Nov. 7, 2005: To My Grandson Nicholas: You Are a True Champion

Dear Nicholas:

You gave your grandfather one of his proudest moments last week. Watching you run your last high school cross-country race in the state championships at Carrollton was special. You didn’t win the race and you didn’t finish in the top ten. You did something better. You gave it everything you had.

You told me last summer that you were going to dedicate yourself to making your last year of cross-country a good one. You were the first to say that prior to this year, you had not done as well as you could have. Frankly, I wasn’t sure that your heart was in the sport. I was wrong.

Cross-country, as you well know, is a tough, grueling sport. It is about more than just physical ability. It is about self-discipline and mental toughness. There are no huddles that allow you to catch your breath. There is no teammate to cover for you if you want to dog it for a couple of minutes. There is no one else you can point to for a poor performance but yourself. You are all alone. You succeed or you don’t, based on the effort you make. Cross-country is that simple. It is that difficult.

While you can be very proud that you ran your fastest times ever this season and that your Chapel Hill High School team finished third in the state, the most important thing to take away from this year is that you now understand the value of hard work. That is a lesson that will serve you well for the rest of your life. Sadly, it is a lesson that too many of us seem to have forgotten.

We have become a nation that believes strongly in entitlement. We want something for nothing. We think society should remove all the discomfort from our lives and that we should not be held accountable for any bad decisions we have made along the way. To put it in cross-country terms, we don’t want to train and we don’t want to run. We want somebody to tote us around the course and across the finish line. We want all the rewards, but none of the risks.

As you get older, you will see that life is very much like cross-country, only we never know where the finish line will be. As in all sports, you will see a lot of people on the sidelines. Some will cheer you on. Some will criticize you, but the majority aren’t willing to get into the game and risk failure. Life can be very hard, tedious and frustrating, and there are no guarantees that you will always be successful. Like cross-country, much depends on how hard you work. What is most important is that you be able to look yourself in the eye at the end of the day, knowing that you did your best. That will be your greatest reward. It is called self-respect.

Your high school cross-country career may be over, but the lessons that came from it are just beginning. They will serve you well in the years to come. When the going gets tough — and it will — never forget about running those long, hard miles last summer on the back roads of South Fulton County in the sweltering heat, pushing yourself to get better. That experience has given you the confidence and the tenacity to handle anything life throws at you.

Soon you will be off to college and a whole new set of challenges, but I hope you will always remember what a special year this has been. You have competed with runners that had more natural ability, but none of them had more heart. You gave it everything you had. In this old man’s biased eyes, you are a true champion.