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Ballad Of An Underdog

Remember when no one thought the Chiefs stood a chance against the Chargers on MNF?

No matter what happens in Sunday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens, no one will care more about the outcome of the contest than the players on the field.

That might seem like common sense but when you spend as much time talking to sports addicts as I do, you come to realize there are those out there that are very, very emotionally invested in the fate of their sports teams. Hell, I’m one of those people myself.

Logic tells me that we are coming to the end of the line for the Kansas City Chiefs. It is almost a certainty. If the Chiefs don’t lose Sunday to the Baltimore Ravens then they’ll lose the following week in New England and if they somehow manage to get through that, then they will almost certainly lose in the AFC Championship. That is just the way it is. As each week goes by, matters are only going to get harder for the Chiefs. Stronger teams, road games and pressure. Loser goes home. There can be only one. The one ring. You get it.

Yes there is a slim possibility that the Chiefs will shock the world and win four straight games and become Super Bowl Champions but in reality, the Chiefs and their fans are marching ever so slowly toward the 2011 offseason and a whole heap of disappointment. Only one team gets to gloat for a year straight and chances are, it won’t be the Chiefs.

When it all comes down, whether it is Sunday, next week or in an agonizing overtime Super Bowl loss, there will be those of us in Chiefs Nation that will feel severe amounts of pain and sadness. We’re crazy about those Chiefs. We’re Addicts.

While a day of total sucktitude is extremely close, I want to give you some hope for this Sunday’s playoff game. I need to do it now because if the Chiefs lose Sunday, we’ll all be spending the next seven months here on Arrowhead Addict dishing out more hope for the 2011 season and the team’s chances for a very far off 2011 Super Bowl.

Right now, however, we are in fact just 4 games away from glory so let’s revel in it while we can. Get crazy, get delusional and let me give you some hope by telling you a story.

Growing up I was a perfectly average athlete playing perfectly average baseball and running perfectly average races.

My first exposure to playing sports was when my father signed me up for little league baseball at the age of six. My earliest sports memory is being taught how to hold and throw a baseball. I was never particularly good at it. I was not blessed with incredible strength and while I grew up to be fairly tall, I was always skinny and never processed a strong arm. In fact, I was so small when I started playing baseball that there wasn’t a helmet tiny enough to fit my head, even with a baseball cap on underneath it. There are endless pictures at my parent’s house of me running down the first baseline with an oversized black baseball helmet covering my eyes, my neck tilted back as far as it would go so that my eyes could glimpse which direction I was going.

As I grew I was never particularly great at any one area of baseball. If I was fielding well I was experiencing a battling slump and if I was hitting then I couldn’t find the ball in the sun. I was capable of the occasional shot up the middle or the spectacular outfield catch but I never hit a home run. I just wasn’t strong enough.

As I grew up I came to except certain realities. I didn’t finish first. I didn’t get picked first. I didn’t get all A’s. I didn’t finish last. I didn’t get picked last. I didn’t get poor grades, usually nothing lower than a B. Except in math. Screw math.

In short, I was normal and was ok with that. I figured everyone was really good at something and I was perfectly content with going along in life until I figured out whatever it was I was really good at.

Then one day in elementary school gym glass, out teacher made us go through some sort of lame “fitness test.” One of the tasks we faced was to run ten laps around playground.

Now hours of recess on the kickball field had taught me that I was far from the fastest person in our class. Matt, Brian, Ronny and Eric were all faster than me. I more matched the speed of Mike or Josh and I knew that I was faster than Jeremy, Keith and Mark. This is especially unfortunate for Mark, who years later would break into his girlfriends house and assault her father with a bottle and due to his lack of speed, he was unable to outrun the cops.

