It was hard for me to find reasons to celebrate on the Fourth of July this year.

Tainted tomatoes, increasingly expensive food, a floundering economy, petty politicians, outrageous gas prices (that make me want to ride my bike to assignments 30 miles away), and what seems like a never-ending stream of tragic stories detailing the deaths of people far too young to die.

Maybe it was news-overload mixed with a little heatstroke, but I found Friday's blue skies clouded with sadness and pessimism.

And while lighting sparklers with my children might be optional, working, especially in these tough economic times, is not.

Which is why I am fortunate in what I do for a living. Instead of spending my days covering professional athletes who want more money, more awards and more respect, I get to highlight the accomplishments of teenage kids just trying to do their best.

I watched a lot of boys volleyball this week as well as a little women's college basketball. Any time I needed a lift, I turned to one of these athletes who didn't show up for a big paycheck or to collect another award. They came to play.

In fact, the women's league I watched was especially uplifting because the players were volunteering to stay and play for other teams just to spend a few more minutes on the court.

I spent most of my time at the 2008 Boys Junior Olympic Volleyball Championships in Sandy talking to local volleyball players, as well as many from out-of-state, about the distances they travel just to play. One young man couldn't afford club volleyball fees so he went to business owners, neighbors and friends asking them to sponsor him just so he could play.

"If you want it, you've got to work for it," said his coach Ed Wrather of Chicago's Adversity Club. His players practice in a gym so small, it's not even a regulation size court.

"If it hits the bricks (on the wall) then it's out," he said. "You work with what you have."

One of the Utah teams has trouble finding court time anywhere but at a local ward house. Still they show up; they practice; they play and, most importantly, they are full of joy.

Some will discount their accomplishments saying they should dedicate themselves to their studies like they do to sports. To those critics I offer two counter arguments. First, many of them do spend as much time worrying about whether their grades are good enough to get into college or how they did on that math test, as they do about earning a starting spot on the football team.

They do their homework AND they spend three hours at track practice. They write essays, read books and take math tests and then they hit the weights, the batting cages or shoot free throws. Sure there are exceptions, but to even be eligible, high school athletes have to maintain a C average.

And second, I believe that dedication is contagious. So if they learn to work hard and accomplish something good on the volleyball court, they will apply that same energy, effort and tenacity to school work or a job eventually.

They will also apply that teamwork, that ingenuity and the knowledge that the more you practice, the better you become — regardless of where you start.

I know they learn all of this because they teach it to me in their words and actions. They show me what they believe in the way they treat their teammates and their competitors, and they illustrate what they know when we talk about the games.

They inspire me with their optimism, perseverance and ability to have fun despite our best efforts to ruin the games our children play.

After just a few conversations with a few of these athletes and their coaches, the clouds were parting. We love sports in this country and, in fact, sometimes I wonder if we value them just a little too much. It only takes a few minutes with the right teenage athlete to convince me we just have to love them the right way, the way they do.

They offer hope, if we let them, and, especially when it seems this race may not even be worth running anymore, they are the best reason I know to celebrate the birthday of a country that celebrates their efforts and offers them the opportunity to pursue happiness almost anyway they can imagine.

E-mail: [email protected]