A couple weeks ago, I got a message from my buddy Max. An email. An initiative that he’s begun, to keep in touch, to tell stories, to further his connection and ability to make impact.
It was a story about “the underdog,” coming on the heels of the Patriots improbable Super Bowl comeback, one in which they overcame the largest second half deficit in the game’s 51-year history.
Following his commentary on the game, Max wrote . . .
“My daughter Ryann is learning to play golf. We hit balls almost every day at the range … Golf is a tough sport to learn … but Ryann’s really been dedicated and it gives us something to do together as I try to make up for lost time.
A month or so ago, while at the range I see this kid getting dropped off by his mom, nice looking Tahoe, nice looking kid, sharply dressed. While that’s not uncommon at the golf course, I’m fighting the urge to stereotype him. I know what it looks like and feels like to be a “rich kid,” so my radar is tuned to decide “good kid — hard worker” or “spoiled — maybe someday he’ll figure it out.”
The kid walks up to the range and goes about his business quietly. He’s about 10 yards away, so I can’t help but notice there’s something different about him. I look closer, sure enough he has a hearing aid and this one is serious, it even has a part that’s attached to his head behind his ear, an implant.
All of a sudden I find myself rooting for this kid … I don’t even know him but now I’m pulling for him, I’m trying not to stare … I want to know his name, how long he’s had this device as a part of his life, did he have to fight through kids teasing him early on, what’s it like when he doesn’t have it connected.
I wonder if he’s drawn to golf because it doesn’t require a helmet or is it because there’s no impact, no whistle? There’s something about the struggle that endears me, the human will to overcome an unequal playing field.
… He was very young, probably in a Dr.’s office, his parents looking at each other as the Dr. explains what’s going on. The kid looking on with uncertainty while the parents look at each other and try to overcome their own. Realizing it’s no-one’s fault and feeling that inner voice for the first time that questions a person’s resilience; knowing there’s no textbook for the strength they will need to find and transfer to a kid that will have to brave it alone to a great degree.
Without saying a word, without needing to hear anything, the quiet confidence of this kid practicing golf alone inspires me to believe he’s going to be just fine. I’m rooting for him and imagining he may someday say that his setback helped him focus, helped him narrow down what he’s good at, helped him escape and just put the ball in play like everyone else. Better than everyone else.”
I get chills, even now, as I read Max’s email for the fifth or sixth time.
Last week I mentioned that I am coaching Madeline’s t-ball team again this spring. We met, as a full team, for the first time on Tuesday. Prior to, I spent a lot of time in back and forth dialogue with the parents — trading expectations and trying to figure out how I can best help each kid.
There was one particular email response that stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Ryan — My husband and I would also like to give you a bit of information on [son’s name]. He is currently in treatment for Leukemia. He is doing great and doesn’t need any special accommodations … He has a port but wears a protective shirt when he plays. The oncologist has cleared him to play, and this will be his second season playing while in treatment … We just want you to know in the unlikely but possible case he has to miss a game or practice due to low counts with his immune system.”
What do you say? I did all that I could to muster a response that came close to dignifying the unbridled respect and admiration that I felt, in that instant, for both the parents and the kid … himself, just five years old.
Immediately I thought of Max. His story. Still fresh in my mind.
I wrote him back …
“Hey Max — I got a note from one of the [t-ball] parents today to let me know that her son is battling leukemia … I can’t begin to imagine what that must be like to watch your 5 year old battle cancer. Made me think of your story about the young kid on the range … Never met the kid but I’m already rooting for him and honored to have him on the team.”
A couple days went by and Max responded …
“I thought about what you said … about the 5 year old … and how you are rooting for him before you even meet him … how that made you think of my story. The more I think about it the more I realize the real story there > you felt the same thing I felt. The same thing I wrote about feeling. I think that’s the power of storytelling — being able to bottle a feeling into words, then with luck, someone else has an experience that causes that bottle to float up right next to them…”
What a perfect analogy. And it’s a thought that my friend Amber enunciated as well, in an internal memo to a group that both Max and I are a part of. She wrote …
“We long to surround ourselves with people who ignite something in us, who when we simply listen to them share their heart, it solidifies what we already know and believe, but often fail to be able to articulate. We’re sick of status quo and recycled rhetoric. Passion resonates, deep calls out to deep.”
It’s the power of story that resonates. That stirs an emotion within. Puts us in a place where we cannot help but root for the “underdog.” Not in spite of his limitations but because of them.
And in many respects, it’s the underdog who becomes the strongest kid on the playing field because he tries the hardest, when he has every excuse not to. His parents. My parents. Myself as a parent, most of us just want our kids to be “like everyone else.” Without limitations or in need of special accommodations.
But when you step back and think about it … isn’t it clear that there is a profound awesomeness in ‘Different’ …
I believe it’s time that we flip the field and start telling those stories …
Dare to go deep …
Bottle those feelings …
And set them afloat . . .
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