The events that transpired some forty-five years ago are still etched in my mind. To even reflect on that transformational moment sends my heart racing and coats my palms in cold sweat! I was an innocent first grader, standing on the cold playground in Minot, North Dakota; waiting for what I was certain would be unbearable pain!
I looked at the burly boy to my left, my hand dwarfed by his as we tightly clasped hands. On my right was a petite little girl, with a battle-hardened look of determination pasted across her angelic face. She was grasping my other hand even tighter than the future professional linebacker to the left of me! We were comrades in arms, or at least in hands, as we stared down our collective nemesis across the gravel-covered playground.
The battle cry was issued. The words, “Red Rover, Red Rover” were chanted for all to hear. My heart froze as I heard, “Send Bobby right over!” This particular individual, a third grader, was living testament to our Neanderthal forefathers. Bobby possessed the characteristic thick and protruding jaw, an oversized brow ridge, and more body hair than any eight year-old child should be cursed with.
Our hands all clasped tighter as I scanned the row made up of some dozen of us. It was a mix of boys and girls, ranging from six to eight years of age; each of us bundled up warmly against the incessant icy prairie wind. The more fortunate of us pint-sized warriors were protected by the armor of thick winter coats. The sickening sound of flying pea gravel pulled me out my protective trance.
Bobby was quickly building mind-boggling momentum as his snow boots dug into the playground surface. His broad shoulders were squared in alignment with our row of human barriers. As I fixated on his now bulging eyes, I was certain that I could hear him snorting! Unexpectedly, I had learned at an early age just what primal fear was. In a matter of seconds, I had been indoctrinated in the “fight or flight” response!
For those of you unfamiliar with the game of “Red Rover,” allow me to share the basic concept. Two sides are chosen, and the members of the respective teams line up across from each other at a distance of some twenty yards. Children on a team then either grasp hands, or in the more combat-like version lock arms at the elbow. One side will call out the name of a member of the opposing team. The chosen one then runs at full speed, trying to break through a link in the opposing chain. If they succeed, they are allowed to claim one of the two people that they broke through. If they fail, the charger is then claimed by the opponents. It is then the other team’s turn to call out an opponent. This process continues until one team is completely devoid of participants or until somebody has to take their tattered body to the school nurse!
The young boy was quickly morphing into a charging rhino as he closed in on his prey. My greatest fear quickly materialized as I saw him veer in my direction! He was aiming for the weak spot in our little Maginot Line; the fragile grasp between me and the girl to my right. “It only hurts for a little bit!” she uttered under her breath. I turned towards her briefly, only to witness her warrior intensity coming to a boil.
As you would expect, Bobby came flying effortlessly through our line. In the process, my fingers were mangled and I did not get feeling back in them for a few minutes. I was chosen to be the captive, humiliated as Bobby marched me back towards his cheering tribe. My head hung low as I trudged across the field, an adolescent prisoner of war.
“Know why I picked you?” Bobby asked cheerfully. I shook my head back and forth, careful not to upset my captor by speaking. “I always go after the strongest guy first, in case I get tired later.” He paused for a moment as he assigned me a spot in his team’s line. “Besides, you never even closed your eyes when I hit you! Want to be friends?”
In an instant, all of my shame had evaporated. My once enemy had just paid me a compliment. He had perceived me as the strongest opponent, he admired my courage, and now he was inviting me into his personal inner circle! Yes, I had been defeated; but no, I had not been humiliated. Bobby had taught me a valuable life lesson.
How do you handle situations where you defeat another person; be it in business, sport, or even family? Do you gloat at the expense of the loser or do you show compassion to your opponents? There is a realization that all of us must come to. You will be remembered for your victories; but ultimately, you will be honored for how you treated the defeated.