Anyway, we started out 10 laps around the playground and I took my usual place behind Matt, Brian Ronny and Eric. I jogged along, perfectly content with my usual 5th place position when something started to happen. Somewhere around the 5th lap, I passed Eric. On the 7th lap, I passed Ronny and Brian. By lap 9 I was neck and neck with Matt, the fastest kid on out class. I could hear him next to me sucking wind. Even at that young age, even with little experience playing sports and absolutely no experience being in first place, I smelled blood.

By the beginning of lap 10 Matt was finished. He slowed to a near walk and I rounded the playground to my first ever first place finish. I had discovered my calling. I wasn’t fast. I wasn’t an All-Star baseball player. I wasn’t strong.

But I could run. I could run for a long ass time.

I took up distance running in junior high and by the time I got to high school, I realized I was average at that too. Sure I had done all right in 8th grade cross country but when I got to high school the field widened considerably and I was right back to my old average self.

As high school is an excellent environment for self realization, I came to embrace being average. I knew the drill and I was cool with it. Me an average has been kicking it since way back. Since I had no chance of winning any race into which I entered, I never tried to win any of the races I entered.

Don’t get me wrong. I always tried hard and I tried my best but looking back now, I could have done better if I had practiced harder. The problem was that at the time, I couldn’t see the point in busting my ass running through the woods in the hot sun so that I could finish in 99th instead of 127th in a field of 250. What was the point? Our team wasn’t good. We weren’t going to win any meets or anything so why bother? My focus was on having fun and enjoying myself, not winning.

That is why when I went to the county qualifying race in our district for track and field, I didn’t expect anything particularly interesting to happen. I hadn’t qualified for this race or anything. Everyone gets to go to it and only the best qualify for the Trumbull County Championship.

Going into that race I was kind of like the 2010 Kansas City Chiefs. They are considered by most to be an average to slightly above average team going into a tournament match with a chance to advance. I, like the Chiefs, was facing opponents considered to be more talented than me and all that was expected of me was to give my best effort.

I spent most of my track and field career trying to get out of the 2 mile run. I hated the 2 mile. It was 8 laps, it took forever and I was terrible at it. You see I also ran the mile, which I preferred, earlier in every track meet. By the time the 2 mile race came up I was already tired and most of my teammates were already finished with their events. In fact, if memory serves, the 2 mile was the last event of the day and I wanted to have fun with all of my teammates and load up on some junk food from the concession stand which was usually closed down by the time I got off the track.

My race was the mile. It was the only one I wanted to participate in because it was in the middle of the meet and it was over quickly. I only mention the 2 mile because I want to illustrate how dim my competitive desire had become. I just wanted to enjoy myself because I had no chance of winning.

That is what a lot of folks expect the Kansas City Chiefs and their fans to do this weekend. They think the Chiefs should just give it their all and enjoy themselves. They should be thankful to be one of the playoff teams but they shouldn’t start booking flights to Dallas ‘cause they aren’t goin.

That day at the district race to qualify for the Trumbull County Championship, I lined up to run the mile with that kind of attitude. I wasn’t going to qualify for the big dance. I had never run the mile in faster than 5:17 and there was no way that was going to be good enough.

What I love about sports is the way it can surprise us. Every time I sit down to watch a sporting event I know there is the possibility I might experience something amazing, exhilarating and in rare instances, historical. On any ordinary play you could have Tyler Thigpen catching a touchdown pass or a ball bouncing off a helmet for an immaculate reception. The possibilities are endless.

The gun went off and I was running. I started out a little faster than usual but it wasn’t like I was pacing the field. One of my teammates, Chris, was the fastest distance runner in the county and one of the top runners in the state. No amount of training could have had me keep pace with him so there was no need to kill myself.

At some point during the second lap I found myself next to a kid from our school rival, the Howland Tigers. Like Chiefs/Raiders or Browns/Steelers, this was a rivalry that went way back and the hatred was very real. The rivalry stemmed mostly from football but if the school could beat Howland in any other ventures it was encouraged to do so.

I had seen this particular kid in races before. He was a much better than me but I figured for the hell of it I’d try to stay with him as long as I could.

