Editor’s note: The Union Leader is bringing back some of the late Joe Sullivan’s Union Leader sports columns. This one was originally published on Feb. 20, 2007.
LAST MONTH, a student taking the sports journalism class at the Nackey S. Loeb School asked me where I found my column ideas. The answer I gave him was the one I found in a book by Red Smith, my choice for greatest sports writer of all time.
“You just live your life,” I said, trying to quote Smith accurately. “Columns follow.”
A few days ago, while living my life, I bumped into this column. A friend and I lunched at Manchester’s Intervale Country Club. As we ate, we talked sports. My friend coaches girls’ basketball at a small junior high. Over the past five years, his teams compiled an incredible record of success. However, he’s not into numbers (other than final scores) so he doesn’t know his teams’ won-loss record over that span. I figure it must be something like 75-5.
But not so this year. His team yo-yoed at the .500 mark all season, 3-2 one week, 3-4 the next week, 5-4 a week later.
He talked about his current team as we ate and he mentioned several individuals. When he came to one particular seventh grader, he said, “She’s the comebacker.”
He confused me. Comebacker? In basketball?
In baseball, a comebacker is a trickler to the mound.
In golf, a comebacker is that one drive or fairway wood or long iron or chip or putt that convinces a duffer to give the sport one more shot.
But a comebacker in hoop? I asked him what he meant.
“She’s the player who’s going to make me come back to coach next year. She’s such a great kid, such a wonderful person, I can’t not come back.”
He gave me the impression the comebacker is a good player but unlikely to play for UConn. I surmised it was her attitude, not her ability, luring him back for another year of coaching.
He made me think of comebackers I enjoyed in my coaching years.
Mike Swanson and Barry Hough were the first of many I was privileged to coach. Then Adam and Ben Michaud arrived, followed in rapid-fire succession by Eddie Ibarra, Noah Fournier and Jed Davitt.
Those names won’t mean a lot to a lot of readers, but that’s not important. I’d like anyone who has ever coached to replace my seven names with seven names of their own. Those kids who made them come back for another year. And another. Year after year.
Recall the good years you spent with them.
The seven comebackers I cited were all Little League youngsters. They were all excellent players but their ability wasn’t what made them what they were.
Their attitude was.
They didn’t show up late for games or practices. They were the first ones there. They didn’t walk onto the diamond like they were doing it a favor. They hustled on and off, treating the diamond like the jewel it is. They encouraged their teammates. They never pouted, never complained about an umpire’s call, never threw a bat or helmet, never sat on a base while the opposition changed pitchers, never balked at packing the equipment or lugging it to the car.
They simply wanted to learn, improve, win and have fun.
Thank heavens comebackers aren’t limited to youth sports. In my softball-coaching days at Trinity High, I also uncovered some gems. My first year there, two freshmen, Betsy Gott and Lauren Moyer, made the varsity. That ensured I’d stay around for at least another three years.
Then sophomores Nicole Vailas and Catherine Vachon arrived. Double comebackers. Followed immediately by freshmen Courtney Cheetham and Jordan Pouliot.
Everywhere I went, I was blessed with comebackers, though I didn’t know that they had a special name.
But I did know that they were special.
As I finished the first draft of this column, I thought that maybe young athletes who read it will be inspired to become comebackers. But I don’t think it works that way.
I don’t think comebackers have any idea that they are comebackers. That’s part of what makes them what they are.
Well, there it is. Another column.
But I hope it’s more than just another column.