Benefield: Sports is about the cheering

I didn’t cry when the final whistle blew on my last college soccer game. What I remember feeling was relief. It had been a long time. I was ready to hang it up.

About six months later, relief was replaced by something else I wasn’t ready for. I was coaching an under-14 girls soccer team and a voice cheering from the stands sounded just like my mom’s. But the voice didn’t belong to my mom and the woman wasn’t cheering for me, she was rooting for a little girl running around on the field.

At that moment, my sincere feeling was, “What’s left in my life to cheer for?” A wee dramatic, but there also is a grain of truth to it. Trust me on this: Nobody calls a reporter and yells “Hurrah!” for giving their best effort. And I have yet to hear a shout of “Way to go!” when I lumber by on a morning jog.

Sports, competition and teams give us a chance to cheer and be cheered. And prep sports all the more so.

Sure, athletics are loaded with cheaters and losers and cavemen. Anytime you play for a prize, the vermin tend to come out. But the heart of sports — and prep sports especially — is about rooting people on. It’s a sweet emotion, and prep sports has loads of people we can unabashedly root for.

I don’t always root for the winners, because losers often are more compelling. This column will be a place where athletes’ stories — whether they are winning or losing — are told.

This is the new prep sports column, and I am The Press Democrat’s new sports columnist. After seven years of covering education for The Press Democrat, it is an exciting prospect to cover another aspect of student life.

When I was a student-athlete at Santa Rosa High School, winning and losing were not a matter of life and death, but they felt like it at times. But the older I get, the more it becomes clear that sports are definitely about life.

The good guy doesn’t always win. The cheater doesn’t always get caught. The comeback sometimes falls short. Someone always loses — and some people never get in the game. That’s sports. That’s life.

Before I started playing soccer at Cal, I was used to getting playing time and I was accustomed to success. When I suited up for the Golden Bears, that changed – quick-like.

When I finally got the nod from the coach to go in as a freshman, I jumped from the bench, warmed myself up into an anxiety-filled panic only to hear the final whistle blow before I could take my sweat jacket off. Next time.

I don’t remember what I felt the first moment I played in a college game, but I certainly remember what I felt when I had to sit back down that day. Sports are filled with moments of searing disappointment. And teams and coaches and situations force us to face those disappointments and figure out how to handle them. I learned more from when I stank (a lot) than when things came easier. I learned these things alone. I had to settle these personal scores by myself, learn how to rise above losing and learn how to deal with myself when I was a loser. Sports tested me — and it tests us all — in small and big ways every time out.

We can criticize our sporting culture for the dominant place it holds in our society or the elevated status we give grown men who play a boys’ game. But we should also credit sports for the opportunity it gives us to develop skills more critical than how to win — like how to rise above or recover from losing, or how to cope with the rejection of riding the pine.

Of course, winning presents its own challenges: Maintaining perspective, for one, and appreciating teammates, coaches and parents.

Whatever the final score says, athletes navigate practices, games and seasons that are loaded with hurdles and setbacks but also with small triumphs that people in the stands will never see.

All of that — the competing, the sharing, the winning, the losing, the joy and the sadness — deserves a spotlight and sometimes a genuine cheer.

I look forward to shining a spotlight on these moments and these athletes. Feel free to cheer them on.