Like everyone else (except maybe some heartless Louisiana State fans), I’ve got a lot of empathy for the OSU placekicker, Alexis Serna, whose three missed extra points kept Oregon State from a stupendous college football upset yesterday over third ranked LSU. Oh, man, 22-21 in overtime. It was a great game that merits use of the overused cliche, “Neither team deserved to lose.”
Alexis, I’ve been there with you, along with an awful lot of other guys and gals. When you threw down your helmet after the final missed kick and screamed in frustration, I screamed inside my head along with you. Actually, I’m still screaming. For your evident agony, as marvelously pictured on the front page of the Sunday “Oregonian” sports section, has brought back memories of my personal Most Embarassing Moment in Sports (or MEMS).
Of course, my own MEMS didn’t occur on a national ESPN telecast in front of some 92,000 rabid fans. But with these sorts of experiences, it is the inner mortification that matters, not how many people observe your crushing downfall. My 1966 pain may not match your 2004 pain, Alexis. It isn’t possible to quantify or compare between two or more MEMS’. Yet I can say this: I survived, and so will you.
Here I am, my Woodlake Union High School tennis team photo having been taken a few weeks after my season-ending collapse on a Lindsay High School court. We Woodlake tennis Tigers had shared the league championship with Lindsay my sophomore year. Next year we tanked, and another championship was dearly on my mind my senior year, as I had expected to enjoy a “three-peat.”
It all came down to our final match with Lindsay. Notwithstanding the “second singles” moniker on the yearbook photo, I had jostled back and forth with a teammate, Brian Whitten, for the first singles spot. My possibly biased recollection is that I had beaten the other Brian just before the Lindsay match. But Coach Boccone, in his sly wisdom, had me playing second singles, figuring that I’d be much stronger than the supposedly weak second Lindsay guy.
We were playing at Lindsay. My match was the last to finish. If I won, we’d tie for the league championship. If I lost, Lindsay would win the championship outright. I cruised through the first set, no problem, something like 6-1. Then I somehow lost the second set in a squeaker, 7-5 maybe. All the other players gathered around the court to watch. Even the Lindsay baseball team came over after their practice was over, having heard that the championship was on the line.
Alexis, a missed extra point takes just a few seconds. Losing the third set of a crucial tennis match can feel like it takes forever. Time slows down in some sort of horrible Einsteinian joke. I screwed up shots that normally I could make in my sleep. The worse I played, the better the other guy played. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. I couldn’t stop what was happening to me. The more I tried to improve my game, the more it deteriorated.
How often do you miss a chip shot extra point in practice, Alexis? You understand—it isn’t a physical thing, it’s a mental thing. You had 180,000 eyes on you. I had less than a hundred. No matter. It was my eye that was messing me up, the eye I was turning on myself that couldn’t believe what a totally f___ked-up mess I was making of my game.
I hardly remember how the match ended. But I distinctly remember getting on the team bus last, after everyone else was on. My teammates of both sexes were deathly silent (we had Boys and Girls teams). I stalked down the bus corridor. I threw my racquet with perfect accuracy straight down the middle of the bus until it clattered off the rear window and fell to the bench seat. Best shot I had all day.
And here I am, thirty-eight years later, almost able to smile at how ridiculously seriously I took my loss that day. Almost. It still hurts, but only mildly now. Alexis, I bet you’re going to win some games for Oregon State over your career. Yet maybe I’ll lose that bet. Whatever. You might be a complete college football failure, Alexis, and still be a huge winner at life. Obviously that’s what really counts. Here’s some sage advice from Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Roman Emperor:
“Be like the headland against which the waves break and break: it stands firm, until presently the watery tumult around it subsides once more to rest. ‘How unlucky I am, that this should have happened to me!’ By no means; say rather, ‘How lucky I am, that it has left me with no bitterness; unshaken by the present, and undismayed by the future.’ The thing could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would have emerged unembittered….So here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not, ‘This is a misfortune,’ but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune.’”