My scrawny freshman legs felt like lead, my feet felt like sharp gravel was embedded in my shoes as I slowly, painfully lumbered on, step by step, raspy breath, head bobbing, arms flailing while muttering to myself to keep going. Just…Keep…Going.
My dad sat in the stands calling out encouragement to me as if nothing was wrong. I guess that comes naturally when you’re a pastor, a man of God. My team mates made honest efforts to emulate dad’s encouragement, but considering my lack of speed it became a difficult task. I was running (an oxymoron for me) the mile event of our first high school track meet of the season on a raw spring day. I was in last place. I mean LAST PLACE!
Shortly after starting my third trek around the track, I realized everyone else had lapped me and finished. For a while, my team mates waited at the finish line, then they gradually migrated to our bench to put on their sweats. I was all alone on a quarter mile cinder oval that kept getting longer and longer. I was the only soul out there, not a lost soul, just a lone one. Every eye followed each throbbing step. I think most spectators asked themselves, but were too polite to verbalize it, why didn’t I simply quit? But I knew why. When I made the decision to go out for track, Dad told me that if I went out I had to finish the season, there was no quitting, no dropping out when the going got tough and ditto for any race I was in. That’s why I stayed. It was a Mathis thing.
I wanted to continue my father’s winning ways in track. You know, make it a family tradition that would be passed down and talked about for future generations. Dad was coordinated, a natural athlete, not a big jock, just, well, he could do about anything and make it look easy. The hard truth was, I took after my mother in terms of physical prowess (sorry Mom). I must have realized I was uncoordinated, because I always avoided any activity involving something round. This time however, I convinced myself that track didn’t involve a ball which should mean I could at least run. Even though I refused to acknowledge my significantly flat feet or how they always ached when I was on them for long, or even though skinny, how I waddled or at best sauntered, or that I had no stamina and never quite got the alternating left-leg-with-right-arm-pumping-thing down—I wanted to go out. Or thought I did.
When I told Dad of my intent to go out for track, he kindly replied, “Just because I was good at track doesn’t mean you have to do it. Son, you don’t need to do this on my account.” My dad was a pretty good judge of things like that, but he wasn’t going to dictate his opinion to me. It was my decision and so were any consequences. Obviously, I didn’t catch his meaning and my life long tendency of self-delusion probably started then. “No, dad, I really want to do this.” I firmly stated, inwardly trying to convince myself. That’s when he gave me the never quitting maxim.
When I started the season, it was easily apparent that I was not going to be the savior to carry the team to fame and fortune. However, Kenny, a friend two years ahead of me, plus nearly everyone else on the team were supportive and kind. During practice, Kenny, and sometimes other team members would fall back, or loop back, or sit down to wait for me, then stay by my side so that I didn’t have to trudge alone. Of course, once alongside, they had to do everything in their power to remain upright and balanced while moving at such glacial speeds, like trying to balance on a bicycle while barely moving. All the while they acted like this was normal for a freshman (it wasn’t) and I would get faster any minute, or hour or day or month or year. As that first meet approached, good old Coach Abbott, who knew he sure as heck couldn’t put me in the sprints, assigned me to the mile. After that first meet, after both teams nearly froze to death waiting for me to circumnavigate the world, I mean track, he reconsidered and enthusiastically told me he thought I would be much more successful running the half mile. I wasn’t, but at least the track meets ran on time and no one died from the elements, or boredom. Coach Abbott was a wise old man.
So what did I learn from this teen experience? Well, I learned my dad must truly have loved me. He showed up at nearly every meet to cheer me on, never critical, never worrying about his legacy enduring. And I learned that you finish what you start, but other than that? Probably not much as the next year I was again going through those same ambivalent mental gymnastics trying to decide whether I should go out for track or not. I enjoyed the male camaraderie, but down deep knew I hadn’t gained any new abilities and that my feet still hurt. Then again, there was that Mathis tradition to carry on. Thank goodness Kenny, now a senior, came to the rescue when he offered me his after-school job at the local newspaper which I excitedly accepted. This gave me a much-needed job and an excuse not to join the team for which I think the team was eternally grateful.
Looking back, I realized Coach Abbott never complained about me not returning. Dad didn’t either. They were so wise…