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Dan Rodricks: Terps could learn sportsmanship from high school boys

Reginald F. Lewis Falcons player-manager Michael Gardner holds up his arms, reacting to the crowd cheering after scoring against Digital Harbor.
Reginald F. Lewis Falcons player-manager Michael Gardner holds up his arms, reacting to the crowd cheering after scoring against Digital Harbor. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

This is about football and life lessons and sportsmanship, stemming from two very different incidents in two games — one that might have made you grimace, one that might have made you cry. I'll start with the grimace.

The very public refusal of the tri-captains of the University of Maryland football team to shake hands with their Penn State counterparts before Saturday's game was a low-rent move. Bravado is admirable. Irreverence is admirable. Refusing the hand of your opponent in a time-honored gesture of sportsmanship is not.

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What happened Saturday was not the end of civilization, of course. The Terps were assessed a 15-yard penalty and the university issued apologies after the game. So obviously, the adults who run athletics at College Park have some standards, thank you very much.

And then, on Monday, the Big Ten Conference in which Maryland now plays issued the following statement:

"The decision by Maryland team captains to not shake hands with Penn State team captains during the pregame coin toss ceremony was exceptionally regrettable. For many, many decades the intercollegiate pregame handshake has been in place to reflect a spirit of good will and utmost appreciation for your opponent, the game and the institutions that sponsor your sport. Selection as a team captain is an honor that carries with it a greater responsibility to act in a manner consistent with those principles."

I'm glad the Big Ten made that statement. Someone had to. Someone had to stand up for an honorable tradition.

I know we live in the age of snark and trash-talk, where civility is an option, where profanity is common and loud, and where customs and rules are frequently violated. But some rituals still have meaning, and the pregame handshake is one. You're not required to like it, but you're required to do it. That's the point: You might despise your opponent, but you still wish him a good game and a safe ride.

We don't know what the three Maryland captains were thinking when they did this — they haven't really explained themselves — so rather than condemn them, I'm going to file this whole thing under youthful foolishness, a bad decision by P.J. Gallo, Stefon Diggs and Sean Davis.

We all make bad choices, especially while we're still learning to live in the world. A character in the Barry Levinson film adaptation of Bernard Malamud's "The Natural" says: "I believe we have two lives. A life we learn with and a life we live with after that."

This little episode points to something else: I think American males used to mature faster than they do these days. I'm making a generalization, of course, but I think it's true. Today's 21-year-old might be, in terms of maturity and decision-making, about on the level of the Greatest Generation's 14-year-old. We have too many young men in protracted adolescence, and they still behave selfishly and foolishly well past the age when that was earlier accepted. The need for real grownups and generous guidance has never been greater, and I think young men yearn for that guidance.

So I give Gallo, Davis and Diggs that possibility — though team captains, they are still growing up and learning how to be rational and empathetic leaders.

The thing is, some football players several years their junior seem to have figured it out, and there was a good example the day before the Terps played the Nittany Lions at Penn State.

Perhaps you saw the story in the paper or on baltimoresun.com about Michael Gardner, the 15-year-old sophomore at Reginald F. Lewis High School in Northeast Baltimore. He is manager of his school's football team, but he scored a touchdown in Friday afternoon's game against Digital Harbor.

If you haven't seen the video by Sun videographers Karl Merton Ferron and Kevin Richardson, make sure you do. I watched it early Monday morning, in the midst of a grimace about the Terps and the no-handshake foolishness, and I was moved to tears. I was a real mess.

Here's why: Gardner had his right leg amputated below the knee when he was 8 years old to rid his body of bone cancer. He has a prosthesis.

According to James Fox's story that accompanied our video, Gardner's team arranged to have him score a touchdown in Friday's game so he would know what that feels like. Digital Harbor agreed to a swap of scores — they would get a touchdown in return for one scored by Gardner for the Reginald F. Lewis team.

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So Gardner, wearing No. 77, took a handoff and scored on the first play from scrimmage. He scored a two-point conversion after the touchdown too. He was surrounded and embraced by his teammates, cheerleaders and parents. When he realized what had been done for him, Michael Gardner cried.

Kindness reigns. Sportsmanship lives. It really lives.

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