By the third lap we were still neck and neck and I was feeling surprisingly good. I knew I was doing a little bit better than usual but I didn’t know how much better. My coach, Mr. Shroedek, who was always encouraging but was usually focused on making sure Chris lived up to his immense potential, was the one who noticed what was going on.

The next thing I knew, “Shro” as we called him, was running along the outside of the track near the fence trying to keep pace with us and screaming. Wondering what the hell was going on, I looked to see what he was yelling about. It was hard to make out but after about 100 yards I figured out what he was saying. I was currently tied for 6th place and if I held on to finish either 6th or 7th, I would qualify for the championship.

BANG!

The gun went off signaling the final lap. Something happened. I smelled blood.

“Beat Howland,” I thought. “Beat Howland and you’re going to the County Championship.”

The kid from Howland had also heard what Shro had said and knowing I was one of those bastards from Niles, he tried to take off but I matched him stride for stride. Soon we were on the back stretch of the track and word was spreading throughout our team that I was running in the top 7. A number of my teammates came down from the bleachers and lined the home stretch. We turned that last corner and I heard cheering. It was the first time I had ever heard anyone other than my parents yelling as I ran through the last 100 yards. There wasn’t usually anything to cheer about.

Knowing that it was going to come down to who kicked harder, I went into high gear. The kid from Howland did the same and stride for stride, we approached the finish line. My insides burned and my lungs felt as though they might burst. The Howland runner started to pull away. Ten feet away now. I dug deep. I pulled a little closer. But he had a little bit more left.

I told you I was never fast.

I crossed the line at a lean and collapsed to the track. Chris lifted me up, holding my arms above my head.

“Wow,” he said. “That was amazing! What got into you? You qualified! Congratulations.”

I had lost the race with the evil kid from Howland but I had qualified to the Trumbull County Championship. I had also shattered my personal record and run the mile in 5:04.

What does this have to do with this weekend’s game? Probably not a whole lot but it reminds me that even the average guy can sometimes rise to the occasion.

I’m not professional athlete. I didn’t even go into that race feeling competitive. I was outmatched. I was just wanted to have fun. I was just happy to be there.

We in the media often make so much of an athlete’s mental state. We debated endlessly if the Chiefs were “mentally prepared” to take on the Oakland Raiders. We pick apart every little thing. Maybe Charlie Weis leaving will screw them up. Maybe they are too young and inexperienced to succeed in the playoffs. Maybe they just aren’t talented enough.

Or maybe, just maybe, what will affect the outcome most of all, is what happens on the field.

I was outmatched that day in my one moment of high school sports glory. I even lost to the guy I wanted to beat but my desire to beat the kid from Howland helped me beat about 6 other guys who were faster and more talented than I was. I kept a better man out of the championship because on the day of the qualifier, on that one day, I was better.

Take solace in the fact that I am positive the Kansas City Chiefs will go into Sunday’s game caring a whole lot more about the outcome than I did that day on the track. Those guys out there on Sunday, they are all like my teammate Chris. They are winners and they have been most of their life. They are the best of the best, the guys who always got picked first.

The margin of error is so small in the NFL that the average guys just might smell blood and they might do something extraordinary.

They may also fail but you should not let that ruin the next 48 hours for you. You won’t be out there on the field. (Thank God for that. I had the pleasure once of seeing Merlin try to catch a pass and let me tell you, he’d have you begging to get Bobby Wade and Eddie Drummond back)

Enjoy yourself. Be happy that the Chiefs are in the tournament and soak up the playoff glory because as we know all too well, you never know when the next trip to the tournament is going to come around.

How did I do in the County Championship?

I finished a respectable dead last.

But the San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos weren’t even in the race.

Hell, that’s something isn’t it?

The Chiefs may be outmatched Sunday but when they take the field, remember this story. Yell your head off at Arrowhead or in your living room just like Coach Shro. It could happen.

Go Chiefs! Beat Howland!

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