The battle of Waterloo, they say, was won on the playing fields of Eton.
That old saw sounded good to me when I first heard it more than a half century ago when I was first competing — or trying to compete — on the playing fields of Endwell in upstate New York. It still sounded good a few years later in high school, when the competition had winnowed me down to being a third-stringer on the cross country team, a starter but not a star on the school’s first-ever soccer team, and (the ultimate tribute to my athletic prowess) a role on the varsity basketball team, as the statistician.
Still it sounded good: Some sort of enduring life skill was being forged by that team-building process, even if you were the guy at the far end of the bench, dressed in street clothes and wielding a pencil. And it sounded better yet as I contemplated college options and discovered that Princeton was home to the ultimate scholar athlete, Bill Bradley.
Fast forward a half century and it still sounded good, even as I wrote my column of October 8, in which I fretted over whether or not sports, particularly at the high school level, had lost its compass, a character building experience transformed into, at best, a college scholarship building experience. How you play the game may be important, as Grantland Rice said so famously. But when you have won 43 consecutive high school football games (and three state championships) as my high school has done, whether you win or lose also must weigh pretty heavily on those youthful psyches. (Don’t worry, sports fans, that Maine-Endwell winning streak is now at 45.)
But while I was fretting over the roles of sports at my old high school, I should have been looking a little closer to home. On the day the column was printed my colleagues pointed to the headlines in the daily papers: Sayreville High School’s football program, with its own impressive won-lost record, was being shut down by school administrators amid charges (now criminal charges) of hazing that took a sexually abusive turn.
If my column sounded a little mild, given the new circumstances, I was lucky to get some backup support from the readers.
Dick Ragsdale, an attorney with Davidson, Sochor, Ragsdale & Cohen at Montgomery Knoll, sent the following note:
“I had a plaque on my bedroom wall as a child through high school with Grantland Rice’s saying on it. And the point of your column is totally on the money. I was a pretty good high school athlete (recruited for football by the Washington schools, Oregon, Oregon State, Cal, and Stanford). I was a good college athlete (I will spare the details, they don’t matter). I knew before heading off to college, however, that the college experience, the learning and the degree were the real objectives.
“I learned this lesson in a way that still sticks in my memory as if it happened yesterday. Medford, Oregon, was a Friday night lights kind of town back then. 7,500 people in a town of 17,000 attending high school football games on Friday nights. One of the big stars a few years ahead of me in school got the big PAC 10 scholarship. That was so huge.
“And then, for reasons I don’t clearly remember, the next time I saw him, he was no longer in college and was pushing a shovel on a local construction job. Literally, digging a ditch. That just hit me right between the eyes. All the athletic glory and fame, in the end, was pretty much nada.
“I should add that this fellow probably lived a good life — I really lost track, so I don’t know. But if he did, as a good father or a civic-minded businessman, or whatever, it had nothing to do with football glory.”
I knew nothing of Dick Ragsdale’s athletic exploits when I first met him back in the 1990s, and showed him a sheaf of papers that had just been thrust upon me by a sheriff, papers that spelled out a $1 million lawsuit against me. I felt like a heavy underdog: In describing the Nassau Street retailer who was now the plaintiff in the libel suit, U.S. 1 had quoted a fellow retailer describing the subject of the story as a guy “who would ruin the water when he walked into the room.”
It could have been my Waterloo, but the other guys eventually dropped their suit without so much as a penny paid in settlement. My guess is that the case was won more likely in the classrooms of Stanford Law School (Ragsdale’s alma mater) than on the playing fields of Stanford University, where he competed as an undergraduate.
After the October 8 column I was surprised to receive a hand-written note from Bill Roufberg, a retired Princeton High School history teacher now in his late 80s, who has weighed in at U.S. 1 before with poems and essays on subjects as diverse as retirement, Arnold Toynbee’s definition of paradise, and the existence of God. I didn’t expect him to engage in the sports talk.
But he did:
“If one did a study of the major novelists and playwrights, like O’Neil, Tennessee Williams, Dickens, Tolstoy, Shaw, Wilde, Ibsen, Chaucer, Moliere, Fitzgerald, Chaplin, Woody Allen, etc., one would discover the key theme in their major works: each major character suffered because he (she) did not fit in.
“Sports tend to cripple people who don’t fit in,” wrote Roufberg, who then added a personal reference, based on a memory going back 70 years or so:
“I, a small boy, was left out at school, where fitting in shapes one’s life.”
The rough and tough athletes of Roufberg’s generation may have wondered what battles the small kids at school would ever win. They could have looked at the town of Bletchley Park in England, where the British assembled a corps of some 12,000 civilians (the majority of them women) from all walks of life, having in common only the intellectual drive to help them decode the secret communications of the Germans and their allies and turn the tide of the war.
There may even have been a few from the playing fields of Eton. But there were certainly many that the jocks would have dismissed as misfits, as well. On one visit Winston Churchill was said to have remarked to an administrator: “When I told you to leave no stone unturned recruiting for this place, I didn’t expect you to take me literally.”