The rewards of second best

Picking yourself up after a defeat is also an important win.

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    TACKLE: Canada’s Rania Burns (left) gets tackled by England’s Maggie Alphonsi in the semifinals of the 2006 Women’s Rugby World Cup.
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My earliest memory of my niece Megan is as a 4-year-old at Happy Hollow Park in San Jose, Calif., running with her golden curls streaming behind her, jumping from the highest jungle gym and landing right on her feet. One of my more recent memories is when I watched Megan play for the University of California Santa Cruz club team in the National Women's Division II Rugby Championship in 2007. The Banana Slugs took second place, but that's just part of the story.

Megan was a lifelong soccer player, and a good one. Soccer is serious business in the San Ramon Valley east of San Francisco, where she grew up. Parents keep their kids home on Friday nights as early as grade school so that they will give their best performances on the soccer field on Saturday mornings.

Megan, however, went to slumber parties. My brother and sister-in-law believed in childhood and believed that sports are about fun. This philosophy was part common sense, part experience. My brother had close friends who were football recruits, and he had watched their disappointment after they took free rides on football scholarships and were treated like bartered property in the high stakes of collegiate sports.

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When high school graduation came, many of Megan's teammates got offers to top soccer schools, like Santa Clara and North Carolina State, but Megan chose a school closer to home, which didn't offer soccer scholarships. Walk-on tryouts at UC Santa Cruz came in August, and she tried out even while she was sick, but didn't make the final cut. So she found another love – women's rugby – and never looked back. As Megan describes it, "I love that rugby isn't soccer. It's not formal. No one in the United States played when we were kids. It was something new and exciting. We have all kinds of people on our team, and that's why I love them. You didn't have to try out to join; you didn't even have to be good."

The one time I saw Megan play in person was here in Utah, where the Banana Slugs competed against the Utah State women's team. Megan and her teammates drove all night from Santa Cruz to Logan, weathered a car breakdown near Sacramento, arrived 30 minutes before the game, put on their uniforms, and lost 47-0. When it was over, they congratulated the Aggies, washed off the dirt and bloodstains, made sandwiches and guacamole on the hood of their cars, and drove the 900 miles home on I-80 for midterms at Santa Cruz.

The Banana Slugs went on the next year to win the National Women's Division II Rugby Championship in a surprise upset of Plymouth State in 2006. The road to the finals started with a trip to Oregon where they won in overtime, only to find out they had less than two weeks to raise enough money to fly to Florida for the next round of playoffs. The girls scrambled and found enough sponsors for all of the players and coaches to make the trip. In their hand-me-down uniforms, the Slugs moved on to the finals at Stanford. Megan's family and cousins were there to cheer her on. And they were all there again the following year when the Banana Slugs played their hearts out in the national championship, lost to Iowa State, and stood up to take their second-place trophy.

We watch over our children, and we hope they don't fall. We teach our kids how to walk and how to read and how to catch a ball. We teach them how to make that extra point and win. But do we teach them how to lose, which is a pretty essential part of the game of life? To pick themselves up, wash off the grass stains, and keep looking ahead?

Megan recently married her longtime boyfriend, who was on a tour of Iraq while she played her heart out on the rugby field. At their wedding, rubgy-playing bridesmaids sported tattoos and Iraq vets filled the pews. Her collegiate rugby days are now done. But my hope is that whatever happens, she will keep on playing for the love of the game, that she will land on her feet, and that she will be looking ahead to whatever new things life has to bring.

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