I’m not a gambler, but after four long years, I’m happy to announce that this week I finally paid off my one and only sports debt.
Was it the Super Bowl? Kentucky Derby? World Curling Federation championships?
On Aug. 6, 2008, I went golfing with three good friends at Bowling Green Golf Club in Front Royal, Va. We’re all mediocre golfers who don’t mind hunting the trees for wayward tee shots if it means being in one another’s company. And though we don’t play often, we always leave the parking lot pledging to do it again soon.
On the final hole of the evening, with the muggy southern air mocking every bad swing, one of our playing partners stood on the tee as a red fox came scampering out of the trees and jogged across the fairway. We all yelped and screamed with delight, "A fox! A fox!" Bystanders might have thought we’d seen a unicorn wearing denim overalls.
The fox turned around at the far side of the fairway and walked back in front of us, stopping in a grassy depression about 40 yards ahead. I said to my pal, "Hey, knock your ball down there and see what happens.”
Because all men are just curious boys with full-time jobs, he did. He whacked his Titleist down the slope toward the fox.
The animal approached, sniffed and picked up the ball in his mouth. After a quick look up, presumably to see what we'd do, he sauntered off into the woods, stopping just before disappearing to show us the ball one last time in his greasy jowls.
Now, if that were the entire story, it would be interesting enough to tell at church potlucks and on airplanes. I've played a lot of golf over the years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Neither had my three cohorts.
But it doesn’t there; it ends with a debt.
After the giddiness and giggles wore off, another friend took his turn on the tee. Just as he was getting ready to swing I said, "Hey, if you can get that fox to come back out and also take your ball, I'll give you $500. Seriously, what are the odds?"
Just then, the fox reappeared from the woods and our pal promptly softly chipped his ball down the hill.
You know what happened next.
The fox approached, looked up at me on the tee and laughed. Fine, so I don’t know with certainty that he actually laughed, but from where we stood it sure looked that way.
After the stare down, he dropped the first ball and picked up the second — no doubt a tastier brand. Then once again, he jogged off into the trees.
The four of us hadn't laughed that hard in years. Frankly, I’m not sure we’ve laughed that hard since. After composing ourselves, we drove our carts down to get closer to our new friend and to coax him out of the woods. We never saw him again.
When we finished the hole — a double bogey for four, please — we turned in our carts and asked the elderly golf pro in the clubhouse if he'd ever seen a fox take a golf ball on the course.
Had he ever seen a fox on the course?
We laughed our way out of the clubhouse, to a nearby fast-food restaurant and all the way home. We retold the story over dinner, then again at home to our wives, and many, many times since.
Most are incredulous, but not about the fox. They can’t believe I was dumb enough to bet $500 and that my buddy permitted me to repay my debt in Slurpees.
So, what have I learned?
First, if you’re going to make a silly sports bet, make it with forgiving friends.
Second, my friend is always thirsty.
Third, most of life’s greatest memories happen when you’re not expecting a fox.
One day soon the four of us will golf again and take turns retelling the story as if no one had been there or heard the tale before. We'll laugh at the memory, joke about tracking the fox down for a reunion and wonder if such a thing will ever happen again.
And whether we say it out loud or not, we'll understand that it's not the fox that makes the stories, it's the friends.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of eight books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The Wedding Letters." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.jasonfwright.com.