Back near the dawn of time, when the great reptiles roamed the earth and the Serpent was still whispering to Eve, "Pssst. Hey, lady, got a minute?’’ I became a sports writer.
And it came to pass that on one fine April morning in the little town of Columbus, Miss., I was summoned before my boss and handed an important story.
"I need 20 inches on the Pilgrimage 10K,’’ he said. "And don’t forget to include something about Miss Mary.’’
Some background is in order. The Pilgrimage 10K was part of the Columbus Pilgrimage Celebration. At this stage in the evolution of western civilization, 10K races were wildly popular events. Virtually every town had one. The Pilgrimage 10K was viewed as more prominent than most because of the town’s proximity to two major universities, whose track athletes often participated in the event as part of their training.
Although confident in my ability to cover such an important event, I was apprehensive on one point: Who was Miss Mary?
I dared not betray my ignorance on this topic for fear that Miss Mary would turn out to be some widely known sports celebrity, perhaps an Olympic champion. So I arrived at the staging area early, sidled over to one of the race officials and asked, matter-of-factly, "Where’s Miss Mary?’’
"Over there,’’ he said, pointing toward the back of the pack of runners who were massing near the starting line. "Just look for them pink sneakers she always wears. Can’t miss her.’’
I spotted her immediately.
"That’s Miss Mary?’’ I asked in a tone that could not conceal my disbelief, for she was hardly the figure of a champion — a tiny old lady.
"Yeah, she runs — if you want to call it that — in this thing every year,’’ he said.
With the bang of the starter’s pistol, the participants dashed off down Main Street in the direction of Highway 45, a two-lane asphalt road that connected Columbus with a series of other little towns. Miss Mary, conspicuous in her floppy straw hat, canary yellow shorts suit and, of course, those hot pink sneakers, was already well off the pace. She wandered down the street at a gait that suggested that, even in a race, there’s no need to be in such a gosh-darn rush.
A couple of hours later, the remnants of the field labored past the start/finish line. Before long, only a few race officials remained. They were waiting for Miss Mary who, predictably, was always the last to finish. I was captive, too, for I remembered that my report must include an account of Miss Mary’s efforts.
Another hour passed and officials began to worry. It had been almost five hours since the race commenced. Where’s Miss Mary?
A highway patrolman was dispatched to find her and a short while later the squad car eased to a stop at the finish line. Out popped Miss Mary, smiling broadly, a doublehandful of wild flowers clutched to her chest.
"Found her about a mile down the road,’’ the patrolman said. "She was out in the middle of a pasture, picking wild flowers. Guess she forgot about the race when she saw all them wildflowers.’’
That was almost 25 years ago, so I suspect that Miss Mary, although never in much of a hurry to go anywhere, has long since left this mortal coil.
Tonight, the high school football season begins, which means players and parents and coaches will be consumed with the often-grim business of winning games.
Soon, I expect to hear from disgruntled parents and fans, complaining about everything from playing time to playcalling to officiating to the amount of coverage their team is getting in the newspaper.
And if, as sports editor, I am to be subjected to these charges, I ask that you indulge me by allowing me to impart one bit of wisdom to those who take the field tonight:
It is not the wins or losses you will remember in the years to come. The details of even a championship or a crushing loss will escape your memory with astonishing speed.
Instead, you will find that, as you reflect, the memories of the season will have less to do with wins and losses and more to do with some silly thing that happened at practice or something somebody did on the sideline when the coaches weren’t looking. And these are the memories you will cherish, the ones that will warm you as time and distance separate you from even your closest teammates.
I vaguely recall that a Kenyan running for the University of Alabama won the Pilgrimage 10K that year.
But vivid is the memory of an old lady in hot pink sneakers clutching wild flowers to her chest.