In a now (in)famous post-game press conference, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton abruptly exited stage left while pouting over his team’s loss in Super Bowl 50. Two days later, facing criticism, Newton explained his actions: “When you invest so much time, when you sacrifice so much and things don’t go as planned, I think the emotions take over.”
Cam’s emotion was understandable. Losing hurts, and critics make it even harder. Is true grace even possible in its midst?
Ask Todd Monahan. Todd, CYO basketball coach at St. Katharine of Siena parish in Wayne, PA, found himself in a unique situation last Tuesday, February 2, as his team met St. Norberts of Paoli, PA in a playoff elimination game.
Monahan typically tries to give his students, high school juniors, equal playing time. At 3-9 on the season, though, and facing a strong 7-3 St. Norberts team, he put only his best players on the floor in the first half.
“We kept it very close. We were hot from the outside, making 3-pointers, really giving them a run for their money,” Monahan explained. “But after the half, they started getting hot and gelling. It became pretty obvious probably five to six minutes in that we weren’t going to win.”
St. Norberts led by 20 points with about 10 minutes left in the second half. In effect conceding the game, Monahan began substituting his players, putting in students perhaps without the same basketball talent but just as much excitement for the game. St. Norberts’ team eased up, allowing St. Katharine of Siena players to take shots with uncontested rebounds and enjoy a few moments in the sun.
“The whole demeanor of the game changed and became this fun CYO camaraderie,” said Monahan. “My boys didn’t have a glum face on. They were happy to be playing and having a good time.”
On the other end of the floor, Ed Morris, St. Norberts coach, saw Monahan’s strategy and had an idea. Earlier, before the game, Morris noticed a student sitting behind his team’s bench whom he did not recognize. He asked one of his captains, Tyler, if he knew the student. Indeed, Tyler did. The student, Jonathan, was Tyler’s cousin and a huge basketball fan. Jonathan is also manager of the nearby Conestoga freshman team but, with some handicaps, doesn’t don a uniform on game nights.
“The game got really relaxed [after Monahan’s substitutions], and it was fun to watch that happen,” said Morris. “So I said, why not throw Jonathan in there?”
To the surprise and joy of each coach, students on both ends of the court knew exactly how to react.
“The neat thing is Jonathan’s cousin Tyler takes off his jersey, gives it to Jonathan, and in effect subs himself out of the game. And then, [St. Katharine] let us get rebounds and get the ball to Jonathan,” Morris said.
On his third attempt, Jonathan scored to a reception of cheers, including from his father, who was in attendance that night. Meanwhile, a healthy give-and-take evolved as shot blocking and defense gave way to ball feeding for players to make attempts at both ends of the court. And, by the end of the night, Jonathan had proven not just his enthusiasm for the game but his skill, too, shooting roughly 50% for 12 points.
“The remarkable thing is neither coach coached the kids on this. It happened organically,” said Todd Monahan, St. Katharine’s coach. “Our boys instinctively knew how to handle a situation like this.”
“Everybody just naturally tried to make the situation tremendous,” said St. Norberts coach Ed Morris, agreeing. “I think [St. Katharine] saw doing something like this was far more important than getting a win.”
And, yes; as expected, St. Katharine was on the losing end of the game. That also, unfortunately, meant their season would end, which is a tough pill to swallow at every level of competition from a local tournament to the Super Bowl. But, Monahan and Morris argue, their experience last Tuesday did so much to bolster the healthy perspective they already try to cultivate in their programs.
For Morris, whose team has since won an additional playoff game, the evidence is clear. Jonathan was once again at, and, later, playing in that game.
“Even in a situation where we’re going to lose the game, if I could finish the game with Jonathan in there, my team wouldn’t even know they lost. The second I get Jonathan in there, the attitude really changes,” Morris explained.
While Todd Monahan’s team didn’t advance, it seems, from our conversation, he takes a similar attitude on wins and losses. That’s impressive, as he’s coached many of the students on his team since they were in 5th grade and has watched them mature into young men.
“Every now and then, there’s a moment like this that transcends the game and sports, and it put things in perspective,” said Monahan. “Sports can be a transcending vehicle for a greater good.”
The perspective seems appropriate for coaches at Catholic schools, which are celebrating this Year of Mercy as dedicated by Pope Francis. This Jubilee year asks Catholics (but, really, everyone) to consider the moments in daily life that are ripe for acts of mercy, compassion, healing, and reflection on God’s place in our lives, most specifically in how we treat and relate to others.
In light of the Year of Mercy and the awesome sportsmanship demonstrated by both Morris’ and Monahan’s CYO teams, I naturally remember a 2015 high school game with a final score of 161-2. Is there compassion in such an event? Were friendships formed, memories made, lessons learned?
By contrast, the themes of mercy and compassion (which, in sports, usually manifest in good sportsmanship and camaraderie) are so evident between the boys from St. Katharine of Siena and St. Norberts. Evidently a very different ethic was at play, one formed by an intentional mission for, as Todd Monahan explained, a greater good.
“Parents deserve a lot of credit, along with their Catholic upbringing, knowing right from wrong, and not taking advantage of those who are less fortunate or weaker,” explained Monahan, crediting his players’ behavior. “It’s all part of the community these boys grew up in.”
That said, it’s one thing to learn good values, yet another to actually live them out. As Coach Morris recalls, all players knew they had been part of something special and played an important role in facilitating an unforgettable night. In this context, “champion” take on an entirely new meaning. Indeed, after the final buzzer, Morris said, “you couldn’t tell who won or lost. Everyone was so happy.”