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Out of the Woods / A life lesson from long-ago high school football

Published 11:11 am, Sunday, September 29, 2013
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With the football season now upon us, it's timely for this former high school running back to reminisce a little about the good old days and -- more importantly -- to share with my readers a hard lesson I learned playing the game more than a half century ago.

Let me start with a pat on the back for our very own Staples football team, which year after year has made Westporters proud by racking up glorious winning seasons way beyond our expectations and earning the press attention they have included. In this way, high school football has not changed that much. Townspeople love a local winning football team all across America.

Winning is clearly the name of the game. In high school, I bought into the belief later popularized by Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi that: "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing." By now, of course, my view has changed markedly. But I recall how much a perfect season's record meant to us.

Same for college teams, same for professional teams. On the other hand, one phase of the game has undoubtedly changed: the lasting memory of a single game, especially when it spoiled a perfect season -- even though we won a championship despite one loss.

Today, losing one high school football game may not be as much of a setback for a teenager as a million other personal and family challenges. But for my team, it actually changed our lives.

Even after 50 years, the one topic that dominated a reunion of former team members was that memorable loss to Riverdale Country Day School, closing the season with a 6-1 record and outscoring opponents by an astonishing 186-13. Not too shabby.

Still, at the one reunion in 1995, and even today, that painful touchdown that Riverdale scored against us -- defeating us 7-6 -- remains in my mind as a life lesson. It is simply this: No matter how you try, nothing can be perfect. And if you set yourself up for perfection, you are going to be disappointed, time and time again.

That loss to Riverdale was all the more disappointing, because after Riverdale scored the touchdown and kicked the extra point, they led 7-0. In the last quarter, we managed to score another touchdown, but we missed the extra point. If memory serves me correctly, I was our extra-point kicker. Still painful to think about.

There was a caveat. Near the end of the game, our best running back, Phil Brickner, scored what appeared to be our second touchdown. From the one yard line, he ran straight ahead and landed in the end zone. But not so fast. The referee said his knee touched the ground before he crossed the goal line. No touchdown. Game over.

Our dream of an undefeated championship season was lost by one yard. For years, we would talk about the fact that, in our view, Phil Brickner's knee did not touch the ground before he scored. The referee was biased in favor of Riverdale. Any excuse we could make up.

But years and years later at our reunion, one of the players told the group during lunch at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, N.Y. told us something that gave us pause. He said that coach "Doc" Wiedman -- an inspiring, consistently upbeat leader who called us "gentlemen" at all times -- had told a player this: "You only have yourselves to blame. You had four downs to gain one yard. If you couldn't do that, you didn't deserve to win the game."

That was the lesson I have carried with me ever since. You either make it or you don't.

And if you don't, take responsibility.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at wklein11@aol.com.