Between the Rows: Embrace the Battle

Published online: Aug 10, 2021 Articles, Between the Rows Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This column appears in the August 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

The whistle blew. Coach stood there before us, the expression on his face displaying an odd mix of frustration, amusement and awe.

“Have you two ever gotten into an actual fight?” he asked.

He was addressing the 17-year-old versions of me and my best friend, Owen, as we stood underneath the practice hoop at the southeast corner of the old high school gym, catching our breath, covered in sweat and bruises. We exchanged a confused look, then turned back to Coach. “No. Why?”

“Because you’re beating the living tar out of each other.”

Owen and I exchanged a look that said, Of course we are. Isn’t that what friends do during a rebounding drill? Coach just shook his head, smiled at the ground, and resumed practice.

Sixteen years later and about a mile to the east, I was engaged in a heated game of 21 on the basketball court at the church. My valiant foes this time were my two brothers. The occasion was a reception for the youngest brother and his new bride, just a couple weeks after their wedding. The party had come to an end and only family remained, chatting and slowly starting clean-up work. Then someone found a basketball.

A couple of the teenaged cousins started playing with us, but game quickly became too brutal for a sane person’s taste. Baby Brother’s fancy new white shirt, which had been purchased specifically for his wedding, became a casualty of the competition, a gaping hole torn in the armpit. Sliding across the hardwood in our dress shoes and neckties, three grown men grabbed, elbowed, hip-checked and laughed our way to a bloody conclusion.

The value has never been so much in delivering bumps and bruises, as in being a willing—even eager—recipient of them.

When I was a kid, the basketball coaches called it the “Oakley hack”: the tendency of kids from Oakley to turn a basketball game into a muddy medieval melee, and to do it with a grin. Without coaches or referees present to intervene, we had only three rules: 1) no double-dribbling, 2) no traveling; and 3) no head shots. The action was very rarely malicious, but was routinely vicious. So when it came to organized play, coaches were faced with the unenviable task of breaking us of these so-called “bad” habits.

I was shocked (and a little bit appalled) when I went off to college and learned that people actually called fouls in pickup games. Some even called non-shooting fouls. A select few even called fouls away from the ball. Seriously, who does that? Who were these people who took themselves so seriously? Where was the gamesmanship? Where was the fun?

Look, I know like I’m starting to sound like one of those get-off-my-lawn, back-in-my-day, look-down-on-all-you-pampered-city-slickers, grumpy old men. And I really don’t want to be that guy. The style of play I’m talking about has no place in an actual, official basketball game. And I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t judge people too harshly for their behavior playing pickup ball. The coaches at Oakley High School always have had to and probably always will have to rein in their players’ hack-happy habits if they expect any public success. But there’s a certain kind of brutal beauty in mucking things up—and the muck has a lot to teach us.  

Eventually, I realized that my indignation was never about being called for a foul. Since I discovered sports thirty-some years ago, my two chief athletic skills have been delivering a subtle-yet-effective forearm shiver and standing like a wall through contact. (When you can’t really run, jump or throw, you’ve got to figure something out.) So the value was never so much in delivering bumps and bruises, as in being a willing—even eager—recipient of them.

The great Winston Churchill extolled the worth of taking a hit when he said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Sometimes that failure is no fault of your own; indeed, it may be no one’s fault at all. A couple years ago, potato growers across the country were hammered by early freezes and torrential rains. Then came the malicious she-bear that was 2020, which needs no summary. In between all the headlines, individual farms and families dealt with their own plagues and strife and struggles. You’ve all taken it on the chin at least a time or two. Sometimes you’ve stood firm. Other times, you’ve stumbled. Occasionally you’ve had to give your head a hard shake to clear the cobwebs. More often than you’d probably like to admit, you’ve needed a long count before rising from the canvas. Yet you keep coming back for more. You don’t whine or ask for pity. Because you know that next time, you’ll be the one delivering the hit.