For The Love Of The Game

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at the sports world and what has changed about college athletics.

His name was Matt. He was 15 years old and came along near the end of my time coaching youth baseball.

Because of a childhood injury, Matt had a metal plate in his head. He loved baseball, but he had never been allowed to play. Most of his teammates had been playing since t-ball. Matt wasn't very good at any part of the game, but he was always smiling.

Matt quickly became a favorite of mine and of his teammates. He would stay after practice as long as someone would stay with him to practice catching flyballs, throwing, hitting, anything anybody would practice with him.

As the season wore on, Matt figured out the best way for him to get on base was to be fearless. Despite my stern instructions to do otherwise, he refused to get out of the way of inside pitches. He was hit over and over again. Every time, he'd look to the dugout and gleefully yell out how many times he'd been hit over the course of the season.

In the last game of the season, Matt was in his usual place in right field. With two outs in an inning, the hitter drove the ball deep over his head. Matt turned and ran back, reached up and made the catch.

We had some really good players on that team, several who had played on high school teams in the spring. But at no time did I see a reaction among our players like I did when Matt caught that ball. As he came running back to the dugout, a smile a spread across his face, his teammates ran to meet him like he'd hit a game-winning grand slam.

I don't remember whether we won or lost that game. But I shall never forget the look on Matt's face. Watching Matt catch that ball was the highlight of that season. That one play was the result of hours of work by a kid who refused to give up despite the odds. And it showed the good in athletics more than any play made by any player on our team that season.

Matt is around 25 years old now. I don't know where he is or what he's doing, but I'll bet he's a success. I started thinking about Matt as the Toney Douglas saga unfolded. I thought about how fame and money really have tainted this whole enterprise of college athletics.

I'm not one who says college athletes aren't legitimate students, because a huge majority of those I know definitely are legitimate students. I'm not one who says college athletes are just in it for themselves, because most of the ones I know are in it for the team. Toney Douglas definitely qualified as a legitimate student and as a team player. Harry Douglas, the dad who makes the calls on Toney's athletic career, might be concerned about education, but a team player he is not.

When you break down what Harry says, it's really all about fame and money. It's about the fastest track for his kid to get to the NBA. It's about trying to make sure everyone knows how good he is by making absurd statements like he is the best player at Auburn since Charles Barkley. Harry doesn't care what Quinnel Brown or Nate Watson had to go through last season. He doesn't care what Toney's departure so late in the game does to Auburn's basketball team. He doesn't care that only one SEC player took more shots than Toney last season. He doesn't even care that Toney clearly would have been Auburn's starting point guard, the position he demands he play, next season.

Toney is a good young man. He was a very good player on a team that overcame a lot to have a better season than anyone would have expected. Players like Brown, Watson and Ian Young could have left. Instead, they came back because they put their team and their teammates above themselves. Had they been on that baseball team, they'd have been among the first to greet Matt. Toney would have been there, too. Harry Douglas? I doubt he would have cared.

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