91: Reach for the Stars

91: Reach for the Stars

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

Reach for the Stars

When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

When striving for the extraordinary, life often delivers gifts that transform us. One such immeasurable gift came to me at the end of the 1985 season.

It was a “Cinderella” season for the New England Patriots. We had started miserably, with four straight losses in which we managed to average less than one yard per rushing attempt. This pitiful showing earned us the unceremonious distinction of the worst rushing offense in the NFL.

We turned it around, though, thanks to spectacular plays by first one team member, then another, and the steady hands of quarterbacks Steve Grogan and Tony Eason. Thanks to teamwork, we pulled together a 10-4 record going into the next-to-last game of the season against Miami. Beat the Dolphins and we would lock a spot in the playoffs and make a try for the AFC championship for the first time in the twenty-five-year history of the Patriots. The sportswriters and broadcast analysts gave us no chance.

Since the game was scheduled for Monday Night Football, the pre-game hype was as wild and ready as we were. On game day, the fans in the stands and on their couches at home were not disappointed. We gave ‘em a dramatic, back-and-forth, feisty game punctuated with long bombs of desperate hope, and when it counted most, pinpoint accuracy from the Dolphins’ Dan Marino. We proved the sportswriters right: we lost.

The season was down to one last chance. We had to pack our hopes and head home for a cold winter game against the Cincinnati Bengals. If we won that one, we could still make the playoffs in a wild-card spot.

That game was almost surreal. We felt like we could not be stopped. Most would have thought we were crazy, but we knew the offense, the defense and how the special teams were going to score. Even when we fumbled the ball, we had an intuitive sense that now our defense would get its chance to score. We were in the zone as a team, when everything seems effortless and time doesn’t exist. The extraordinary seemed to unfold, always in our favor. Our home crowd was standing, cheering, roaring the entire game. You could literally feel the Bengals’ will to win being drained out of them. We won that game 34-23 and claimed our team’s greatest moment.

The atmosphere in the locker room afterward was giddy. Players, coaches, trainers, the media. Hugs, tears, laughter and flying champagne everywhere. A few players were so stunned they could only sit on benches and silently hug the moment. John Hannah sat with Pete Brock, Andre Tippet with Don Blackmon. Head coach Raymond Berry smiled, but I could tell he was already past this game, preparing his mind for the first round of the playoffs. We were contenders!

And then it happened. As I had done so many times after home games, I left the locker room, walked upstairs past the group of special guests and family members being held back by security. A woman reached through the ring of security and the clamor of celebration seemed to pause as I heard her ask, quietly but enthusiastically, for an autograph for her two boys. As I looked into her face I realized she was Christa McAuliffe, the woman who as America’s Teacher-in-Space was about to head into space on the Challenger.

“Absolutely,” I said. I was surprised to notice my hand trembling as I signed the paper she had presented. She smiled with a brightness and clarity I had noticed on television interviews. Without hesitation, I said, “And would you be so kind as to give me your autograph?”

She smiled even wider and her sons looked up at her in awe. “Mom,” one of them whispered, “he wants your autograph!” I grabbed a piece of paper off a desk nearby and she signed it.

I knew what we had just done as a team was a triumphant life moment. We were making a run for the Super Bowl, the top prize for every professional football player. Yet, this accomplishment was eclipsed in my mind by a schoolteacher with a million-dollar smile and the courage, commitment and driving passion to inspire school-children, teachers, national leaders, all of America and most of the world by living her dream.

I gave her a hug and said, “All the best for your flight. I admire you.”

A few weeks later, I was in Hawaii for Pro Bowl Week. On Tuesday morning, January 28, 1986, I was in my hotel room watching the run-up to the Challenger liftoff, remembering Christa McAuliffe’s easy friendliness and marveling at her grit, which was greater, surely, than any football player’s, no matter how big, how willing to hit and be hit, how determined to do the best he can on the field. Off into space! This is in a whole different league. And then, my God, no! Plumes of white smoke. Just seventy-three seconds of excitement, and then tragedy.

I sat on the end of the bed, head in my hands, and cried. After a long time, I opened my briefcase, pulled out the piece of paper she had signed, taped it to the dresser mirror and left the room, closing the door quietly. I walked down the beach, thinking of her smile and her courage, trying to understand fate or at least accept it.

I walked for hours. When I stopped I didn’t know where I was. I only knew where Christa was. I looked across the Pacific Ocean and repeated the words she had written to me:

“To Brian, Reach for the Stars. I’ll be there.”

~Brian Holloway
Chicken Soup for the Sports Fan’s Soul

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