I was the recipient of two very kind gestures in late summer of 2009, as I began my in-patient rehab experience at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center as a C7 quadriplegic. Frank Smith III, a close friend from my college days, popped over from Charlottesville bearing gifts he’d received from then Cavaliers football coach, Al Groh.
As a former athlete and relatively obscure member of the Virginia Cavalier football team, I’ve learned, experienced and been known to say that athletics is a realm rich with lessons to be learned. Most are hard. Some are intellectually understood only, long before the professing lesson-understander really owns the force of the lesson. Some lessons are direct, like get right back up when you’re knocked down. Some are unwelcome, like fame is fleeting. And some are more oblique germinating only under the right (usually trying) conditions, like finding true and much needed comfort from the fraternal bond that is forged in the heat of the common struggle, or like practicing the gift of heart-felt encouragement that issues from that common struggle.
Frank was then, and remains, a friend of over three decades, with all the implied common struggles and experiences one might expect. It was he who first approached Coach Groh, requesting a team-signed poster in hopes of re-infusing his newly immobilized friend with pluck and vigor. He took time away from work and traveled the 8 hours from the Hook to Atlanta – bearing gifts, but also being present, reminding me I was not alone.
Coach Groh, midst a difficult season, took time to arrange for not just a team-signed poster, but many extras: a signed game ball, a personalized game jersey (with “HEIDEL” and “71” sewn on), and nine personalized Cavalier football t-shirts, one for my wife and each of my eight kids. This time, we were reminded we weren’t alone.
While it could be reasonably asserted the monetary value of a road trip and the trappings of game-time Cavalier man-cave loyalty were not overmuch, both their gestures were of great value. Both givers were veterans of shared, or of in-common sorts of, struggles. Both gave when giving wasn’t convenient or timely. Perhaps their significance was great to this recipient in direct relationship to the givers’ respective inconveniences. Recipients don’t always have the measure of what givers go through. But I knew. Besides, to hijack a phrase, “A gift’s value is in the eye of the recipient.”
Legendary Alabama Crimson Tide football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant is credited with having said “Nice costs nuthin’.” Jerry Ratcliffe, sports writer for the Charlottesville Daily Progress, wrote about “Bear” in 2009. I stumbled upon his article recently. Its link is cited below.
I hope you’ll read it, enjoy it, think back over your own lives, and soak-in its lessons.