It was a difficult selection process, but we have our winner and runner-up for the first-ever Ladies Room Sports Essay Contest! Congratulations to Carol Dowd-Forte of West Palm Beach, Fla., for her winning essay, “Spring 1977.” And the runner-up is Tara Armstrong of Iowa City, Iowa, for “Coaching Unicorns Bill Murray Style”. They will receive a $150 and $50 VISA Gift Card, respectively.
Also thank you to our judges, and everyone who participated! Read on for the two winning entries, and we’ll post other “honorable mentions” in upcoming days…
by Carol Dowd-Forte
Bent over, hands on my thighs, I was glad I’d remembered to spread my feet apart before displaying to my teammates what I’d eaten for lunch.
I knew that second Devil Dog was a mistake.
With the inning nearing an end, I had run off the field from my position in Loser-Land, right field.
“Hey, Spike, you alright?”
I muttered that I was fine and reiterated the verdict about snack cake number two.
On the train ride home the scene came back to me in Technicolor splendor, and my stomach was calm as I walked down 102nd Street toward the brown-shingled, three-story house I’d grown up in. The early spring sunset slipped into dusk and then evening, and I looked up at our second floor kitchen’s rear window. Streetlights flickered on, and their jaundiced halos illustrated there was no light in the back of the house, an anomaly at dinnertime with six people for my mother to feed.
Silence greeted me at the bottom of the stairs, even though Rebel usually barked when someone came home. I called out to see if anyone was home before I walked up the two wooden flights, opened the door to the living room and saw my father sitting alone on the couch, Rebel at his feet. Only the lamp was on; the television screen black.
“Pop died,” he said.
I swallowed and said, “Okay.”
“What the hell do you mean, Okay? I just told you your grandfather died and all you have to say is Okay?”
But no one had ever died on me before, and I didn’t know the rules for mourning. But from Dad’s reaction I guess I was doing it wrong.
My father was not a sports fan, but Pop was a Mets maniac, and he and Nana took my brother and me to games when they could afford the tickets, or when my dad got them free for working security at Shea Stadium. The year Pete Rose screwed up the Amazins’ shot at the World Series—by eluding Bud Harrelson’s tag at second base during a key playoff game—Pop brought home a bunch of lobsters. He said he got them “from a guy I know”—wink, wink—and grinned with unabashed glee as he dropped the largest one, which he had named Pete, into the boiling pot of payback on the kitchen stove.
Pop made me laugh. He called me Twiggy. He paid attention to me. And he was dead.
“What time did he die?”
“That’s what you want to know?”
In my mind it was hours earlier and I was back on the sidelines. Feet splayed. Head bowed. Thankful for my aim and glad I wouldn’t smell of vomit on the subway ride home. I lifted my head, wiped my mouth, and glanced at the scoreboard clock.
It was 4:32.
After the funeral, the house was full of food and people and grief. I told my father I had a game that afternoon and needed a ride to the field. I was a junior, and on the day of my grandfather’s funeral my father saw my high school for the first and only time before graduation day.
But I had a game to play. I think Pop would have wanted it that way.
Tears were streaming down my cheeks, then dripping onto my manmade chest. Lynda was helping me form a personal game plan for the fast-approaching volleyball season as I no longer felt qualified to encourage or coach youth to keep going when I was struggling to see any bright side.
“What would you say to one of your players if they came to you saying they were having an awful time, like what you’re going through?”
“First, I’d be shocked if one of my eighth graders came to me saying, ‘Coach Tara, I’m losing my shit right now because this constant pain from my prophylactic double mastectomy just won’t stop, and my surgeon is currently being a big baby because I compliment him excessively and he now thinks I’m in love with him.’ Second, I would say, ‘well, kid, we have that in common.’ Then I’d give her a reassuring fist bump.”
Lynda gave a deep, mocking chuckle. “There she is. That’s dark-humored Tara I know. But don’t you think bright spots would be better suited for your team?”
“Probably. I’m having difficulty processing bright spots because my source for them is no longer writing any. It feels wrong to tell the kids it’ll get better. Especially when it’s not a guarantee. Even if things “get better” it doesn’t really last. I don’t want to lie to them. I don’t want to be to them, what everyone else has been to me— misleading abandoners.”
“I don’t think you’re misleading when you encourage them to be who they are and embrace the awkwardness. There’s something those kids, and many others, see in you.”
“Why do you do this, Lynda? I have no light, only abysmally ironic humor. Isn’t it time for you to give up on me, like the rest?”
“Because those kids need you. You have an inner light, Tara. You started practicing bright spots the first year you coached and started winning after you implemented the bright spots, right?
“We won one game that year.”
“But last year you started bright spots with them the first day. You made them practice those positive affirmations daily. You sent team texts on game days. How many games did you win last year?”
“All but one.”
“Exactly, atypical for the underdogs. Didn’t you also go to the apple orchard post-season because what you created with those girls was a sisterhood? They still email you. You inspired one of them to stop cutting by helping her to write about her emotions. How did you do that as ‘just’ a volleyball coach?”
“By embracing awkwardness and listening…” This made me smile as I remembered our huddle chant; “Unicorns on three!” Then “Mad Dawg” would rise from the middle of our circle with one hand on her head pointing up, serving as her unicorn horn. From there she’d dance on the sideline, chanting Bill Murray’s best motivational advice from Meatballs, and our team’s motto about losing versus winning: “It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!” And Mad Dawg was right, ‘it’ doesn’t matter, but my team does.
I didn’t let an infection that almost claimed my right breast implant at the end of last season stop me from being there for them. Why should I let my anxiety and depression stop me from being there for my new team this year?
I finally looked at Lynda.
“You can do this, Tara.”