Opinion: Lessons from losing

This past Sunday at a meeting before church, our newly called bishop offered an interesting icebreaker question to the room: If you could go back in time to any point in history, where would you go?

My friend Derek led off the discussion by choosing Live Aid, the legendary bi-continental 1985 benefit concert featuring the likes of Queen, U2, the Cars and other notable musical artists of the time. It was a great response, but I was annoyed. Derek had stolen my answer.

Once it was my turn to share, I had ultimately decided to travel back to January 1992 for Super Bowl XXVI, where the Washington Redskins trounced the Buffalo Bills by a score of 37-24 to win their third Super Bowl in nine years.

I had two main reasons for my decision. That Redskins team was one of the most dominant squads in NFL history, so seeing them play would be a real thrill. More importantly, that Super Bowl in 1992 was the most recent instance of any of my sports teams winning a major championship.

Members of the Washington Redskins carry head coach Joe Gibbs off the field after the 1992 Super Bowl. (Star Tribune)

After nearly 22 years on this earth, I have yet to see the Redskins or Baltimore Orioles win a championship. While I adopted the Utah Jazz as my NBA team nearly a decade ago, their lack of championship hardware pales drastically in comparison to the suffering I’ve experienced while supporting the Redskins and Orioles.

Since my birth in 2000, only four NFL teams have lost more games than the Redskins, and the Orioles have lost the second-most contests of any MLB organization. Even then, the only team with more millennium losses than my Orioles — the Kansas City Royals — have still managed to win two pennants and a World Series since 2000, which the Orioles have yet to accomplish since 1983.

You know that mythical 1984 National Championship that BYU Football fans are always using for leverage in rivalry banter with Utah fans? Even that was more recent than the Orioles’ last ancient title.

The Redskins have a mere five winning seasons in my lifetime along with just a single playoff win. Similarly, I’ve only seen four winning campaigns from the Orioles to pair with a ho-hum 6-8 playoff mark. Neither team has posted a winning record since 2016.

The most talented Redskins player of my lifetime — safety Sean Taylor — was tragically murdered in 2007 at just 24 years old. His death is one of my earliest tangible sports memories, and aside from the deaths of family members and me leaving for my mission, I can’t remember ever seeing my dad so distraught.

Dwindling fans of Washington’s NFL team at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. (Getty Images)

Quarterback Robert Griffin III was dubbed “RJesus” by fans upon his drafting in 2012, with hopes that he would restore peace and glory to the once-proud franchise. Despite an electrifying rookie season where Griffin led Washington to win its final seven games and rally into the playoffs, Griffin would ultimately tear his ACL in that playoff game, never truly recover, drag the team down further then they’d been even before he arrived and leave the Redskins as a disgruntled villain.

In 2018, I watched from afar as a freshman at BYU as new Redskins quarterback Alex Smith led the team to an early 6-3 start, beating the hated Dallas Cowboys and sitting atop the division standings. Would this be the year that the Skins finally turn it around? Well, that hot start came to a screeching halt as Smith broke his leg the week before Thanksgiving (nearly losing his life due to the severity of the injury), following which the derailed Redskins lost six of their final seven games. The more that things change, the more they stay the same.

The Orioles were bad for my entire life until shocking the baseball world with a 93-win 2012 season to clinch the team’s first playoff appearance since 1997. Between 2012-16, no American League squad won more games than my O’s. In three playoff berths over that span, they were always oh-so-close to the World Series crown but found a new chance to fumble it away each time.

Baltimore Orioles outfielder Austin Hays groans after a strikeout in 2021. (Getty Images)

Everything finally fell apart in 2018, when the Orioles had quite possibly the worst season in baseball history, lost 115 games and traded away nearly every decent player on the roster over the course of a dark and gruesome week. Since then, the Orioles have been completely unrecognizable from their past playoff teams both in terms of both roster makeup and performance, leading all of baseball in losses since 2018 with a bunch of no-names and has-beens.

As if things couldn’t get any more embarrassing, to top off all the failure, disappointment and frustration, years of outside pressure led the Redskins to change their name two years ago, lazily labeling themselves the “Washington Football Team” as a placeholder nickname until a proper rebrand could be developed. This February, after months of anticipation, the organization announced a new team name of “Commanders,” a stale, unimaginative and clunky solution that enraged the fanbase and made me question how a nearly two-year rebrand process could yield such an awful name. Maybe I’ll get used to it with time, but right now I really hate it. Hail to the Washington Commies.

As you can tell, it’s been a long and emotionally exhausting lifetime of continual sports misery. Do I need therapy? That’s up to you.

At the end of the day, however, I’m really grateful for the handful of ups and flood of downs I’ve experienced from my teams. Yes, it would be nice to have witnessed a championship or two by now, but my sports fandom has made me who I am today, however pathetic the on-field results may be.

I’m not endorsing participation trophies or excusing a losing mentality bred by cheap, selfish and classless ownership groups (which, ironically, applies to both the Commanders and Orioles), but rather hope to highlight some of the value and beauty only found in losing.

