Friday, December 12, 2008

The Thrill of Perfection

I love sports - it's so sad that I'm not 6' 3" 250 lbs and as fast as a jackrabbit. None of my physical stats even come close. While that doesn't keep me from participating, it is a major drawback to excelling.

But even those of us with limited physical gifts can have moments of perfection. I remember with startling clarity several moments that everything came together and I couldn't have executed any better.

A very early recollection has to do with tennis. In my teens, I took tennis lessons at a country club and we had matches against kids from other clubs. In a match I believe I lost (which was not unusual) I had a moment, just before I served, that I knew I would ace this guy. I tossed the ball, struck it pure, right down the center line. He never had a chance. Oh, to be able to summon that feeling on demand!

I remember playing an intramural football game and catching a touchdown pass by twisting my body in such a way that it felt like my legs were still moving me forward but my torso was facing the line of scrimmage behind me. I also remember another play where a guy kicked me in the head as he tried to leap over me, but just barely.....

Football strikes again, this time in college. I remember throwing a post pattern, letting the ball go even before my receiver had made his break to the middle of the field and looked for the ball. The look on his face was priceless as he turned and the ball, which spiraled perfectly, settled gently into his arms without his breaking stride.

An intramural basketball game in college was another moment of glory. Two of my best friends were good basketball players. "Drew" was tall and lean. He looked like a basketball player and he could play. "Jerbil" (initials JRB) was my size, as in NOT tall, but could shoot from outside like nobody's business. I was the defensive specialist (no one gets by alive). My talents did not extend to much more than picks and passes. But one day we were on a fast break and I filled the right wing. For some strange reason, Drew threw me the ball as I reached the corner. I caught it, took one hop and let it go and it ripped through the basket like I did this every day. I still rember Drew saying "Oh my God! Dachsieguy (not my real college nickname) made a shot! There's no way we're gonna lose!". Another time, a pick-up game this time, I was in the lane, left side of the basket, and got a pass from the top of the key. The ball was over my head, but I leapt up, caught it, and put it in the hoop in one smooth motion. A mini alley-oop. It happened to fast for me to think - just react. Like the shot. Hmmm....don't think, play good...hmmmm.

Then there was softball after college. College intramurals had set me on a career path as a slow-pitch softball pitcher. I think it was more from the fact that no one else was dumb enough to stand that close to testosterone filled college guys trying to kill a slow moving softball. But I had a talent and rarely walked anyone - the prime tenant for a slow-pitch pitcher. I continued to play after college and had moments were the ball leaves you hand perfectly and settles into the catcher's mitt without him having to move it and the umpire rings up the HIGHLY embarrassed hitter who takes the walk of shame back to the dugout, having struck out in a slow-pitch game. I moment I also recall with great clarity was not one of perfection but one of pain. Extra innings - the batter hits a ball to our shortstop who has a cannon. The cannon, however, misfires, and the runner heads to second. The first baseman fires it to second. Alas, the ball is now rolling into shallow left field, where the left fielder, shortstop, and third baseman are all after it. This leaves a dilemma. The runner is now heading for third, but we have no one covering. Being the clever person I am, I run to cover the bag. Our shortstop has corralled the ball and fires it to me. We're going to get this guy, until he leaps into the air to do a head first slide. The ball skips off his back while he is parallel to the ground and ricochets into my left eyebrow. Down I go. As I lay there, feeling the swelling begin and the blood run down my face, the runner take off for home and runs over the catcher, which you really aren't supposed to do. After much arguing, someone finally says "Hey, Dachsieguy's hurt!" Suddenly surrounded by most of the players, nothing happens for a while. Finally, I ask, "Does someone has something I can put on my eye?" A quick-thinker offers to tear his shirt. I decline, hoping for something a little cleaner. We won't go into the multi-hour wait at the emergency room, where every time someone would be ready to work on me, ANOTHER chest-pain case would come in.

I played a year of indoor soccer (yes, I love sports). I was not very good. I'm old enough there was no organized soccer programs when I was younger. My entire soccer career consisted of lunch time playground games in elementary school, watching the Tulsa Roughnecks NASL team, and coaching a teen team in college with my roommate who assured me he knew soccer. He didn't. But I did manage a moment of perfection. A teammate was in the corner, fighting for the ball, when it came out of the corner. The ball arched high into the air and about 20 feet in front of the goal. There was a large group of us, waiting for it to come down. I jumped into the air (I think I may have been the only one, and that was probably because I played years of volleyball) and flicked my head at the ball. I watched it go, laser-like, straight from my forehead into the top right corner of the goal, the goalie's hand rising too late to stop the fast moving ball. I turned and trotted back to midfield, trying to act nonchalant, but could help myself from grinning insanely.

Volleyball..hmmm...again, my height deficiency limited me to setting and occasional non-lethal hits. Blocking was more of a "slow it down a little " than "send it straight down on the other side" act. But setting can bring its moments. The perfect pass to the center, a middle hitter leaping in the air, all the blockers on the other team converging and then crying "Oh crap!" and you send the ball arcing to the outside hitter who creams the ball, never worrying about it being blocked.

My last one has to do with golf. Two moments of perfection. One being a hole in one. The very definition of perfection. And yet, the second moment outshines it. The hole in one took place on my mother's birthday when we were on vacation. I was 18 years old. 9th hole at Grandfather Golf and Country Club in Linville North Carolina. Such a beautiful place. Grandfather Mountain is there too. Go if you ever get the chance. Go. Anyway, hit a five iron (not all that well I thought) and the ball came straight down on the flag. Made a strange clunking sound and we couldn't see the ball. I had to wait because no one else in our group was on the green. Once everyone was on, I walked up to the hole. There was a tiny divot missing from the lip of the hole and nestled at the bottom of the cup was my ball. The ball was a quarter inch short of in on the fly. Which may have been why it went in. That quarter inch further and who knows what kind of richocet would have happened. My father would not let me keep the divot. :-) I repaired it as best I could. When we played the next day, I went over to the plugged hole. There was my dead divot in the lip.

And yet, a tee shot I hit with a two iron is my most special golf memory. I have never hit a ball more "pure". I swung hard, and I could actually feel the ball compress against the club face. The shot seemed effortless and went as far as I have ever hit a ball. It was out there with my friends who had used drivers (I used a two iron because my driver and I were not on speaking terms at the time). It was perfection. It must be the way the profession golfers feel most of the time when they hit a good shot. I've played golf for years, and that's the only time I have ever felt that feeling on a full swing.

It's what keeps you playing. These moments, where you do everything right, where it seems effortless and yet the result is far beyond the norm. That's why we keep playing. Yes, there is the thrill of victory, but that may come in second behind the thrill of perfection.

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