Fall roster: Who's on the A team?

During the past 30 years, this mid-August period of the calendar has evolved into an American ritual that I've dubbed "National Pre-Autumn Pontification." It's like harmonic convergence for people who love to gossip about sports. At my local supermarket, the magazine racks now contain more than a dozen publications devoted to the upcoming football season. Thousands of column inches explore a universe of possible scenarios among the colleges, the National Football League, high schools, and fantasy leagues.

My congratulations go out to all the players on the receiving end of this giant publicity barrage, but for me the most intriguing aspect of the fall athletic schedule is the vast number of participants not mentioned in any press release, Top-100 list, or other media-driven ranking system. As the next few months unfold, many of these previously unheralded personalities will become surprise achievers.

I'm not singling out football, either. With practice sessions getting under way at swimming pools, field houses, ice rinks, or other venues, prospective team members are sizing each other up and pondering this question: Am I good enough to handle the competition?

It's a situation that can cause intense frustration for kids between the ages of 12 and 20 because there is no formula for success. It's all well and good to chart how much weight someone can lift, or how fast he or she runs the 40-yard dash, but I've always been more fascinated by the intangible aspects of athletic progress. What causes a person to make a sudden jump from "average" to "excellent"?

A lot of kids are getting ready to cross that threshold. I remember doing it 38 years ago, when I tried out for the 10th-grade football team and amazed myself by winning a starting position on the defensive line. In all honesty, I did not become excellent. My leap was from "hapless" to "pretty good," but the impact on my self-esteem was outstanding.

All over this country, I can envision players who have spent the summer quietly improving their skills and repeating one thought during workouts: "This is my season to step out from the crowd." When this happens, it proves a crucial truth that resonates beyond sports. By setting a goal and achieving it, you experience the power of controlling your own future.

My gridiron career actually reached its zenith in 10th grade, but after that season I had the confidence to think about other goals in terms of my own talent and motivation. I don't know if I can identify all the driving forces that play a role in our lives, or in winning. But as any smart coach will attest, the only way you can win is to put yourself in a position to do so.

My final snippet of advice to everyone competing for a spot on the roster is to simply enjoy what you're doing. If your name didn't make it into any media guide or magazine article, shake it off. I'm rooting for all of you.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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