I couldn’t pick a better sports hero for my kids to follow than Femi Hollinger-Janzen. Like any soccer player worth a good nickname, he’s known as just plain Femi.
Femi is a backup striker for the New England Revolution in North American Major League Soccer. He has a grand total of 2 career goals in the MLS (stat page). He also happens to be a graduate of the small school where all three of my boys will attend this fall. Since going pro, Femi has made visits to the school; my kids have gotten to meet him.
I wouldn’t say I know Femi’s family well, but his father, Rod, is executive director at AIMM, an organization I partnered with a few years ago when I took a trip to Congo to lead some seminars on leadership coaching.
Last year, I took my son JJ, a budding junior high soccer player, to Chicago hoping to see Femi play against the Chicago Fire (the nearest MLS team to us geographically.) Normally I root for Chicago sports teams. I was born in central Illinois, after all. But on this day we were New England fans. Alas, Femi was injured, and he did not even make the road trip to Chicago with his team. This did not stop a whole section of people from our small town from chanting FEMI-FEMI-FEMI. (Ok, maybe we weren’t that boisterous, but we did hold up big pictures of his face on cardboard stock.) We had a great time with Femi’s parents and other people from our hometown and from Africa, at a Mediterranean restaurant after the match. Mmm. Kebabs. Kebabs made the whole trip worth it.
New England plays in Chicago again this August 5th (Saturday) and we’ll be in the stands. I’ve told my boys that you won’t often get to see a professional athlete from your own very small school play a major sport in person.
Of course we know that Femi might not get in the game at all. His stats show that he’s started only one of New England’s twelve games so far this year. Will he get to sub? Might he score a goal or an assist? Or will he get injured, God forbid, during warm-ups? The whole thing could be a bust. But we’ll have fun anyway.
As I think about what I hope my kids will learn from watching a professional athlete from their own school, I’m reminded that Joe DiMaggio once said, when asked why he hustled so hard to make a difficult play in the outfield, on a day when the New York Yankees were getting blown out, “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.”
First, I don’t want my kids to think that they could do what Femi has done: star at Indiana University. Get drafted. Make the team. Make big bucks. (The internet tells me Femi makes just over $50k. This is a decent salary in our town, but not big bucks.) Femi is one in a hundred thousand, and the coaches at our school knew his potential when he was 12. My kids aren’t likely to be professional stars.
I do want my kids to think about how they owe their best to whomever is watching. Whatever job they’re doing. Whatever project they’re making or class they’re taking. Every move they make, every breath they take, Sting will be watching them…
I mean, uh, God, of course, though I don’t want to put that out there in any sort of heavy-handed way, for my kids, or for you, dear readers. But then, isn’t character all about what you do when nobody’s watching? I don’t know what kind of character Joe D. had off the field, but he sure knew what to do with a baseball bat and glove when people were in the stands.
Then a second question comes to mind: what if you aren’t in the game at all? How do you live life at your very best, when you’re sitting on the bench? This is harder than anything, for an injured athlete, for anyone who has a passion they’re not able to exercise. Your character gets tested more when you’re NOT in the game. A lot more. How does your hero act when they can’t get in the game? When they’re injured? And how do you act, when you can’t do what you’re great at, be in the spotlight, when things have all been taken away from you?
Somebody’s watching you, it may be your kids, or your neighbor. People know when you’re sidelined. Are you going to whine about it? Or are you going to do what it takes to stay sharp, to be ready at a moment’s notice, “Just like a minuteman” as the band Stavesacre said. (Click the link to Stavesacre video if you want to know what kind of positive rock I use to get fired up.) Here are the lyrics:
I have to be ready
Said the minuteman
One mind when I hear my name
Cause all of it matters
The war and the battles and
This life is a means to an end
To inspire a dream
That when realized you attack
What kind of loving is this?
But I still believe, and baby I’ll fall or I’ll stand
But this time I finish, I finish
I want to be ready just like a minuteman
One mind when I hear my name
She offered her hand
She whispered “be a man”
But when I woke from sleep
There was only me
But I’ll be ready…
I’ll be ready…
All that I want to know
Is why would I want any more?
–“Minuteman” by Stavesacre, from the Speakeasy album