I Wear the Ring

October 13, 2011

In the immortal words of Pat Conroy, “I wear the ring.” Specifically, the 1991 championship ring for the Old Dominion Athletic Conference that was earned on football fields tucked away on small college campuses scattered mostly across North Carolina and Virginia. It represents a shared experience for those of us who came together at Guilford College, put on the pads and walked on cleats through gravel parking lots to the fields of our youth to play a game, to test our mettle, to become men.

I wear the ring.

This weekend, I went back to Guilford College to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our accomplishment and reunite with those who shared this experience. Now, most of us are married with kids and our battles are more pedestrian – getting our kids to eat their dinner, trying to keep the hairline from receding further and navigating office politics at work. On occasion, I still suppress an urge to tackle someone. It usually passes without incident, but I think all the guys who have hung up their cleats can appreciate where I’m coming from. At a small NCAA Division III college that did not embrace the Greek system, the football team was the closest thing to a fraternity that I could have experienced. In some ways, perhaps it was closer to the true meaning of the word than any artificial Greek designation could have been. It was this sense of brotherhood that I had wanted to capture in the locker room as a senior on the week of the last game I would ever play.

During that week, the team traditionally gathered in the locker room and each senior was given an opportunity to speak. Most spoke from the heart about what the game and the individuals on this team meant to them. In clumsy words, we each tried to convey how precious this time was and how those who were younger should file away these moments in their mental scrapbook for their exquisite perfection.

I chose to read a passage from Stephen Crane’s “Open Boat.” I wanted to reach beyond the words as Crane had done to convey the special bond we all shared because I could not find the words to describe it or hold the thing completely. My words could not be woven together tightly enough to capture the full weight of the experience — the sweetest juices always seemed to seep through, leaving only the husks of empty words behind. So I turned to Crane to convey what I could not.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it recounts the actual experience of Crane and three other men who were stranded at sea in a small boat for 30 hours after their ship sank off the coast of Florida. Here’s the passage I read:

“It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him. They were a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends, friends in a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common. The hurt captain, lying against the water-jar in the bow, spoke always in a low voice and calmly, but he could never command a more ready and swiftly obedient crew than the motley three of the dingy. It was more than a mere recognition of what was best for the common safety. There was surely in it a quality that was personal and heartfelt. And after this devotion to the commander of the boat there was this comradeship that the correspondent, for instance, who had been taught to be cynical of men, knew even at the time was the best experience of his life. But no one said that it was so. No one mentioned it.”

And still, I have no better words. I am so grateful for the friends that the fraternity of football has given me.

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