The Agony of Defeat: Life Lessons from Losing

Norwich athletes of yesteryear reflect on setbacks, embarrassment, and defeat—and what they learned in the process.

✯ NEW CONTENT ✯ Scroll to the bottom to see even more alumni stories of lessons learned in Norwich athletics.

Cartoon of baseball umpire and player

Mistakes in game play make for the most vivid memories. A slip-up may be small in the scheme of things, yet colossal in the mind of the one who blundered.

Wrong moves haunt us. We rewind our miscalculations, missteps—and yes, some are out-and-out bloopers—over and over, sometimes for months and years, maybe even our entire lives. We invent countless what-could-have-been scenarios—we may even indulge in magical thinking, the secret hope that if we fix the mistake in our minds, we may rewrite the past.

Failures are inevitable: the losing fumble, the uncaught pass, the error that costs the inning, the deflection into the Norwich net in overtime. But to fail is also to learn. Whether the lesson is as simple as knowing how not to make the same mistake again, or the enlightened understanding that emerges when our teammates lift us back up and stand with us—these are the experiences that shape our character, that cause us to think differently, that transform us.

We asked you for your recollections of that moment in the game, match, meet, or tournament when things went wrong. And, we asked you to reflect on what you learned as a result.

Here are your stories.


A Pitcher Leaves the Mound

Cartoon of baseball pitcher

Growing up on Long Island as an avid Brooklyn Dodgers fan, baseball was my life. I was primarily a pitcher and played Little League, Pony League, Babe Ruth, and high school baseball. I was very good, but in truth, I had thrown too much. Those were the days when very little was understood about the adverse effects of youngsters throwing hard, throwing curve balls, and pitching without sufficient recovery time between games. I was ripe for a letdown, and the stage was set for one in 1963, when, as a college sophomore, I easily made the NU baseball squad.

Let’s be honest. Baseball in Vermont is tough! The long, cold winters compress NU’s baseball season, and in the ’60s there were no winter trips to Florida or anywhere the weather allowed outdoor practice. I remember the endless afternoons in Plumley, nets up, pitching batting practice, and watching fielding practice on a gym floor, where bad bounces or anything resembling playing on grass was absent. I’m not sure we’d had one decent day of outdoor practice in the mud before we headed on our “southern” trip to play Southern Connecticut in New Haven and Coast Guard Academy in New London.

Over the winter, my arm started getting real sore in practices. Coach Joe Garrity apparently didn’t notice. And when he informed me that I’d be starting on the mound for our opener at Southern Connecticut, I certainly didn’t let on. While I was thrilled to be picked to start our first game, I was hurting.

The first batter I faced hit a major-league pop-up over third base that should have been easily handled. But unfortunately the third baseman badly misjudged it. I tried to bear down, but my arm was in excruciating pain. I believe I struck out the next batter. The next two batters hit towering home runs to left field. I was stunned. Things didn’t improve, and I was lifted in the second or third inning after telling Coach Garrity my arm was too sore to continue. Little did I know at that moment how close I was to the end of my baseball career. What I needed was “Tommy John” surgery to repair my ulnar collateral ligament. But that procedure was some years away.

I rode the bench the rest of the year with the exception of a couple uneventful innings pitched at Plattsburgh. In what I remember as our last home game of the season, Coach apparently felt bad that a couple of us hadn’t had much playing time. In the bottom of the sixth he told John MacBain ’64, another benchwarmer, he would be going in in the seventh. MacBain was suddenly in a panic. He didn’t have his socks! Of course these were the days of the long stirrup-type socks. The uniform pants of the day were shorter and didn’t come down to the spikes as they do today. Figuring I wasn’t going to see any action, he asked me if he could use my socks. I was glad to volunteer them, and at the top of the seventh he trotted out to the outfield. After MacBain and the rest of our team had taken the field, Garrity, almost as an afterthought, said, “McArthur, take center field. I replied, ‘Er, Coach, I can’t. I just gave my socks to MacBain.’ With the inning about to start, he sent the usual centerfielder out. I never played again.  – Colin McArthur ’65

