Why Sport Really Matters

jeff HubbardCorrespondent IMay 22, 2009

WILLIAMSPORT, PA - AUGUST 24:  Starting pitcher Sergio Rodriguez #15 of Mexico reacts after giving up a home run against the United States during the Little League World Series Championship game at Lamade Stadium on August 24, 2008 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The United States defeated Mexico 12-3.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

My fondest memories are not of happenings on the field. They happened in the backyard. Throwing a ball around with my dad.

My dad liked to teach to me catch with my hands by zipping the football so that if it hit my chest it would knock me backwards.

He liked to throw me enough grounders that I caught with my face that I'd learn to square up and play the hop just so. 

I was the oldest son. 

I passed those same lessons to my brother, six years my junior: fundamentals. He carried a bat in his hand constantly starting at age two.

He had uncommon talent and by five years old he was playing with much older neighborhood kids in massive baseball and football games.

I'm fairly certain my other brother, the youngest brother, would tell you he went through the same bonding experience learning to hit pitches tossed by his big brother and best friend who happened to be six years my junior. 

Sport Bonded. 

The greatest play I ever saw happened on a little league field. 

He was a little center fielder with coke bottle glasses that made him look like a very, very young Dom DiMaggio. He made one of those plays that screams "this kid has got something." He charged the line drive so he could catch it where you can throw in one motion. He slipped on the muddy field, fell flat on his back, never broke his concentration, got up made the catch and whirled and made the throw completing a picture perfect double play. Coordination learned through sports not video games, determination, concentration, beauty all in one play. 

The crowd roared. 

If you walk into a bar in Griffith, Ind., you won't hear about that play but you may still hear men near 40 talking about the Little League all-star team and what might have been. 

My brother didn't get to play on that team. A league official or concerned parent (some would say a concerned parent with a less talented child) pointed out the 12-year-old lived a half mile outside the city limits. Adults tend to ruin sports with rules. 

Griffith would go on to win state and lose by one run to the eventual third-place team that lost to the eventual champion Kirkland, Wash., by one run. 

The bitter in Griffith will tell you Paul Hubbard was worth one run. Paul wouldn't. He didn't dwell on that. He never had any animosity towards those friends who got the chance to play. He was, even when not on the team, the perfect teammate. 

The real win in sports is the camaraderie, the friendships, and learning the uncommon grace that allows you to accept the bumps like not getting to play because you live a half mile outside an imaginary line. 

In high school Paul would be the perfect teammate again. He played multiple positions and made lifelong friendships. 

My little brother taught me that winning in sports wasn't about hitting the game winning grand slam in the sectionals. That was something that came with the job of being part of the team.

I was far away then, stationed overseas with the Army. I never heard about the grand slam. His coach told me about it much later, confirming that Paul had made him look like a genius.

Apparently, he used a fundamentally perfect swing and took an outside pitch deep over the opposite field wall. 

I'm sure my father and I would tell you we're proud of the text book swing and the resulting hit but prouder still of the uncommon humility shown in never saying a word about it. 

A teammate of Paul's told me the celebration started at first base. The real joy in sports is the chance to celebrate an personal accomplishment performed for others. 

Being there matters. Being part of something bigger than yourself. Being part of a team; little league, high school, intramural, softball or beer league. A team of friend's wins simply by taking the field. It accomplishes things no one thinks can be accomplished. 

Sometimes those things are just graduating high school. Sometimes they translate to be best man at wedding, after wedding. Sometimes they just allow you to set an example of uncommon grace, uncommon humility, dedication to those you love and perseverance at the youngest age. 

In the end, those things matter. 

Today those lessons are bypassed. Kids are scouted and sent to skills camps by over ambitious and over indulgent parents before they ever learn to get to "we" from "me."

I was fortunate enough to have a brother that personified the best sports characteristics for a lifetime not just a childhood. 

While attending his wedding, I was awed by how tender this man could be. I think some of that came from playing sports with nieces and nephews.

Some other piece of it could be found in reaching out with compassion to teammates. I'm sure that some of his passion translated from sports to other aspects of his life, too. 

When I saw him with his wife, it always seemed to me he had found a woman that could fill his heart. That made every moment a grand slam celebration, a woman who filled him with pride and humility.

I think somewhere deep down, Paul wanted to introduce her as "Amy, my teammate, my friend, my love, and my wife" and not just "Amy, my wife." 

I learned many lessons from someone I always see as a little kid with coke bottle glasses. I watched him grow into a prospect. He made me grow into a man. I would never have been as successful as a father or as a man without those lessons. 

That kid with the coke bottle glasses died after a long and courageous fight with cancer. I'm guessing cancer cheated. I never saw Paul lose before.

Hundreds turned out to mourn him.  Many knew him from sports, little league, high school, softball, beer leagues, and neighborhood games. More people than he knew and more people than he imagined will miss Paul Hubbard. 

Me, I'll mourn, but more than anything I wanted to thank him. I wanted to thank him for all the lessons taught against the back-drop of sports.

I wanted to thank him for the example he set. Thank him for teaching me how to situational hit through life; when to take one for the team, when to sacrifice, and when to swing for the fences. 

I've told Paul's story of perseverance to hundreds of people, friends and strangers, as an example of how to live, how to fight, and how to love. 

I turned to my son shortly after my brother died, pointed to the sobbing current and former athletes mourning, and said: "This is why we live the right way...this is why we love...this is how it all comes back."

Paul Hubbard would probably call that coaching.