Ten days ago, I happily watched Navy play Lehigh in lacrosse on a cool Saturday afternoon at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. A friend who was a former opponent when he played at Princeton against the University of Pennsylvania joined me.
We talked our way through Navy’s losing effort, second-guessing the young athletes on their failure to pass when we thought they should, and the poor shot selection by the midshipmen. Two 77-year-olds were experts, forgetting our miscues more than 55 years ago. We were unforgiving.
Shame on us. Our memories were in full swing. We were older men joyfully enjoying our all-knowing perspective. We relished recounting the past and respecting the present.
That’s my point. My friend, a retired pediatric surgeon who also played football at Princeton, and I spent two hours reliving our exploits on lacrosse fields in the Northeast. We played, however, in a different era. While our competitive spirit was the same, the pace of the game was different, slower, not so specialized.
We played with wooden sticks. We played on grass, not turf. Our coaches were gentlemen who coached the game to win—but not at all costs. Not at the detriment of demanding academic requirements. Our aspirations were modest.
We never considered an NCAA championship even a remote possibility. An Ivy League championship, unreachable for our inconsistent team, would have satisfied me, providing bragging rights.
Whether participating on Division I or III levels, today’s lacrosse players are far better conditioned and more intensely coached than we were. The game reflects a greater emphasis on speed, athletic skill and year-round commitment. Fun is harder to achieve.
I believe that intercollegiate sports at the top academic schools in the nation have veered way off balance. When you are not playing, you are fulfilling rigid expectations in a school’s well-equipped fitness center during the off-season. Practice sessions begin earlier, if approved by the NCAA. A conference title is desirable but not the final objective.
The blame is not solely the responsibility of ambitious, driven coaches and the universities that employ them. Parents deserve criticism too (as do proud grandparents).
Young children can spend their summers at expensive camps devoted to lacrosse, field hockey, ice hockey, football, tennis, gymnastics, baseball, soccer and other sports. And, lest I forget, young people (including my 12-year-old grandson) join travel teams, if selected. The time commitment is tremendous.
Children want to succeed at their favorite sport. They are striving for victory, weekend after weekend. The desire to excel and attract notice is evident. Parents support them if they have the time and money
What eventually happens, however, is becoming increasingly more common: the college athlete, excessively focused for more than 10 years, decides that he or she is burnt out and seeks a normal life in higher education. They have lost their enthusiasm. Other things matter more, like a future career.
Mind you, my observations in this column did not interfere with my total enjoyment of the recent game, a sport that I started playing with my brother in the backyard when I was 10. In fact, I tried to imagine how I would perform if I were competing either for Navy or Lehigh.
Spectator sports provide a healthy escape from life’s vicissitudes. When shared with a friend, the experience is even better. Unceasing chatter is de rigueur, featuring stories that may be partially true.
Alone with my thoughts, I still think about missed goals, errant passes, elusive ground balls and avoidable losses. Hovering over my past recollections, though, is the unforgotten thrill of teamwork and camaraderie.
Memories may fade, but they still color our lives.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.