Young athletes exhibit true meaning of victory


THE RAY LEWIS case will have to commence without me; the Orioles will have to go their own dreary way. They brought out the athletes in Harford County the other night, and then in downtown Baltimore, and it reminded everybody why sports are really important.

In Harford County, they held the annual Al Cesky scholar-athlete awards dinner, and a kid from Fallston High named Pete Erickson, winner of the boys' $5,000 scholarship award, said, "I probably deserve this less than anybody here."

Good grief -- humility. Erickson's a top-notch kid, but maybe he also noticed the records of the kids around him. Not the criminal records, because there wasn't a rap sheet in sight.

But there was a girl named Quintessa Johnson, from Aberdeen High. Honor roll, naturally. They don't nominate kids for this award unless they excel in the classroom. Plus, she captained three teams. And played in the symphony. And the concert band. And volunteers at a nursing center.

And Mark Tanious, of Joppatowne High. He ranks second in his graduating class. He's editor of the school newspaper, co-captained three teams, made "Who's Who Among American High School Students." Oh, and he helped design a nature trail used by his school's science classes and takes part in choir and Bible studies.

And Jacqueline LaFleur, of Bel Air High. She was the winner of the girls' $5,000 Al Cesky scholarship. She ranks seventh in her class. She was all-county in three sports, participated in student government and took charge of the school's tutoring program. And made "Who's Who Among American High School Students." Also, she does a little baby-sitting in her spare time.

Spare time? What spare time? Where do these kids find such a thing? It is the nature of so many high school kids to set up permanent after-school residence in their monastic rooms, with nothing there but a television, telephone, computer, music blaring and the list of excuses in their heads for why they can't do any of the things they would secretly like to try.

Al Cesky would have been proud of this year's group of nominees. He's been gone 15 years now, but in his time, what a crowded and productive life he led: standout three-sport athlete at City College; varsity football at Maryland, under legendary Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, and varsity baseball, too.

And then all those seasons coaching football and baseball and basketball at Bel Air High before becoming Harford County athletic director, where he introduced half a dozen new sports into the county's previously threadbare interscholasticprogram.

The thing about Cesky, though, was that winning was nice -- his football teams once won 17 games in a row, and they had four undefeated seasons -- but it was strictly coincidental. He was trying to create citizens, future adults, people who would contribute something to their communities.

That was the same kind of group that gathered downtown Thursday night at the Hyatt Regency. The Baltimore Touchdown Club honored 44 top high school football players -- and also tossed bouquets to some fellows who don't get the headlines but understand the real values of organized sports.

Lou Karpouzie, for example. Everybody in East Baltimore knows what a great football player he was at Patterson High more than half a century ago. But he coached football for 30 years after that, and at 74 he's still looking after the amateur games and the playground competitions. What's more, every Thanksgiving Lou and some of his friends put together a lunch to help feed hundreds of hungry citizens.

Or Bob Wade. The former Dunbar coach, who stepped into that impossible basketball situation in College Park a decade ago, resurrected himself in the city's public schools. Or Bob Patzwall, the former football coach at City and at Cardinal Gibbons. He's retired now, but he's spent years helping to put together the area's annual Unsung Hero banquet. Or Hy Zollet, who spent 42 years coaching and teaching at Forest Park and Patterson.

They were among the honorees. In a time when we feel cheated by so many of our athletes, these folks remember why sports are important. They make us compete against the toughest challenger of all: our potential. And, when the games are taught properly, they bring out the best in people -- not only on the ball field, but sometimes, when you get some really special kids, in the classroom as well.

It's not easy being a sports fan around here right now. The Orioles look about as drab as they did last summer, and the Ray Lewis trial will give everyone an unwanted look at the off-the-field lives of professional athletes that will make a jury verdict almost feel like an afterthought.

We know how the folks honored here last week spend their off-the-field hours: hitting the books, helping those in need and making themselves productive members of a community.

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