Woolie-Level Character

Josh Farnsworth
It’s great to have youth who not only push themselves to incredible heights, but who also serve as great examples of character for even younger athletes to see and want to emulate.

The snowboard leaned into the sun and dropped suddenly as if tied to an anvil. The rider approached the wall of snow and ice and leapt - doing a series of flips until landing gracefully back on the snowboard. 

Again a wall. Again a flip. And once again, the prowess to land with style and continue.

My goofballs and I got into the Winter Olympics recently, especially sports like the aforementioned (or afore-picture-painted?) snowboarding. My oldest read off and parroted back facts from some of the athletes, including their ages.

And it hit me: my kids are closer in age to these supreme athletes than I am in most cases. When the heck did this happen? Part of me also wondered if I dropped the ball not doing like some of these Olympic parents and pushing them out on ice skates when they were 20 minutes old.

Oh well. Maybe no Farnsworths to the 2034 Winter Games.

The competition had me thinking that my sons have their eyes wide open to young adults out there doing remarkable athletic things. They hung on every race, every turn and every postgame presser to see what they might say. 

It’s great to have youth who not only push themselves to incredible heights, but who also serve as great examples of character for even younger athletes to see and want to emulate. Not all great examples, however, show up on a medal podium. Some, in fact, are right here in our Bay State backyard.

As someone who used to cover local sports for a weekly newspaper, I had a great front row seat to incredible poise, grit and positivity from a number of high school athletes. With the calendar reading March, there is one squad that comes directly to mind: the Millbury High School Woolies girls’ basketball team.

It was like clockwork. Every March, I could count on covering championship-level high school basketball at the DCU Center in Worcester. The Woolies that played on squads starting in the 2007-2008 academic season and for the next four years were a part of an unprecedented run that made four straight state title games.

Their hoops game was strong. Behind head coach Steve Reno, their coaching staff was also incredibly well-composed. They worked hard, practiced hard and played some amazing basketball.

Yet, the most remarkable thing about these young women happened each of these March afternoons that had nothing to do with an orange ball. Despite gallant efforts each time, Millbury would fall just a little short. Four years in a row, in fact. And each postgame, that meant this young, dopey reporter heading to the press room would have questions for these teenagers who just tasted some level of disappointment moments ago. 

I would find my spot in the press room, go over the stats and get a touch nervous waiting to ask my dumb questions to these girls - some of who were in this position for four years in a row.

But in, they would walk. And the captains of the teams would stand there in a room overrun with reporters from across the state - faces clearly red from fatigue and the emotional toll of a competitor losing a big game - and answer their questions. And mine. For as long as we had questions to ask.

Even the miraculously obvious ones like, “How does it feel?” (I promise I never asked this question directly. I even rehearsed not asking it).

They stood there and answered these questions. They commended the other team celebrating just a few feet away. These Woolie girls went out of their way to speak volumes about their coaches, their teammates and especially their fans and community members who took time on a beautiful Saturday to come stand in a crowded space, elbow-to-elbow, painted in maroon and white. 

One talking point they all seemed to bring up: how amazing the journey has been. I could have quoted any one of them with some version of… “This journey is difficult, but so worth it.”

Despite the disappointment, these teenagers found character and poise and grace every year enough to turn heartbreak into praising others and reflecting on the silver linings of a season well-played together. That’s what a young hero does.

As I write this column, I realize that some of these Woolies may be already - or soon will be - parents themselves. If so, know a few things:

If you ever doubt your capability to stare down a straining parental challenge, just know that I was there. I was there to see you handle yourself in the throes of disappointment with incredible grace and character. You can do this. Whatever it is.

Keep your head up, like you did a decade ago, and you will continue to do remarkable things. Know that when I tell my kids and subsequent grandkids (still a ways to go, so pending on if that happens) about covering the greatest run in Massachusetts girls’ hoops, I’ll tell them about you.

There won’t be a score or a game or a highlight mentioned. It will mostly be the story of a group of Woolies who showed immense character and grace time and time again to this humbled newspaper reporter.

Emulate them, kids. Be someone who has character, no matter how deep the heartbreak.

To you, current and/or future Woolie parents: Thanks for giving me a front row ticket to a great ride. Keep standing in there with character like you did in that press room. And when it comes to overcoming difficult challenges as parents, allow me to paraphrase some great perspective I received some years ago…

“This journey is difficult, but so worth it.”

Josh Farnsworth is a husband, father of goofballs Cooper and Milo, goofball himself, and award-winning writer and columnist living in Worcester. He can be reached for column ideas at josh.farnsworth@yahoo.com.