Some years ago I had the privilege of coaching youth soccer in suburban Cleveland. The recreation league roster was a mix of kids with various degrees of talent.
One of the young boys was smaller than the others. I was told he was adopted from an orphanage in Russia. He was timid and actually somewhat afraid to be with the others. At the first practice he hid behind his adopted mother on the sidelines. Because I do not speak Russian, communication was difficult.
But the child was on my team and was as important to me as each of his other teammates. I took him by the hand and ran with him up and down the field. We couldn't understand each other's languages, so I showed him what to do. Words weren't important.
As the season passed, he gradually let go of my hand and joined the others. He slowly understood more and more English and by the end of the season was in among the other children playing soccer.
I don't remember how many games we won. I barely remember some of the others on that team. The greatest victory for me as a coach was not how many games we won that season—it was helping that shy little boy grow and develop to the point where he let go of my hand.
Mark Saksa coaches outside linebackers at John Carroll University. What is most obvious about him is that he cares about his players. It is Mark who helped me understand that there is a difference between wins and victories.
Mark talks about his players as individuals, as young men who he loves to teach the game of football, but also as people for whom what happens off the field may be more important than wins or losses.
For Coach Saksa, the most important thing any coach can give a player is time. Caring about them as people and watching them develop is a great victory for Mark. He believes that you "concentrate on those victories, and the wins will come."
The Ohio State Buckeyes had just finished a closed scrimmage at Ohio Stadium preparing for the upcoming season. Ten-year-old Matthew was visiting campus and wanted more than anything to get the autograph of a football player if he saw one.
It was just Matthew's luck that the very moment he walked up to the stadium not one player, but the entire team was leaving. Matthew had not one but ALL of the Ohio State players no more than 50 feet in front of him. He froze.
The team boarded their buses to head back to their training facility, and Matthew missed the opportunity he most wanted leaving him nearly in tears.
Still inside the stadium was head coach Jim Tressel, a man whose responsibilities and commitments have to be overwhelming. Wandering into the stadium, Matthew's father asked a man at the gate for just the opportunity to get a photograph in the horseshoe and they were welcomed inside.
Having missed the entire team, here was one last opportunity for a 10-year-old boy to meet the head coach.
If practice went well or not, regardless of what other commitments Tressel may have had, when he was introduced to Matthew the coach gave him his complete attention. It was as if at that moment the only person in the world that mattered was the 10-year-old boy who now describes that day as "the best day of his life."
The autographed jersey now hangs in Matthew's buckeye-adorned bedroom below photographs of Paul Brown, Woody Hayes, and Jim Tressel.
From Coach Saksa's perspective, Jim Tressel "gets it."
At that moment the most important thing he could give anyone was his time, and he did so generously. For Matthew that was a victory, and I suspect if you talk with any of Tressel's recruits they will tell you that he is among the reasons they chose to play at Ohio State.
Winning is important. But in life it is the victories that matter most.