If Looks Could Kill

It was either the fall of 1955 or ’56 that Pete Salmonsen ’57 and I, managers of the football team, were responsible for liming the field. It was the Friday evening before a game. After we had finished, we discovered we were off about six inches on the west side of the 30-yard line. It was late and getting dark, and we figured no one would notice. So we left it that way. Sure enough, near the end of a very close game, a tackle was made on that line. It was protested by the opposing team, who was looking for a first down with a goal to go. The line was measured, and to our great embarrassment we were discovered. Coach Bob Priestley never said a word, just gave us one of his famous bone-chilling looks. – Jeff Behuniak ’57

A Hard Lesson in Defense

Cartoon of football player

The first game of the 1969 football season, our team faced archrival Kings Point. I was playing weak-side linebacker. At one point in the game, we were in a cover-two defense, playing zone. The QB showed pass. My assignment was the short outside zone with safety help deep beyond 20 yards. I had the flanker covered. The QB flushed out of the pocket to my side and pulled the ball down. Then he started up the field. I left the coverage from 20 yards up-field and took two steps toward the line of scrimmage. The QB tossed a perfect strike over my outstretched hands for a long TD pass. Every person in the stands, in addition to me, thought I blew the coverage. Later, the film showed that both safeties had gone to the other side of the field to cover a single receiver.

I learned two things. First, trust but verify. My defensive teammates and I needed to communicate, not just have blind faith that the “handoff” occurred. Second, every member of the team is responsible, not just me. It still feels that way even after 45 years. We win as a team; we lose as a team.

We celebrate our new HOF members: co-captain Grant McLean ’70, our offensive MVP who was tragically killed in an auto accident, and Carl Holden ’70, our defensive points leader. – Fred Morsheimer ’70

GPS, Anyone?

I ran on the Norwich men’s cross-country team from 1984 to 1987. My ultimate moment of failure and embarrassment happened during my first home meet, when I got lost on the course and was disqualified. The only good thing to come out of it was that two runners from the College of Saint Rose followed me and were also disqualified. You should have seen the dirty looks I got from those guys.

Cartoon of a moral compass

Coach Wally Baines and my teammates were very supportive. As you can imagine, my cadre and many upperclassmen were not quite so nice. “What kind of idiot gets lost on his own home course?” “Running is the simplest sport there is. You just put one foot in front of the other. You can’t even do that right.” “What a soup sandwich!”

The experience taught me perseverance. Even though I was never a very good runner, I really enjoyed cross-country, and did not give up after that disastrous first meet.

I was glad I stuck with it, as the following season I witnessed the most inspiring event I have ever seen during a cross-country meet. Pat Barrett ’87 developed a hernia in mid-course. Despite excruciating pain, he kept running and finished the race. Pat was a very talented runner, but what made him great was his fierce determination and incredible mental toughness. – Tom Hawko ’88

Touché!

I competed in épée with the 1972 Norwich varsity fencing team and was doing fairly well for a novice. We traveled to MIT for a match. The saber rep for our team was a no-show, and our team captain selected me to fill in. I had never held a saber in my life. I was given a crash course on the rules, how to hold the weapon, etc. I approached my opponent, whom I had been told was the national champion and a candidate for the U.S. Olympic team. As beginner’s luck would have it, I had him four points to none before his coach called a time out (five points are needed for a win). The MIT coach told his star that I didn’t know what I was doing, and we resumed play. He ran off five straight points against me, thus ending my first—and last—saber match. Oh, well. – Wallace James Redner III ’73

Competing fencers

Do you have a sports-blunder story to share? Email it to record@norwich.edu

A Disastrous Year

I was the starting quarterback on the football team as a sophomore. Our second game of the season was at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. They started an outstanding senior quarterback who had set school records. That day was a disaster for me personally and for our team. I played so poorly, I was surprised the head coach left me in. What I remember most is coming off the field at halftime and hearing the announcer give the QB stats for the first half. It went something like this, and I’m not exaggerating: “Our Bates quarterback … was 9 for 11 for 140 yards. Cottone was 1 for 12 for 3 yards.” I remember the embarrassment and that there was no place to hide—I had another half to play. I didn’t do any better the second half. Needless to say, we lost, and it was a very long bus ride home.

