Many of us who love sports (and I'll assume if you're reading this you have more than a passing interest) came to our passion because of the nurturing interest of a parent, sibling, relative, friend or coach.
For those of us growing up in the post-World War II era, when collective national pride and energy, coupled with the rise of television, fueled the sports boom which remains transcendent today, the back yard and the street, the school playground and the proverbial sandlot or, in my case, the nearby apple orchard, served as a sort of sports proving ground.
I don't think much of this has changed. True, the equipment is better, as are the facilities. There's more coaching and more, mostly constructive, parental interest and involvement. But one thing hasn't changed: We all have to learn how to play the game from somebody and, hopefully, learn to play it right.
One aspect of sports that sometimes gets overlooked in our contemporary world is that playing the game right means doing so with grace and respect for your opponent.
I was fortunate to attend a recent Harford County Board of Education meeting where a number of high school teams received sportsmanship awards from the Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference. To say I was impressed by the brief words from the players and coaches who were on hand to be recognized would be an understatement. These young men and women and their mentors certainly seemed to me to understand that love of the game means not just winning, but also competing honorably.
I learned these lessons along time ago from my uncle, Edgar Glenn Copeland, who passed away last month at age 83. Glenn was my mother's only sibling, and there was a gap of nine years between their births, which meant when I came along, Glenn was in his late teens and a student at Maryland, and we seemed to bond very quickly as I was growing up. Being an only child of essentially unathletic parents, that bond would was invaluable to me in many respects, not the least being that Glenn taught me the love of the game.
He grew up in Northwest Washington, D.C., in an urban neighborhood where the school was down the block, a baseball diamond and football field were in walking distance and a giant hotel was across the street, which meant the kids on the block had plenty to occupy themselves with if they wanted tor make some mischief.
I never really understood how Glenn turned out the way he did, gregarious and athletic and interested in all sorts of things, with sports prime among them. His father, my grandfather, was a severe, taciturn man, born in the early 1890s, who didn't seem to like much of anything except his roses, and my grandmother wasn't exactly the athletic type, either. I got the idea that Glenn, who might as well have been an only child like me, had acquired much of his knowledge about sports and life in general out on the streets, so to speak.
Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, Glenn had the misfortune of missing out on the Walter Johnson era and was condemned to watch the long slide into futility of the original Senators baseball team. But he also witnessed the coming of the Redskins from Boston and the Slingin' Sammy Baugh years and, having never lived farther from his hometown than Jessup, was a lifelong fan of both teams in their former and current incarnations.
It was Glenn who taught me how to throw a baseball property and hold the bat the proper way. He pointed out that my first bat, a Louisville Slugger Billy Goodman model, was actually a "wartime bat," made of inferior wood. "I'll get you a better one," he said, and on his next visit brought a brand new Mickey Mantle model, more appropriately sized for a 10-year-old. I used it well into junior high school.
He was a pretty good football player, too, and not only showed me the proper way to throw and catch the ball, but provided me with some pretty good equipment he had once used. It was important, he said, to keep your eye on the football and bring it into your body when catching, "before you try to run with it."
Glenn wasn't much for basketball, but he did captivate me with stories about riding the streetcars to watch the by then long defunct Washington Capitols at the Uline Arena, an original NBA team coached by Red Auerbach, later of Celtics fame, who had been a star player at George Washington University during the years my parents were students.
There was one sport he didn't do well at – golf. He was a natural lefty but was apparently taught to be right-handed in some things, such as writing. He threw right-handed but for some reason he golfed from the left side, and not very well. I remember as a teenager seeing his golf clubs gathering dust in the corner of his basement.
Glenn took me to my first Major League baseball game in 1957 and when the All-Star Game came to D.C. in 1962, he answered my plea and came up with two tickets for me and a friend. A few years later, I reciprocated on his 40th birthday by taking him to the 1970-71 AFC Championship where the Colts beat the Raiders at Memorial Stadium, on their way to their Super Bowl win over the Cowboys.
Being from D.C., Glenn had a love-hate relationship with Baltimore. He admitted visiting The Block on a few occasions and partaking of the city's boisterous night life prior to marrying my aunt Marlene, but he did not like the city's sports teams and once assured me that "Baltimore fans will only support a winner." Sour grapes as the Orioles and Colts soared in the late 1950s and throughout the 60s? Perhaps.
Glenn also once assured me that sports, being games, were meant to be about having fun and enjoying yourself. No matter how organized things might get, the games should be like being up at the playground with my friends, picking up sides and then walking home with them afterward – hopefully without getting in trouble for being out past dinner time.
Play because you want to, he said, not because somebody else thinks you should. I thought that was good advice, something to remember and cherish about my uncle and his love of the game.