Letter to My Grandson

Dear Sam,
I hope this letter finds you well and happy.  I hope you are honoring and obeying your father and mother.  You have great parents who love you very much.  Grandma and I are looking forward to visiting you a while when you are in Korean Camp this summer.  You always seem to be having so much fun there.  When I was young, I went to camp for one week at a Boy Scout camp called Camp Yawgoog.  My parents could not afford to send me more than once and I was always jealous of the kids that got to go back or could spend more than one week. 
I am writing to clarify something I said when we were having dinner on Mother’s Day. Grandma told me later that you asked if I thought you were stupid for spending time playing baseball and other sports. I was surprised at the question and disappointed that you misunderstood what I was saying to your mom.  I had no intention of hurting your feelings by what I said. So let me explain a bit.
I think sports are great. I think most athletes are dedicated, disciplined, hardworking people.  I think it takes a great deal of determination and effort to be successful in sports and that those individuals who succeed are truly gifted individuals athletically.  In life, we are all given gifts.  Jesus said:  “But he that knewnot, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beatenwith few stripes. For unto whomsoever muchis given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”  (Luke 12:48).  He also said “Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” (Mark 4:25).
These comments by Jesus mean that we are all given gifts and if we use them, they will be increased in us.  Many would commonly say “use-them or lose-them.”  This means that if we don’t use them, they will be lost to us.  Unfortunately, many lazy people wait around to get FREE gifts by winning the lottery, gambling or suing someone.  They do not realize that gifts come to us through hard work, sweat and perseverance.  One of my favorite quotes is by Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson said “I have noticed that the harder I work, the luckier I get.”   The great Roman philosopher Seneca said that “luck is where preparation meets opportunity.”   It is clear to me that we must find those gifts which we have in life and use them to the best of our ability.  It takes determination and hard work to develop them.
My concern with sports and my problems with the way sports are handled today is that for too many people, they have become almost like a drug.  More people will watch the average football or baseball game than will listen to a presidential debate.  We pay the average NCAA Division 1 football coach 1.47 million dollars a year (USA Today, 2011).  This is more than most college presidents make and much more than the average college teacher.  Colleges continue sports programs that are high budget and high maintenance despite the fact that most do not make money for the school.  High Schools that cannot afford art and music programs nevertheless keep their sports programs. 
Writing in Forbes magazine, Steven Salzberg notes:  “The football-industrial complex has too much power over our universities. Nothing else can explain how we spend so much money and time on football, which contributes almost nothing to students’ education, while academic departments are cutting faculty and staff. The culture of football worship has gotten so out of control that I think the only solution is to get rid of it entirely.”

My feelings are not exactly as strong about football and other sports as Salzberg’s but I question why we need so much emphasis on sports and so much less on other areas.  The great Greek philosophers all said that the secret of success in life was “all things in moderation.”   However, even Aristotle counseled that moderation needed moderation as well.

I think sports have a definite place in our lives. However, in America today, people have become so obsessed with sports that we have created a cult of sports worship.  Ironically, the greater this worship has become, the fatter most Americans have become.  I give you great credit Sam for participating rather than becoming a couch potato as so many others have and sitting idly by on Sundays watching the latest sports event.  However, there are also other things in life we need to try in order to find that balance that the Greeks talked about.  There is no telling what other gifts you might have if you could explore some other options.  Perhaps Sam, you are a great artist, writer, musician, sculpture, actor, singer or scientist waiting to emerge.  Maybe your true gifts are not in sports but some other domain.  Only by spending time and energy on other activities can we know what we are truly destined in life to do. 

IMHO, spending too much time on any one activity at too early an age is not a good way to find your gifts.  I wish my parents had encouraged me to do more things and to try more stuff.  If I could go back to high school, I would join band, the drama club and the writers club.  I would take more time to learn Chinese and art.  I was not an outstanding student and I spent more time goofing off then really learning anything.  I did love athletics though and taught myself surfing, tennis, handball and scuba diving.  I always loved the outdoors and being active. I have raced canoes, bicycles, cars, motorcycles and completed several triathlons.  I did not do these for money, but simply because I wanted the challenge to see how good I was.  From these activities, I learned that athletics while fun and exciting were not where my gifts lay.  However, I am still able to enjoy many sports because I have taken care of my body and not abused it.  I still run, canoe, bike, roller-blade, swim and occasionally do a local race.  I believe we should all stay active.  


One good thing about individual sports as opposed to team sports is that I do not need a coach, referee or twenty other guys to go out and get some exercise. The sports I pursue are things I can do my entire life and they are not things that will usually cause great harm to my body unless I am very careless.  I can’t control a 300 pound blocker trying to hit me but I can control the speed I bike or roller blade.  There is risk in any sport and that goes with the game.  However, the intelligent person balances risk with rewards and does their best to minimize risk.

I have been teaching since 1976 and I have taught every grade from kindergarten to Ph.D. programs at the University of Minnesota.  I find that whenever anyone has a true passion for what they are doing, they will more than likely be successful at it.  If your true passion is sports, then you should follow your passion.  Sean John says “Life without passion is unforgivable.”  However, passion needs purpose to have an effective life.  We need to balance our passion for things, with a purpose for doing them. The greatest purpose in life is to help others or to give back to the world some of the gifts it has given to you.  Maurice Turmel writing in Boxingscene.com asks:  “What is Passion without Purpose?  A car spinning its wheels perhaps?  An electric motor running out of control, with nowhere to go?  Passion needs purpose to be attached to, to be drawn by, to be enlivened by and directed towards.  If we have no purpose, then how can we have passion?”

School is a place to learn, to grow and to try new things.  You will often hear college students being told “Wait until you get to the real world.”  I try not to use this phrase because I think that college is real as well. I could not have been teaching college for the past 15 years without feeling that college is real.  However, college does permit more learning than you might find in the work world and that is the beauty of college and all schools as well. They are places where we can try new things without expecting to be punished or penalized if they do not work out. You can join the band, or art club, or student newspaper, or the glee club and no one is going to throw you out as long as you put in your effort and share of the work.  You do not have to worry about a pay check on Fridays or a boss firing you.  Effort in school is perhaps more important than results and this gives us a lot of leeway to try new things.  I may flunk Chinese but I may also find out that I am just not very good at languages or perhaps I will find that languages are something I have a real passion for.  I once had a friend who knew 13 languages. I was always envious.  Of course, I did not want to study as hard as he did.

So, to finish this letter to you Sam, I hope I have explained my thinking and ideas to you some about sports and life as well.  Perhaps the best advice I can leave you with is the famous Hamlet dictum : “To thine own self by true.”   Do what you find passion in Sam, but keep your heart and mind open to other opportunities.  Try as many things as you can when you are young.  As you get older, you may have fewer opportunities to try things.   Adulthood brings responsibilities that often limit the choices we can make.  One of my friends died and at his funeral, they all noted that Harold always said he had no regrets.  Even when he found he had less than six months to live and he was dying of pancreatic cancer, he said he “had not regrets.”  Not a bad way to live a life.  I hope I can say the same thing when I am on my last breath.  I hope you will be able to as well.

See you soon,
Grandpa John,
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