Around and About with Richard McCarthy: Plane of dreams: Cheering on young athletes as they gain life experiences

By RICHARD MCCARTHY

For the Gazette

Published: 02-08-2024 8:37 PM

Recently, I was at an airport and waiting for the same plane was a group of what looked to be about 12-to-14-year-old boys, all wearing the same black sweatsuits, with the same logo on the front of the sweatshirt. You could feel the electricity flowing through the kids. Even with their devices to look at or listen to, none of them seemed able to sit still for very long. Being young didn’t translate into being noisy or otherwise problematic to other passengers, however. They were what used to be called “well-behaved.”

At one point one of the several men accompanying the boys stood in front of them and called out “Listen up!” They immediately responded “Coach” in unison, as they’d obviously been trained to do when silence and undivided attention was expected of them.

I am nothing if not curious, so I found myself wanting to know more about this group of kids. I waited like a panther in a tree for an opportunity to pounce on one of the coaches and grill him about the who, what, where, why and when of it all. The minute one of the coaches had separated himself from the herd, perhaps with the hope of going to the restroom, I was there in front of him for a one-on-one conversation.

I came away from our little chat with the understanding that they were a youth football team on their way to a national tournament over 1,000 miles away from their city neighborhood. For many of the kids it was their first time on a plane, and their destination would be the farthest they’d ever been from familiar surroundings.

By the time the plane was ready for passengers, the kids had gathered close enough to the airline employee in charge of boarding that it looked like they wanted to leap over him to get onboard. But they waited their turn. When we left the ground, I found myself thinking what a thrill it must be for the kids experiencing their first take-off.

If you haven’t noticed, I tend to see a lot of little dramas (or comedies, as the case may be) as I go around and about, and I was hooked into this one.

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Now a word about good deeds: I’m a strong believer in, and practitioner of, my not telling anyone about anything I do to try to be helpful to others. When I get my ego into giving, it puts a dent in the spirit of generosity. I have decided to break that self-imposed taboo in this column because of my desire to share the sheer sense of fun I got from what I did next.

I decided I’d been audience at this play long enough, and it was time for me to write the next act, to add to the glow of it all. I waited until we were airborne and we were “free to move about the cabin.” Then I walked to the back of the plane to have a private conversation with the flight attendants. I told them about the youth football team being on their way to a national tournament, and wouldn’t it be nice to let all the other passengers know that they were honored by the team’s presence.

The attendants were fine with my scenario, and they asked me to write down some words for their little speech. Asking me to try to come up with some words to put to good use is like asking Attila the Hun to assert himself. I wrote some notes for the announcement on an airline napkin.

When the flight attendant delivered my little speech on the intercom, I couldn’t have asked for a better reaction from the passengers. They broke into spontaneous applause!

When we landed, I was one of the passengers who stayed on the plane because it was flying on to my final destination. I watched as the team walked off to get their connecting flight to the site of the tournament. A number of the other passengers who were also staying on the plane seemed as immersed in the story of these kids as I was. They stood at their seats, facing the players and coaches, and wished them good luck as they walked off.

For the kids’ part, they weren’t smiling. They had the bearing and the serious look on their faces that befit “flight-taking to important game-playing” athletes surrounded by co-participants in their dreams. For that moment, they were the Dallas Cowboys.

For my part, I noticed that now I was the one who was smiling.

Amherst resident Richard McCarthy, a longtime columnist at the Springfield Republican, writes a monthly column for the Gazette.