Every voice matters!
February 19, 2020
Russell “Rusty” DeWitt, classmate, teammate, high school friend. It is a name I will never forget.
In 1984, my senior year of high school, we had a decent basketball team. Not one that was going to win a conference championship, that would be wrapped up by Baraboo who would finish the season undefeated.
If one looked down the bench of players seated along the sideline, you would eventually come to Rusty at the end of the pine. He was the kid who everyone cheered for when he got a chance to be on the court, hoping he would find a way to score. But that’s not to say he wasn’t important. In fact, I’m not sure he realized at the time how important he was. Our bench would not have been the same if he wasn’t there, and his absence would have been unimaginable.
I can’t pretend to know what it was like to be him, I had been offered at least some varsity playing time since my freshman year. But I do know that my senior year would not have been the same without him there. Rusty, you see, was the team’s biggest fan. And it wasn’t hard to tell because he was the first one off the bench to cheer a big play, or to get the crowd behind us excited.
Rusty was one of the kids who came to practice every day and did all the work without the reward of being on the court much. He challenged us all at practice and was quick with a smile when the time was right. And on game nights he was part of the team as much as any of us were.
We had a unique coach, the late Woody Wilson, who had a knack of finding the most unlikely kids to be part of the team. Whether they were a player or a kid who walked the halls alone who he talked into serving as team manager, Woody demanded that we respect their position. Taking a kid that nobody really seemed to associate much with and giving them a purpose.
“Cowboy” got his nickname because he always wore cowboy boots. He was the team manager that same year, and he became another part of the team. It was about as unlikely a match as anyone could imagine, but it worked, and we came to rely on him to have practice gear ready and uniforms clean and prepped for each game. There was little doubt he was in charge of that department. He was good at it and we appreciated him for it.
I will always remember Rusty waiting on the sideline to give players an enthusiastic, high five as they came off the floor, or jumping up off the bench during a timeout and waving a towel in the air to get the fans into the game. That was way before it became fashionable at professional sporting events. He would get them to cheer so loud it was difficult to hear the coach. And this was not the student section, this was the parent section that sat behind the bench. Heck, it was the entire gymnasium.
And although he never played one second on the court, I know when we lost, Cowboy felt it too. Because he would be as silent in the locker room as everyone else.
Most of us know a Rusty, or a Cowboy from high school. But I don’t know how many of them know how important they were (are). Their voices are no less valuable than that of the varsity quarterbacks, or the prom queens, or the senior class presidents.
Whether we are the starting point guard, or sitting at the end of the bench, we are all part of what makes a team, or a community. It is a high school, a village, a city, a state, or a nation, and we are all part of the conversation.
It doesn’t work as well without everyone.