"This should be for Braxton"
After 10-year-old goalie Braxton Rel died in his sleep from apparent complications following a tonsillectomy, his Albuquerque, New Mexico hockey league held a six-team memorial tournament in late March of 2009. The Durango (Colo.) Steamers won, and Braxton's Grizzlies finished fourth.
When the Steamers' Kele Steffler accepted his team's championship trophy at center ice, the 10-year-old approached the microphone and praised Rel, whom he had met at previous games. Without prompting, Steffler then handed the prize to the Grizzlies. "We want Braxton's team to have the trophy," he told the crowd. "This should be for Braxton."
"We will never forget. . . ."
A year earlier, the Housel Middle School wrestling coach had asked his Morgan Middle School (Ellensburg, Wash.) counterpart whether a Morgan wrestler would agree to an exhibition match against a Housel wrestler with cognitive and physical disabilities. The Housel coach knew that his wrestler could not win, but he and the parents wanted the boy to show his moves, emulate his older brothers, and savor an athletic experience previously beyond reach.
Twelve-year-old Morgan wrestler Connor Sherwood volunteered, and his coach, John Graff, instructed him only not to injure or humiliate his opponent. Indeed, the coaches guaranteed Connor that he would win, which he could have done easily because he had lost only twice all season.
In front of the large crowd, however, Connor had other plans. Without prompting from either coach, he watched the clock throughout the match and made sure that the disabled opponent left the mat with a 9-8 victory and his once-in-a lifetime achievement.
"We will never forget," said the winner's grateful parents, "what memories Connor has given our son and us." Connor is "the #1 HERO in our book."
Connor later received a 2008 National Sportsmanship Award.
The lesson of these stories: pre-teens as teachers
On March 1, 2011, the 20th annual National Sportsmanship Day again urges Americans of all ages to embrace wholesome values that professional and amateur sports too often lack these days -- values such as competing with grace and respecting your opponent, as Kele Steffler and Connor Sherwood each did.
Because National Sportsmanship Day encourages Americans to learn from one another with an eye toward a better future, it is reassuring that many of the best teachers have not yet reached their teens.
Douglas E. Abrams is a child and family law professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, long-time youth hockey coach, and a nationally recognized expert on youth sports.
Each month, Prof. Abrams will salute a youth sports parent, coach, player or team for inspiring us by doing something special. Some of the stories will be quite recent and others may be a few years old, but each "youth sports hero" will motivate readers with values that set an example on and off the field
Sources: Kele Steffler's story is told in Toby Smith, After Death, a Lesson In Sportsmanship: Tourney Commemorates Goalie, 10, Who Served as "Role Model," Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal, Apr. 4, 2009. Connor Sherwood's story is told in Steve Jefferies, Central Washington University, Winning Sports - It's More Than Just the Score, http://www.pelinks4u.org/articles/wrestling0208.htm (2009).Posted March 1, 2011