Teams like the New York Yankees, New England Patriots and Los Angeles Lakers carry an immense amount of prestige based on years of rich history and tradition. Simply put, they’ve won a lot. Their fanbases expect nothing less than victory each season.

But what happens if they don’t win?

Each year, there’s only one team that wins the last game of the season. Only one out of the 30 or 32 teams in the league truly succeeds each season. Essentially, the rest of the league fails.

The Baltimore Orioles are swept by the Kansas City Royals in the 2014 American League Division Series, Baltimore’s closest shot at a World Series berth since 1983. (Baltimore Sun)

My favorite writer of all time, Paul Westerberg, wrote “first, you must learn how to fail before you’re allowed to do anything real.” In baseball, a batter who hits .300 is considered among the league’s best despite failing seven of the 10 times he steps to the plate. More often than not in sports, failure is imminent.

Throughout my life, Boston fans have seemed to live a charmed life. They’ve won 12 championships across the four main sports leagues, led by six Tom Brady Super Bowls and four Red Sox World Series. Maybe it’s because of who I’ve always rooted for, but I’ll never understand how anyone could maintain the same excitement and joy for 12 different championships. How is there hope if your expectation is greatness? How can you ever be surprised? Can you ever truly enjoy the top of the world if you’ve never sunk to the bottom?

Suffering through years of losing has taught me about patience. It’s helped me learn how to endure through the trials of life. It’s helped me bond with my dad, from whom I inherited my fandoms, as we dream of someday attending a Super Bowl parade in Washington or World Series celebration in Baltimore.

No matter how much goes wrong, there’s always a reason to believe in sports. Sports encourages us to remain optimistic even in the darkest of situations. In 1988, the Orioles lost their first 21 games of the season. Just a year later, they spent the majority of the season in first place and nearly crashed the playoff party. Who can explain that? Nobody can. That’s what makes it so sweet.

I love sports because at any moment in the game, no matter how dire the circumstances may seem, the unexpected can occur that changes everything. Anyone on the roster, whether it be a future hall of famer or the last guy on the bench, can step up and become a hero. It’s chaotic. It’s ridiculous. It’s beautiful.

At any point in this life of sports disappointment, everything can change. All it takes is one player, one game or even one play. After all, where would Boston be without Tom Brady?

My favorite day of the year is opening day of baseball season. On opening day, nothing from the past matters. All you can do is look forward. Opening day brings me the hope of better days ahead and happy endings. After all, every new year could be THE year.

The Orioles currently possess the top prospect in all of baseball, catcher Adley Rutschman. When he was drafted first overall in 2019, it was seen as a potentially franchise-altering event. ESPN went as far to tab the switch-hitting catcher “a borderline-flawless future star.”

Adley Rutschman gives me a lot of hope.

Baltimore Orioles catching prospect Adley Rutschman waves to the crowd following his drafting in 2019. (Getty Images)

I’ve felt that way and said the same about so many other Redskins or Orioles in the past, and while nearly all of them have let me down, the hope will always spring eternal. The Latter-day Saint pioneers bled, starved and struggled as they crossed the plains on the westward trail, but each painful step brought them closer to their promised land. Similarly, every blowout loss or failed prospect will bring me closer to “the chosen one” who delivers the championship I’ve long craved. It’s all because I’ve learned how to fail.

I believe Rutschman can be the chosen one. The impact he can have on a city and fanbase so desperate for playoff glory would hardly exist if he waddled into a Yankees clubhouse that already had more than 20 World Series rings to its name like Derek Jeter did. If the Orioles had won more, I wouldn’t be able to feel as strongly about Rutschman, and since they’ve lost so much, I can pour all my hope into him.

Rutschman is set to make his major league debut any day now. While his arrival may not cure Baltimore’s ailments immediately, it’s a sign of a better future and that the process can work. I don’t need a championship the day he debuts. I just need him to be there and play ball.

Mark Pope, the mad scientist at the helm of the BYU men’s basketball program, has said, “I think athletics is faith. It’s faith that your work is going to pay off. It’s faith that in the real moment, something that’s not supposed to happen can happen.”

Faith is what turns a bunch of grown men throwing a ball around in a children’s game into something bigger than ourselves. Faith is what allows sports to teach us things that change the way we live our lives, treat one another and even strengthen our relationship with God.

Faith in sports is what keeps a father and son connected from opposite sides of the country on a Sunday afternoon, each thinking of the other while glued to a fourth quarter Commanders comeback that could surely spark a mad dash to the Super Bowl, with the team’s 26th(!) starting quarterback since the son’s birth finally the one to do the impossible.

Daily Universe editor Jackson Payne and his father Rusty attend a Washington Redskins game on Thanksgiving 2017. (Jackson Payne)

My dad gave me his undying faith in sports. The love I feel for him and the bond we share because of that makes every single loss worth it.

Westerberg has also written “if tonight belongs to you, tomorrow’s mine.” My life may be full of sports futility, but the prospect of winning someday will always push me forward. The joy of success will have never been possible without the heartbreak and anguish.

I hope that my “tomorrow” is filled with a thrilling ride to the top carried by Rutschman, and even if he never pans out, I’ll be just as excited for the next guy.

— Jackson Payne
Assistant Sports Editor

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