The announcement Tuesday was just another drop of bad news in a virtual flood this last month
or however long it has been now. It’s hard to keep up, both with the days and the news. And
when the Illinois High School Association said it was officially cancelling all spring sports state
tournaments, it was no surprise, an inevitable response to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s earlier decision to
close state schools for the rest of the academic year.
But this one still hurt. And like the decisions to cancel proms and graduations and some of the
winter state tournaments, the sting will be felt acutely and linger for a while.
As someone who has experienced the very best high school sports had to offer, and 40 years later
is still talking about it, what I am going to say next might sound like the kind of consolation
parents have tried to offer heartbroken kids through the ages and received cold stares and tears in
I’m going to say it anyway.
But first I’m going to tell you about IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson. It was his name
and statement on the press release about the cancelled state tournaments. But he is no bureaucrat.
I had met him previously and liked him instantly. And when I spoke to him Tuesday, he was as
down as anyone.
“I stir and stir over these types of decisions and feel for every athlete not getting an opportunity
they have likely dreamed of … and my heart aches making the decision not to recognize multiple
state champions and state qualifiers, and every level of success we won’t have.”
“Hopefully, they will see, if not now than in the future, all the benefits they’ve had and life
lessons they’ve learned. It’s all we can hope for at this point.”
Before you think it’s easy for him to say, Anderson has three sons, the two younger ones, three-
sport athletes in high school. Tucker, 21, is now finishing his junior year at Monmouth College
and wondering what his senior football season is going to look like. Mac, 16, missed his
sophomore baseball season at Morton High School in Central Illinois.
“It hits home for sure,” Anderson said.
At the end of “State,” the book I wrote about my 1979 Niles West High School girls’ basketball
team, we win the state championship. But I tell you that in the prologue. Heck, I tell you that on
the jacket cover and in the title. In our case, I also tell you that our story is not about basketball
as much as it is about the innocence of being part of the first generation of Title IX girls and how
it changed us forever.
But the lessons we learned about winning and losing, about leading and following, about making
mistakes and learning from them, about triumph sure, but also about heartbreak, didn’t dawn on
us then because it never does.
I tell people it is a coming-of-age story and you don’t have to win a state championship or even
play in a state tournament to get that. We all come of age at a certain point. Being part of a team
doesn’t make it happen any quicker but in high school, it makes it easier to pinpoint later on.
It is when you learned about sacrificing for the good of the group. Or that when you were a jerk
and selfish and got told off by teammates or even kicked off the team, there were consequences.
Maybe it’s when you learned you could be a real leader. Or that not everyone can lead but
following well is an important trait too.
It is in their teenage years that many athletes experience for the first time what it means to push
themselves beyond what they thought was their limits. Others learn that they’re not ready yet –
not for this pursuit, not at this time but maybe they learn what it looks like close up.
If you happen to be one of the gifted ones and you weren’t particularly conscious of the plight of
the kid at the end of the bench, or maybe you weren’t even particularly kind, you might realize
this at some point. But it probably won’t happen in high school.
None of it will.
More than likely it will happen when you encounter a boss who reminds you of the coach who
used to make you run extra laps and you figured out how to get in his or her good graces. Or
maybe it happens when you have to do a group project at work and you fall into the role of the
good team member without even knowing where you picked it up.
Maybe that self-esteem you gained the first time you accomplished the goal of trimming your
time in cross country comes in handy during that big presentation. Or you don’t escalate that
argument with your new spouse because you’re a team now, and somehow, somewhere, in some
way you learned what that means.
The meeting Tuesday in which they made the decision to cancel state tournaments was not done
with a proverbial rubber stamp and it ran long as IHSA board members agonized over how to
recognize senior athletes in ways befitting their athletic careers. Just trying to figure out a way to
make it special.
“I understand,” Anderson said sadly, “about the lifetime memories they’re not getting now.”
He felt badly because we all do. For different reasons. Today, it’s for the kids who won’t get to
compete for the ultimate trophy. But he also talked about what high school athletes
have learned well before these last many weeks.
“Even if they don’t get the chance to compete again at the high school level,” Anderson said,
“they are better for having been a part of their respective high school teams.”
At some point, they’ll realize it. Just not today.