Winning in the game of life


By Frank Wessling

It isn’t unusual for good high school athletes to be good students and well-balanced young people. But the very best among them also must cope with temptations to narrow their lives and limit their focus to a game and its skills. The fortunate ones manage to grow in their particular game while also allowing other interests to grow so that they might thrive as good men (it’s almost always boys) and citizens of the future.

Jordan Dykstra, a senior-to-be and outstanding basketball player at Rock Valley High School in northwest Iowa might be a model of the wise high school athlete. When he felt the constricting pressures of conformity to a certain big-time sports model, he resisted.

“I love basketball,” he told the Des Moines Register’s Randy Peterson, “but I want to have more in life than just that.”

It shouldn’t be assumed that Dykstra is alone in being a level-headed teenager with special athletic ability, but he came to attention in an unusual way. He gave up a college scholarship already in hand because it seemed to require sacrifices cutting off healthy parts of his life.


His potential as a basketball player looked so good to the coaches at Iowa State University that they offered an athletic scholarship when Dykstra was only a freshman, and he accepted. It must have been a very heady time. Now his worldview is larger and he feels himself part of a community that needs his full commitment.

To make it as a scholarship player in the high-pressure world of Iowa State, Dykstra felt “I would have to focus all my time in high school on basketball. That would mean giving up many activities in high school that I really enjoy…. Rock Valley is a smaller school and it takes people being involved in many activities for us to be successful.”

Graduates of small schools everywhere will understand what he’s talking about. The variety of courses and enrichment opportunities may not be as great as in a larger school, but students in the small school can more easily get involved — and are needed — in a broader range of activities. There won’t be enough people for the school play without the athletes and nerds both involved. There won’t be enough candidates for student senate, for chorus, for peer-to-peer tutoring, for the student paper and yearbook and dance committees without a broad sense of interest in everything across the student body.

Small schools aren’t automatically paradise: there can be a few people who seem to run everything. But Dykstra put his finger on a key element in the good ones: “people being involved in many activities.” That he recognizes this and values it above the temptation to go off into his own limited world marks him as special in a way that no basketball glory can match.

Since he does seem to have outstanding ability we will probably hear in coming months about a new athletic scholarship offer and, in the next few years, of points scored and victories won. When the games end, though, as they always do, the wise young men have kept their broad interests, probably expanded them, and are ready for the added responsibilities of a steadily maturing life.

Young Mr. Dykstra might follow a path toward distinguished public service laid out by such as former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach, a championship wrestler in both high school and college, and Alan Page, a member of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Page was one of the “Purple People Eaters” of the National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings in the late 1960s through most of the ’70s. He and his teammates on the Vikings’ defense were the NFL’s best during those years, helping the team to four Super Bowls. Page was voted into the Pro Bowl almost every year he played and to the professional football Hall of Fame after he retired.

But he showed something truly extraordinary before retiring. While still playing at his usual high level, Page began preparing for life after football. He began cutting the bulk from his body and training more for endurance and fitness rather than strength. He also resumed his study of law and began the new career steps that would lead to his present place on the state’s high court.

Exceptional athletic skill is wonderful to see. We can’t watch a physicist’s brain function, enjoying the intricate beauty of those processes. But we can easily see and appreciate what athletes do. Because we can see it, and will even pay money to watch, there is constant temptation to inflate and distort the value of sports.

For Jordan Dykstra and others like him who keep their talent in healthy perspective, congratulations for a show of winning form at a young age in the game of life.

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