James Harrison and Earning Life’s Trophies

Pittsburgh Steelers’ James Harrison expressed his feelings about his sons being given "participation trophy" and there was plenty of social media response

James Harrison - adapted media still
James Harrison - adapted media still

HARRISBURG, Pa., Aug. 29, 2015 – On Sunday Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison had social media feeds, talk show callers and the media in a tizzy: When the outside linebacker discovered his 6- and 8-year-old sons received trophies for their Next Level Athletics program in their school, he explained on his Instagram account why they’re going back, emphasis on his “EARN a real trophy.”

best-of-the-batch-instagramMr. Harrison is right. On one hand, while I understand the intention behind the kids’ receiving a trophy, that intention diminishes their drive, push and fire to work hard to earn their spot in a person’s memory, their school’s record books and to give themselves something truly to be proud of no outward symbol can adequately convey.

And, according to his history via ESPN.com: “Harrison’s football background might provide insight into why he feels this way. [He] was a Kent State walk-on who went undrafted in 2002, played a season in NFL Europe and was cut by the Baltimore Ravens before latching on with the Steelers and becoming a force. That all drove him to ” ‘do better.’ ”


Many times I’d competed in something and fell short. Came thisclose to the prize, didn’t get it. Two things happened within–both natural responses many in this society are trying to scrub out, incidentally—I got upset as heck and shed tears . . . and then I got burning mad and practiced like I never had before, in whatever it was.

Or, in hindsight, I didn’t pursue that activity after all, because it wasn’t my style. Or passion. And it was time to dedicate energies to other things.

Everybody remembers the No. 1 placers. Mary Lou Retton. Michelle Wie. Venus and Serena Williams. Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson, the best children’s neurosurgeon in the country before his retirement (and views of both men aside). It’s in our nature to be competitive, to be able to brag a little we’re the best. And though some would argue that’s not right to do that, sure it is.

Who wants a mediocre doctor or surgeon working on them? I don’t. Do you want a so-so teacher for your kid’s school? No (which was illustrated brilliantly with principal Joe Clark in Eastside High School in Newark, N.J., in the late 1980s).

Kids want to be pushed, even though they fight about it initially. And people remember the No.2 placers, but it doesn’t hold that same prestige No. 1 does. C’mon, now . . . does the losing team of a Super Bowl game get to go to Disney for free or wear the Super Bowl rings? No. So why give him flak here wanting his kids to earn a prize they worked hard for, rather than take one they didn’t? That’s stealing, if you think about it.

Music, writing, fitness, some sciences and animals are my passions. When I didn’t make a choral trip while in eighth grade over a failing grade, I was damn mad at myself. But I bucked down and made the spring chorale, despite receiving a C minus in the subject dogging me. Harrison’s saying, in essence, earning whatever top prize you’re going for makes you stronger.

When you win that spot or prize, it’ll be a proud moment no one should ever deny you . . . or spare that hardship from you from. The other side of that disappointment is a joy in that accomplishment words can’t express. That feeling and experience makes the struggle worth every bit of hard work and sacrifice.

The point that kids—and some scaredy-cat parents, school officials, and coaches–need to learn: Press on, no matter how rough. If a kid gets a grade enough to squeak by to participate in an after-school activity he’s enthusiastic about, it shows the kid can be better than just merely participating in life—and glorifying that effort by just showing up?

No way!—and swoosh for the stars in other arenas. Maybe he’ll go back and better that lousy grade, since success in one thing is contagious in other aspects of life. Academics. Medicine. Space exploration and engineering. Auto racing. Caring for animals. Architecture.

Otherwise, in the name of fairness, sameness, bland, Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost milquetoast thinking, what’s left to go for? Kids naturally are dreamers and doers. That’s what Harrison’s driving home to his sons. Worked for him, it’ll work for his boys. And men aren’t bland or ghostly milquetoast creatures.

Or, as Syndrome from The Incredibles put it: “With everyone a superhero . . . no one will be.”

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