My high school class ring was all bling. BHS, for Bountiful High School, stood out boldly on one side of a ruby stone. On the opposing side were the numerals ’71. It was gold and heavy and showy, and I liked it when it was new. But, the most durable feature of the ring didn’t come from the skillful hand of a jeweler. It came from church ball.
It was during my sophomore year. Winter. A cold junior varsity locker room was being used by the local church basketball teams for a tournament. Earlier in the year I’d had a locker in that room as part of the school football team. The locks securing the faded green cubicles now belonged to the players not skilled enough to make the varsity hoops squad.
I had been selected for that team, but in a sour twist of irony, the wrestling coach indentured three of us to his band of cauliflower-eared warriors, effectively ending my dreams of being a basketball star.
I had the height for greatness, but the muscle to support it was back-ordered with no definite schedule for delivery. The wrestling coach was certain that a few months on the mat would get me into shape before football season again arrived.
What was left of my dreams was the church league where wannabe’s and never were’s scrambled for leftover bits of glory.
Perhaps it was the illusive hope for stardom or maybe it was just the general lack of ability that brought out the baser human nature in the “C” league. In the school circuit, tempers were more in check, complaining got squelched by three-deep coaching staffs and violators got benched. Paid officials had more street credibility and better support. Minus those controls, the C-leaguers were often left to find their own path to perfection.
For teenagers who wanted so badly to achieve fairness in an unfair sports world, the preaching of sportsmanship, moral victories and love thy neighbor made winning a boaster's paradise. Losing was sometimes too painful to be endured well.
On the night we lost in overtime to the 8th ward, all of these emotions and politics were in full bloom. The refs were from the other team. We were convinced the outcome was rigged. Their players were cheap shots. We had an off night, and they brought in ringers from another ward. We were looking for any excuse to soften the blow of yet another missed opportunity; another unfairness in our second-string grasp for greatness.
At the final buzzer the 8th ward cheered in jubilation. They reveled with their fans and families and, to our way of thinking, rubbed salt in our wounds. And, when we left the floor, we piled with them into the same cold, musty locker room —together.
The event which followed took less than 10 seconds to unfold, but it plays forever in slow motion in my mind.
Entering the room, I banged open the door in losing frustration. The heavy panel hit John in the butt as he was bent over unlacing his shoes. He glared at me as the door swung shut behind us, trapped in a small room with 14 other overheated boys.
I played pool in John’s basement, ate at his mother’s table. I had a crush on his sister. His brother played on the football team with me. John was no stranger. We were friends.
When I shoved him, venting my frustrations at losing, he toppled backward over a bench and slammed into the lockers beyond it. His surprise erupted into rage as he lurched from the floor six feet in front of me. My whole body coiled in preparation for the unknown. In that split second while I decided what came next in this passion play, someone yelled, “Hit him!” And then it was forever too late.
The impact caused the edges of my school ring to slice into the flesh of my fourth finger. As John crumpled to the floor, blood gushed between the fingers of both hands clamped over his mouth and nose. A sick feeling of regret already filled me and I reached out, but he waived me off with a bloody hand exposing the wreckage of my thoughtless act which the hand had hidden.
Pieces of his missing teeth would never come free of the lettering in the ring. Dozens of stitches to close the wounds in his lips. Caps to hide the enamel of a smile forever changed. Weeks for the swelling and bruises to fade from his broken nose. Forever to mend the tatters of a friendship rent by pride and anger.
Regret and forgiveness can work miracles, and they did for us. His mother's love knitted back together the fragments of our fractured friendship, but the ache remains in me.
Ten years passed. John and I met in the aisle of a local grocery store. We shook hands, embraced and shared memories of the old times. Neither of us spoke of that night in the old locker room, but when he smiled, the perfect caps on four front teeth reminded me of church ball, lost tempers and misplaced priorities.
The school ring turned up missing a short time later. I am grateful.
Winning isn't everything. It isn't the only thing. It isn't anything if it costs your integrity. Even now as I look at the fourth digit of my right hand, the scars are visible, and I hope I remember what I learned from church ball.
An unabashed fan of outdoor humorist Patrick F. McManus, Ed Smith is a freelance writer, golfer and flyfisherman. He resides in West Bountiful with the love of his life, Ann. Ed can be contacted at [email protected]