I can remember my hands clutching my mud-caked and banged-up knees, high socks puddled at my ankles, sweat and rain and maybe even tears flowing off my chin and pooling in the drenched grass, and the smell of never-washed jerseys and water-logged leather cleats burning my nostrils as our coach tried to do his best “Win just one for the Gipper” speech.
It was somewhere around 1995 or 1996. Our high school team was down big after a tough first half of a critical match. In true rugby fashion and as if to add poetry to the game, it was a slog and a real beat down with soft ground underfoot and teeming rain above. We were getting pummelled. We were doubting each other. We were questioning ourselves.
I was struggling to find the drive to keep going.
I could see the look of pity on the faces of the few parents and even fewer friends of players, braving the weather with their tarps and boots and jackets. I noticed some retreat to the safety and heat of their cars. Turning their back on the inevitable outcome. Not wanting to witness the slaughter before them.
And I wanted to join them! It would have been so relieving to bend a little further, reach out with my white, shrivelled, numb, and quivering fingers, struggle a little with the double-knotted laces and trudge my sorry ass inside for warmth and rest.
Instead, with a teammate’s slap on my back, I refocused on what Mr. Fallis was saying. It wasn’t poetic or eloquent or a speech really. He was telling us quite matter-of-fact exactly how to combat the opponent. He was talking the technicalities of our play. He was going over structures we’d practiced. And just after that slap on my back that woke me from dreaming of a steamy fogged up embrace of a hot shower, he gave one last quip. A cliche:
“Dig deep, fellas!”
And that was it. We all forgot about the adjustments to strategy, our tactics to defend better, the substitutions needed. When we sloshed back onto the pitch for the second half, all we had in mind was “Dig deep, fellas!” and we knew what had to be done.
What I don’t remember is the outcome of the game. I know we played on. I know we made more tackles, had more possession, toughened up, played with pride. And I know that during the last 40 minutes, when stuck in a ruck that was at a stalemate, or when chasing down a breakout winger, or when trying to bring down a rumbling prop, I would grind on my mouth-guard, grit and grip hard, and say “Dig deep!”.
And now, more than twenty years later, when I’m out there just plain old running, running on a beautiful calm morning while not even a sniff of a breeze is on the harbour and the snow has melted and the birds have returned, I mutter both audibly and internally, “Dig deep”.
And I push onward.