That fall, as we prepared for our first high school football game of the season, our team was very much as it had always been. Though we worked and practiced together, we were not unified.
I could not remember it ever being any different. If something wasn’t going just right, the backs blamed the linemen, the linemen blamed the backs, and the problems compounded with plenty of blame to go around.
But something else had happened that summer that had penetrated deep into our hearts. Due to a freak storm, we had lost two of our close friends, Lane and Van, in a canoeing accident on Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone National Park.
Coach Sam came one day to watch us practice. He taught government, economics, and U.S. history. He no longer coached, but he could see our disunity. He had a great love for us, his students, and it bothered him. Perhaps he was bothered more by it than he normally would have been because he was at a camp on the Shoshone Lake the day of the accident. He was one of the men who had seen the trouble the scout troop had been in, and had gone to their rescue, saving those they could find. And the next morning, he was one of the first to see the articles from Lane and Van’s canoe washed up on shore, realizing they hadn’t made it.
Coach Sam came to our first game. With our team’s disharmony we should have lost, but we received some lucky breaks and eked out a win. The win only added to the problems, as many acted as if they alone had made it possible.
Coach Sam couldn’t stand it anymore. He came to our team meeting before practice and asked the coaches for permission to speak to us. He told us what he had seen in our attitudes toward each other and how much it bothered him.
“I don’t care if you win another game this whole year,” he said. “But if you treat each other the way you are, instead of as the friends and teammates you should be, I don’t think I can bear to watch another game.”
He then reached inside a little bag and pulled out a small, tin drinking cup. His eyes filled with tears, and his voice choked as he held it up. “This last summer, a tragedy struck our small school and cut deeply into our community. Many of you were good friends with Lane and Van and felt that loss. That next morning after that fateful day, as I walked along the water’s edge, hoping to see a campfire in the distance indicating they were safe, I, instead, found this cup washed ashore from their sunken canoe. That was when I knew they hadn’t made it.”
As he continued, he passed it around for each of us to look at and to hold. “I have kept it as a reminder of how fragile life is, and how important friendships are. I now give it to you, as a team, to remind you of the same thing.”
As it came my turn to hold the cup, I took it and turned it over. It was nothing beautiful or spectacular to look at, only simple, weathered tin, but the memory it brought burned deep in my soul. Lane and I were distant cousins, but close friends. He had been my wrestling partner. I was a lineman and he was a back. When he had a choice, he chose to run my side of the line. I had opened many holes for him. He had always trusted me to do my part.
As I struggled to hold back the tears that my feelings were creating, Coach Sam finished. “Let this be your victory cup. Whether it takes you to a district and state championship is not important. But if it takes you to the victory of eternal friendship and unity, then it will have done its job, and perhaps Lane and Van will not have died in vain.”
And that season, that was exactly what our victory cup did do for us.