Most of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in life have come from sports. They come from the successes and failures I have experienced personally, and from the countless sporting stories I’ve witnessed. The lessons have come from all levels of athletic competition. And from sports ranging from horse racing to floor hockey. #Epic3rdGradeGymClassComeBackStory.
I have been collecting life lessons from sports since I was a little boy. From The Miracle On Ice, I learned that miracles really do happen. From Kirk Gibson and Ray Rice I learned that sometimes all it takes is one swing. Billy Buckner taught me that there is no such thing as a routine ground ball. Steve Bartman taught me that people love a scapegoat (my wife Dawn was at that Cubs game and called me, afraid for his life). Buster Douglas taught me to take every opponent seriously. And my New England Patriots taught me that even when there is a 99.5% chance that you will lose, you can still win. I wrote about that in The most inspiring statistic in Super Bowl history.
My Greatest Lesson
In high school I learned my own sports lessons through football and track and field, with an emphasis on the field. But the greatest lesson I ever learned came in the fall of my senior year back in Hanover, New Hampshire. During an ordinary football practice, 4 weeks into the season, two of my teammates crashed into my left knee, tearing both my ACL and MCL. If you are lucky enough not to know these acronyms, they refer to two of the critical ligaments that hold your knee together.
Not only was my knee crushed, so were my spirits. But following knee reconstruction surgery at the end of October, I set my sights on coming back to compete in the spring track season. Competing was a long shot. But I was 100% determined to make it happen. I rehabilitated my knee completely on my own. I didn’t need any outside motivation. I was obsessed.
Just 7 months after surgery I completed my unlikely comeback. At the New England High School Track and Field Championships in East Hartford, Connecticut, I won the boys discus title. Even better, I set a new New Hampshire state record in the discus. A record that would stand for 12 years. As a result, I learned that determination is your most valuable asset.
The University of Wisconsin
That fall I enrolled at The University of Wisconsin, where I continued my track and field career. My senior year I became the 4th best discus thrower in school history. Even better, our team won its second consecutive Big 10 Track & Field Championship.
But there was another significant event that happened just before my senior year at Wisconsin that feels even more relevant this morning. That’s when the great Dick Bennett was hired as Wisconsin’s head men’s basketball coach.
Coach Bennett is a wonderful man and a brilliant coach. He came to Madison from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he had created an off-broadway powerhouse of a basketball program. The shining star of the UWGB Fighting Phoenix was Dick’s son Tony, who I believe still holds the all-time record for career 3-point shooting percentage.
I loved seeing Dick Bennett around the McClain Center, our athletic facility in Madison. He always had a pleasant greeting for this unknown track participant. And I had high respect for everything he did for the basketball program. In fact, he was the 4th head coach for the Badgers in my 5 years of college. Just 4 years later, in 2000, he would lead the team to the Final Four.
During my senior season, and the following summer I would often see young and handsome Tony Bennett in the McClain Center weight room. His wife Laurel would often work out there too. I regularly talked with Laurel, and learned that she was from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and went to LSU. Her accent was as cute as she was. We talked about some of my favorite memories from competing in track meets at LSU. Including the tiger cage right next to the discus cage, the crawfish, Lou’s Fries, Pleasant Hall and my favorite track and field venue on earth.
Based on my casual acquaintance with the Bennetts, I followed Tony’s career closely, and always pulled for him as if he were one of my own. I was thrilled to see him land the job as the University of Virginia’s head basketball coach in 2009. In fact I began rooting for this seemingly random school’s men’s basketball program. Tony’s rise in Charlottesville came quickly. Which would set Tony and his team up for a historical fall.
In 2018, with a 31-2 record, Virginia earned the highly coveted #1 seed in the men’s championship tournament. Everyone who has ever filled out a March Madness bracket knows that you never pick a #16 seed to upset a #1. Because it had never happens. Never-Ever. In fact, it had never happened in the history of the NCAA tournament. Until last year.
Following what had been a dream season, Virginia suffered a nightmarish loss to UMBC. Most people had no idea what those initials even stood for. It was not the University of Michigan-Battle Creek. It was actually the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. But it could have been the University of My Butt Crack for all I knew of this team.
Yet suddenly, the UMBC Retrievers were the ultimate dragon slayers. They did what people said no one could ever do. As a result of their victory, Coach Tony Bennett and his Virginia team would have to carry the burden of their unprecedented defeat for the rest of their lives.
What Happened Next
But Bennett’s response to the unfathomable loss was composed, dignified and gracious. He would later refer to the loss as a painful gift. The Virginia team, lead by Bennett, then did the hardest thing in sports. Perhaps the hardest thing in life. After crashing and burning, they rose again from the ashes, like a fighting Phoenix. They used their historic loss as fuel. And they powered forward with new resolve.
The 2019 regular season would prove to be every bit as successful as 2018 for the Virginia men’s basketball program. The team went 29-3 during the regular season and ended the year ranked 2nd in the country. They once again won a #1 seed in the NCAA Division 1 Championship Tournament. And this time, the whole country watched to see if they would once again exit the Big Dance under historical circumstances.
Unfortunately, it soon appeared they were doomed to repeat the past. In the first half of their matchup against 16th-ranked Gardner-Webb they were down by 14 points, before pulling out of their nosedive, and rallying to a 71-56 win. They then won a series of heart stopping victories over Oregon, Purdue and Auburn.
In the unbelievable win over Auburn in the semi finals, Virginia was down by 2 points with 0.6 seconds on the clock. But a foul on a 3-point shot attempt sent Virginia’s Kyle Guy to the free throw line, where he coolly hit all 3 free throws to win the game and send his team to the National Championship.
The National Championship
Last night in the title game, Virginia played like champions. So did their rivals, Texas Tech. The result was a thrilling 68-68 tie at the end of regulation. But in the overtime period, Bennett’s team showed their true character, pouring on a dominating performance when it was needed most. When the final buzzer buzzed, the scoreboard read Virginia 85, Texas Tech 77.
The New Lesson
And just like that, the world of sports had another lesson for its followers. It came from the too-good-to-be true story of the 2018-2019 Virginia men’s basketball team. The team that suffered the worst defeat in the history of college basketball, and then bounced like no one has ever bounced before. And in just one year, this team of character, grit, brotherhood and respect rebounded to win a national championship. The first in school history.
Tony Bennet has a belief that he often references: ‘The most faithful wins.’ Well, I for one believe. I believe that if you believe in yourself, have faith in your abilities, in your teammates, in the power of hard work, sacrifice and determination, and in a higher power to strengthen you, great things will come your way.
Bad things will happen to you. This is a simple fact. But it is how you respond to the setbacks that makes all the difference. If you see your losses as painful gifts, and not prepackaged excuses, you have already won. Because you have put yourself on the right path for future success.
Have faith that if you do all the right things, the right things will come to you. Virginia’s championship now serves as a monumental reminder of this lesson. It’s a wonderful story that will be revisited for decades, as coaches, parents and friends console athletes after devastating defeats. Because with the right mindset a loss is not a loss. It is a painful gift that can positively change your life forever.
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