Cartoon of deflating football

The next year, we played Bates again on their home field. George Kulhowvick ’71—the heart of our offense and a great, tough running back for NU—came up to me as we went into the locker room to dress for the game. He said, “Hey, I was talking to one of the Bates players, and he asked if the same quarterback is playing for Norwich? And then the kid and his buddies laughed.”

I guess the year made a difference. I played a lot better, and we won that day.

Things continued to improve for me, and senior year we kicked the crap out of Bates. From quick kicks and great defense to our offense clicking—our entire team performed well.

As for the lesson learned, coaches Joe Sabol and Frank Hershey kept me in the starting lineup as a sophomore despite the fact that I pretty much stank up the field that year. They taught me many lessons in life and on the field—life lessons that were hard to take at the time. But each helped shape my approach and attitude during my time at Norwich. – Jay Cottone ’71

That Sore-ing Feeling

It was a beautiful early March day in 1973. The Norwich (Nordic) Ski Team, myself included, decided to go ski-jumping after the season just for fun. There were some high school students from Barre on the hill with us, and a local who once a year took out his boards and re-experienced the thrill of soaring. Coach Bruce Jennings was in the judge’s tower giving us pointers. I had never really nailed a genuine flight, but was focused on trying to perfect my technique and form. I was determined to capture that feeling of flying or floating, which I imagined must be euphoric.

On my third trip down the ramp, I hit the takeoff perfectly. The tips of my skis came up calmly to meet my face. I leaned forward … and then it happened. After two seasons of jumping, I had finally found that sweet spot I longed for. I was floating! What a fantastic moment! I was so overcome that I decided to “look around,” like the views I had seen during TV coverage of Olympic ski-jumpers, made possible by the helmet cameras that had become popular.

Image of a cracked surfaceIn midflight, my body started to roll like the spiral of a well-thrown football. I could hear Coach yelling from the tower, “Holliday, what are you doing?!” I hit the landing hill on the backs of my shoulders, upside down. But I didn’t stop there. I bounced and came back off the steep of the hill as my body now flipped end over end. One of my skis came under me from right to left as I was flipping. I can still see it going by. It was all happening in slow motion as I crashed the slope and slid to the bottom of the hill. Incredibly, I wasn’t hurt, and as I walked back up the hill for another jump, one of the high school students remarked, “Hey mister, that was one of the coolest crashes I have ever seen.” – Lee Holliday ’75

(Images from 123RF.)


BONUS STORIES

We were hoping to include some stories from our women graduate-athletes in the print edition, and we would have—if we’d received any. So we invited the women of Norwich to send stories of sports losses and lessons learned for a growing online collection, and are delighted to report that we received our first response, posted below. We look forward to putting up more as they come in. Men who missed the first call, you’re invited, too. Email record@norwich.edu.

Her Best Shot, and Then Some

In spring 2013, I graduated from Norwich University with a B.S. in physical education with concentrations in health and coaching. During my four years at Norwich, I was a member of the women’s basketball team, serving as captain my junior and senior years. As a freshman, I also played one season of women’s softball, but an injury to my shoulder put an end to that sport—the surgeon could repair my shoulder to shoot a basketball or swing a bat. I chose basketball, for that was my passion. I never thought that I would suffer another injury, but during my sophomore year and one intense basketball game, I blew out my knee. My season was over. I couldn’t be red-shirted because I had played too many games for the season. It was devastating. After surgery I returned to Norwich, on crutches, and of course, it was a cold, snowy winter that year! I knew that I couldn’t give up—I had to persevere. Physically, emotionally and mentally, I had to work through this. I was able to succeed because I had the support of my family, my teammates, my professors, and the Norwich community. It was quite a loss for me, but I learned a lot about myself from this experience. I was a Norwich Cadet athlete and I would not tarnish that title.

Being an athlete taught me to always give it my best shot and then give some more. Even with a loss, whether on the basketball court or in life, you need to keep trying and moving forward toward the goals you have set for yourself. Today, I’m called “Ms. Sweeney” by my physical education students in the Northfield Schools and “Coach” by the girls’ varsity soccer team and girls’ middle level basketball team. Surely, I’m not the only person who has experienced a loss in the world of athletics due to an injury, but I consider myself blessed or lucky to have learned how to deal with this at Norwich University. – Jessalyn Sweeney ’13

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