Play to Win the Game

Antoine Hoppenot, Reno FC 1868 midfielder

“You Play! To Win! The Game!” This is a famous quote during a press conference by the then New York Jets coach and current ESPN analyst Herm Edwards. As an athlete, every practice, every drill is designed to get a victory. But winning is easy. It’s a big smile, a big wave to the crowd, a few autographs and then a celebration with your teammates to whatever Miley Cyrus hit song is popular in the locker room. Then, return home and grab a beer or two with your teammates. But what about when you lose?

The buzzer sounded to signal the end of the game. My legs gave out and I found myself sitting on the wet grass. I looked around and saw players start to shake hands but at that moment I couldn’t get up. I wouldn’t get up. Our season had just come to an end and the blame had to fall on someone. We had lost 2-1 to UMBC in the first round of the NCAA tournament to snap our twelve game winning streak and bring our perfect Ivy League winning season to an abrupt end.

As I sat there, angry and staring at nothing in particular I silently started cursing the referee. It had to be his fault. We were the better team and had shown it on that day. Completely outplaying an opposing team that had resorted to kicking us in order to stay in the game. We had taken a 1-0 lead but their two best players had come up with a couple moments of magic in order to take the lead. Though we controlled the rest of the game, we couldn’t get an equalizer and thus found ourselves eliminated.

It had to be the ref’s fault! We didn’t deserve to lose! We were the better team and had played the better soccer and if the ref had kept control of the game we would have won. That had to be it. These angry thoughts filled my head as I stayed there sitting on the grass with my arms around my knees and my head down not wanting to look up.

As minutes passed and a few opposing players walked by to shake hands, I came to a crashing realization: this was the last game I would play with these seniors. Ever. Though at the time I was a junior, I pretty much lived in one of the seniors’ rooms. I had grown close to this group of guys and our team had grown closer after every win. We also were graduating six starters, which would mean next year (my senior year) would most likely be a tough, rebuilding year barring an extraordinary incoming freshman class. This had been our chance. Our opportunity to truly make a run and surprise the college soccer world, and now it was all over. No more games, no more wins and no more celebrating together.

Was it my fault? I should have finished those couple half chances that fell to me. It was so simple. Just place it around the goalie. Or maybe make that extra pass. Still sitting and staring at the grass beneath me, all the plays that I could have handled better came rushing to my mind. I was surprised to find that the tears had started falling. The emotions of this loss were finally catching up to me. As the tears continued falling, I thought about the last time I had cried on the soccer field. My junior year in high school my club team had reached semifinals of regionals and lost to the eventual champions 2-1 in OT. That too had felt like the end of an era.

Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder and was surprised to see my younger brother’s lanky body towering over me. I had been sitting for twenty minutes and it was probably time to get up. Most people had already left the field. Before I could will my body up, my brother sat down next to me. Maybe I could stay a few more minutes; maybe the season doesn't end if I don't get up. As we sit there in silence, the tears stopped falling and I just stared at another player across the field talking with his parents. I just needed something to distract me. I am not sure how much more time passes before I get to my feet. When I finally walk off the field, the season officially ends.

Walk to the locker room, take a shower, get dressed, and walk back to the dorms. The usual routine, only tonight everyone is going through those motions in silence. Just two weeks before we had been in that same locker room celebrating our Ivy League championship. Music was blaring and people were dancing. A huge party was set up back in a teammate’s dorm room and champagne was ready to be popped. For the rest of that championship winning night everything was perfect. Not even our goalie and captain needing several stitches above his right eye after a botched triumphant chest bump could stop our celebration and ruin our night. Bandage it up and keep smiling, keep laughing and keep enjoying the win.

Tonight’s plans didn’t involve champagne. All that was left was a slow, depressing walk back to the dorms and a few beers between now ex-teammates. Three years of playing together had come to an abrupt end. A few nights later we would be celebrating the good times, but not tonight. Tonight the loss took over.

You never just lose a game. On that night I lost teammates, I lost our historic season and I lost many nights thereafter to ‘what-ifs’. Defeat sticks with me longer than the wins and the celebration that follows. Every result will shape how I will feel for the next few hours. It will determine what I will do during the next couple days. And sometimes even years later, a painful loss will stick with me.

It’s true, you do ‘play to win the game’ but for me it’s because losing really, really sucks.