A high school kid asks me this morning, What’s the greatest sports moment you ever saw? Before my brain can rumble into gear and produce the 1986 Boston Celtics (the best basketball team I ever saw), or the 2004 Boston Red Sox (the greatest comeback in the history of baseball), or the 1969 New York Mets (for sheer shocking unbelievability, not to mention that I got to watch that whole World Series on a television in our grade school classroom—how cool was that), or the 1980 Miracle on Ice USA Olympic hockey team, or Doug Flutie’s incredible last-second touchdown for Boston College against Miami, or autistic teenager Jason McElwain drilling seven long shots in four minutes when his Athena High coach put the diligent cheerful team manager into uniform for the first time at the very end of the last home game of his senior season and he went bonkers and the whole student body went bonkers and they carried him off the floor and every time I see the film again I am elevated to tears … Before I can recall any of this, I say this instead:
One time when my twin sons were little, maybe six years old, and they were playing soccer, in the town league in which every single kid I think proudly donned his or her blue uniform with blue socks every Saturday so that anywhere and everywhere you went in our town on Saturdays you would be surrounded by small blue grinning chirping people, not just on the fields and in parking lots but in burger joints and pizza places and the farmers market and the library and the grocery store, and it was a crisp beautiful golden October afternoon, and I was standing with the other parents along the sideline, half paying attention and half keeping an eye out for hawks, when suddenly the tiny intent players on the field all formed a loose circle on the field, and play stopped.
I remember seeing the ball roll slowly by itself into a corner of the field. I remember that the coach, one of those dads who was really into victory even though the boys and girls were three feet tall and could hardly tie their laces, was yelping and expostulating. I remember that two of the moms ran out onto the field, worried that a child was hurt. I remember that the referee, a lean long teenager who had been the most desultory and unengaged of referees up to that point, sprinted toward the circle, worried that a child was hurt.
And then the circle devolved into a sort of procession, with all the players on both teams following a girl in front, and cupped in this girl’s hands was a praying mantis, which she and all the other players on both teams were escorting reverently off the field, because, as a child helpfully explained to me afterward, the praying mantis was on the field first, and maybe even lived there, while we were all visitors, and you are supposed to be polite when you visit someone’s house.
I have seen many extraordinary moments in sports—stunning achievements, stunning reversals, incredible performances, terrific teams, teams that, at the exact moment when their absolute best and most meshed play mattered most, played even better than they ever imagined they could. But I don’t think I ever saw such a genuine moment as the praying mantis moment. All of it was there for us to see—teamwork, decisive collective action, a leader rising to the occasion, humor, generosity, respect, surprise, narrative, drama, tension, release, grace, satisfaction, and laughter—but it also had the subtle virtue of being something you see only once in a lifetime. To me those are the best sports moments of all: the ones you know instantly that you were graced to be able to witness.
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