Saturday (yes, THAT is a picture of the actual Game Day Program!).
Game Day brought a picture perfect fall day for early November and the stadium was packed. Bright sunshine and fairly mild temperatures for November in Boston made for perfect playing conditions. While most of the leaves had fallen, there were still some beautiful maples covered in red and gold at the far, open end of the horseshoe shaped stadium. I remember looking at them and thinking to myself, How ironic, even nature is
sporting red and gold today, Boston College’s colors. Maybe God is rooting for them?
I was pretty amped up in warm ups and was excited to be playing in this venue. The natural grass turf was cut short and the field felt fast. I just loved being there to play at Boston College, one of the schools that had contacted me when I was a Junior in high school. I knew my mom and dad would be listening to the game at home on the radio. It was just a wonderful day to be alive and playing college football. I was jacked up!
Then I noticed it. Where was Boston College? We had been doing our pre-game warm ups for 20 minutes and there was no sign of Boston College’s team on the field. No
place kickers, no punters, no specialists, no one, not even a coach walking the field. That seemed very strange but I just thought, Maybe this is something they normally do?
We came into the locker room after our pre-game warm-up and as usual, guys took their final nervous pees and we broke up into our groups by position for last minute
instructions. Our head coach spoke to us and we headed out of the locker room and out of the tunnel onto the field and over to our bench area. Amongst the 45,000 spectators
were a handful of parents who welcomed us onto the field. And yet, still, no Boston College football players in sight. What was going on?
Then the stadium announcer welcomed people to the game as is customary and asked the crowd to remove their hats for the National Anthem. A lone bugler from the Boston
College Marching Band stood by the flagpole at the one end of the field and played his crisp, clear rendition of the Star Spangled Banner and the crowd remained standing.
Then an elderly priest slowly walked to the center of the field with a microphone in his hand. He asked everyone to bow their heads in prayer. At the conclusion of his prayer,
he took a deep breath and then said, “And may we now share a moment of silence to honor His Eminence, Richard Cardinal Cushing, who passed on November 2nd, “All
Souls Day.” And then it happened.
It was like the world had stopped. It was stunning. The silence that is. There wasn’t a sound to be heard. There were roughly 45,000 people packed into that stadium and
yet, not even a peep was to be heard. There was no sound whatsoever, no distant car horns or airplanes above, just complete, total silence. The silence was almost scary.
And then I heard it….the sound of dry leaves being scraped along the asphalt walkway right behind our bench. I looked behind me to see that a light breeze was pushing
those leaves along the walkway as everything else in that stadium had come to a complete standstill. I don’t think anyone even moved and it wouldn’t surprise me if the
people had even stopped breathing. I had never experienced anything quite like it. I remember the moment like it was yesterday. The almost eerie silence was finally broken
when the priest said, “Amen.”
And then, the world changed.
Out of the tunnel to my right across the field, came about 24 drum line drummers highstepping it and pounding on their drums. The crowd of some 45,000 erupted in a roar
and then the marching band came out of the tunnel and onto the field, also highstepping it. And then in perfect synchronicity, they parted like the Red Sea to make an
alley and began playing the BC Fight Song. The crowd roared even louder and out came the Boston College Golden Eagles! They were literally flying onto the field and I
swear, even their offensive tackles looked faster than our wide receivers! It was an unbelievable experience to witness that moment and yes, I think it was my all-time
favorite football memory.
We played them tough out of the gate and were only losing 7-0 at the end of the 1st Quarter. Then, in the first five minutes of the 2nd quarter, Boston College scored 24
unanswered points in five minutes to go ahead 31-0. It’s hard to give up that many points in five minutes but we managed. We lost in a blood bath, 64-20. But, what did I
learn from that day, from that experience in my life? And why would that be of all of my football memories my favorite football memory? Well, this is why.
I have played and coached in a lot of football games in my life. Some with cross town rivals where I knew almost every player on their team, and some where every player on
the other roster was a complete stranger. And yet, as I have gotten older and reflect more on my past, it dawned on me that on any given Saturday as I looked across the
field, really, all of those players were just like me. They had a mom and dad, maybe sisters and brothers, and they had a love for the game of football, just like me. They
have had good times and bad times, happy times and sad times, but all in all, they were just like me. Best of all, my opponent, that other team, was providing me with an
opportunity to make a memory for a lifetime! Without them, without that opponent, there would be no Game Day. There would be no competition to test me and my teammates.
No marching bands, no cheerleaders, no tailgating parties, no family get-togethers on festive fall Saturdays; literally all of my football memories would be non-existent if it
weren’t for my opponent!
And so, when I put it in those terms, I realize I shouldn’t despise my opponent. If anything, I need to love my opponent! I need to be thankful they are who they are, and
that they had worked hard and prepared and had challenged me on the playing field. For better or for worse, win or lose, I now understand how special those guys were, just
like how special my teammates were.
Maybe it is because I am now 67 and clearly in the autumn of my years, but that is how I see the world of competitive athletics today. I still am active coaching an NCAA
Division III football team and I don’t like losing…at anything! I love to watch teams who fiercely compete with one another, be it in a major college bowl game or rivalry, the
Stanley Cup Playoffs, March Madness, or the Super Bowl, whatever; but when the contest is over and the final outcome is known, how great it is when you do see those
great athletes come together and shake hands, even embrace at times, showing the respect and genuine caring they have for one another. That, my friends, is what athletic
competition is supposed to be all about.
I know it sounds strange but remember, that team on the other side of the field or in the other dugout, whatever, they are the opponent, not the enemy. This isn’t war, it’s an
athletic contest, period. While rivalries are fierce and competition sometimes gets heated, it is always a special moment when the game ends and the two opponents who
fought so valiantly and fiercely on the playing field just moments before can come together showing mutual respect for one another. Having been there, after both wins
and losses, as I look back on it all now, it is indeed a special moment to look your opponent in the eye, shake his (or her) hand and say, “Nice game, you played well.” If
you gave it your absolute best effort, if you left it all on the field and played your heart out, even when feeling the sting of a loss – you can be thankful for the experience of it
all. And, in time, you will see a bigger picture. You will learn what it means to Love Thy Opponent.
ON A DIFFERENT NOTE: For the past several years, the American Football Coaches
Association (AFCA) has come out with a guideline for all football coaches to take all
negative language and terminology such as “Smashmouth Football” out of the game.
I happen to agree with this guideline and believe we need to bring some civility and
better sportsmanship back into athletics, especially at the youth level.
About the author: Harold “Bud” Boughton currently serves as an Assistant
Offensive Line Coach and Team Chaplain with the Franklin
College Football Program. A former senior executive and
sales professional, he is a professional speaker and the
author of three books including his latest book, Coaching is
Teaching at its Best! You can order bud’s books and reach
him through his website at www.budboughton.com.