Although I have mixed feelings about the Lady Longhorns softball team forfeiting a Wrangler Classic Tournament game to Coolidge with the game in extra innings and the score tied 6-6, I would never second-guess coach Will Dunman or any other coach, for that matter.
I’ve talked to two parents who were at the PHS vs. Coolidge game and they say the decision to forfeit was the correct one because the team was out of pitchers and there was simply no reason to continue.
Charlene Brown, a softball aficionado and friend, whose opinion I greatly respect, also told me she supported the coach’s decision.
There is, however, the old coach in me that remembers I always advised my kids in sports to never throw in the towel, to battle until the bitter end.
I even had a practice T-shirt that read “Tough times don’t last, tough people do.”
In some talks to players, I often referred to a Japanese proverb, “Fall seven times, stand up eight.”
Looking back on sports, a young man I once coached, Mark Velasco, apparently took my, and other coaches’, advice about not quitting to heart.
Mark was a starting guard and noseguard on the 1986 state championship football game that pitted Payson against highly favored Snowflake.
At the onset of that season, I did not expect Mark to play because he severed his finger in a construction accident.
But Mark was the original tough guy who persuaded the doctor to fit him with a special brace and surgical wrap, which allowed him to return to the team.
That year, expectations around the state were low for our team, but at the end of the season, we surprised everyone by reaching the state championship.
Only trouble was we found ourselves trailing 7-0 with Snowflake in possession of the ball and the game clock rounding down to the final few seconds.
All the Lobos had to do to nail down the victory was snap the ball, have the quarterback put his knee down and wait a few seconds until the clock ran out.
Everyone, even our coaching staff, expected that’s the way the game would unfold.
But Mark, and teammate Matt Rambo, had other thoughts. They were not ready to give in, although we had been locked in probably the most physical game of the year against a very talented Lobo team and all hope seemed lost.
But what happened next was a show of perseverance and true grit that I will never forget.
Mark, who was playing nose guard, waited until the Snowflake center touched the ball and then, in a last gasp of great hope, reached across the line of scrimmage and with his injured hand slapped the ball away from the Lobo center.
Almost immediately he hollered, “Fumble! Fumble!” — prompting he and Matt to jump on the ball as if it had been recovered and the Horns still had a chance to win.
Of course, the ploy didn’t fool the officials who flagged us and gave the ball to Snowflake.
As futile and outrageous as Mark’s scheme was, our coaching staff — to a man — deeply admired his refusal to give in.
In those last few seconds of that great season, he refused to quit. In fact, I know now he didn’t even know how to quit.
While we lost that championship game, Mark’s gritty tenacity and determination to remain in the struggle until the final gun sounded became a rallying cry in the football program and in the school.
I asked him after the game what prompted him to attempt the ruse and he replied something like, “I didn’t want to quit, I wanted to play.”
About 20 years after that game, I was diagnosed with colon cancer and found myself in Scottsdale Mayo Clinic being treated with chemo, radiation and several surgeries.
While waiting for a treatment, I found myself talking to another cancer patient who identified himself as a retired football coach.
Like two old coaches do, we talked about our careers, our wins, our losses and our kids. But later, the discussion turned to our treatments that seemingly had been going on for years. They were painful and agonizing and we wondered if it wasn’t time to admit defeat.
After all, we agreed we had lived 60-plus great years, and maybe it was time acquiesce to the dreaded disease.
But then, I told the retired coach the story about Mark, which he mulled over several minutes before stoically beginning to reflect on our conversation.
He said, that as coaches we had spent our entire careers, 30-plus years, telling kids to never throw in the towel.
He said, as coaches we had emphasized things like, “You never give up no matter how hard the challenges,” “Never give in and never give up” and “Quitters never win and winners never quit.”
The former coach continued, that if we gave up our fight against cancer, it would be hypocritical in light of what we had drilled into our players.
“They would expect more from us,” he said. “If we don’t Cowboy Up and live the way we’ve been telling kids, it would invalidate our careers, even our lives… and I don’t want to go out that way.”
Giving in is a problematical and difficult decision, whether it’s sports or the battle against cancer.