Photo Courtesy: Pat Shannahan, Arizona Republic
I recently booked my plane ticket to Atlanta to cover the Rivals 5-Star Challenge at the end of the summer. In my time running a Rivals-affiliated website, I’ve had the opportunity to travel all over the Southwest, as well as make multiple trips to the East coast for events in which the country’s best high school athletes come together and compete in front of the regional analysts responsible for the star ratings that many kids and parents covet. Booking the ticket made me think back to 2016, and the last time I was in Atlanta for the very same event.
My experience with all things east of the Mississippi is very limited. I’m from Wyoming, and have called Arizona home nearly all my life. Any chance I get some time off, I return to the mountains of Wyoming. I know what I know, and I like what I like. These work trips nudge me far outside my comfort zone, and if there’s one thing I know from experience, it’s that discomfort brings growth.
Atlanta was an incredible experience. In the times between Rivals Camp sessions I visited the College Football Hall of Fame, the Civil Right Museum, caught a Braves game, visited an aquarium, went to a Prince tribute concert, and found a few karaoke spots where I could be assured I’d never cross paths with anyone in attendance ever again. One extracurricular experience, however, stood out above all of the others.
While walking to a local Waffle House to test the long-held theory that the restaurant had to be better in the American South than it was on the south side of the Sky Harbor Airport, I met a leather-skinned man with a pencil-thin blonde mustache who was wearing a sleeveless flannel shirt and tattered jeans. His name was Matt. And Matt changed my life.
Matt and his wife were on their way to Tupelo, Mississippi from somewhere in Virginia when he damaged his car while attempting to navigate downtown Atlanta. They’d been stuck in the lobby of a repair shop for 36 hours. He found me waiting to cross the street at a traffic signal near the Waffle House entrance, told me the tale of his misfortune, and asked if I could buy him a meal because “his money had gone to making the repairs, and he hadn’t eaten in a day and a half.” We went to the Waffle House counter together and ordered to-go meals. I’ll admit, I was uncomfortable with the whole situation. It’s not that I thought he was lying to me or anything like that- nor did I care, the man was hungry and a meal is a meal regardless of the validity of his reason for needing it. We’ve all gotta eat. Truthfully, it’s just awkward to be in a position of privilege around someone who’s in a position of need; even if you’re helping to fulfill that need.
I wasn’t prepared for the speed, or lack thereof, of Southern service. Matt’s steak sandwich and chicken salad took over 40 minutes to prepare, and despite his insistence that I could leave him to carry his meal back to his wife on his own, I had told Matt I’d assist so that he didn’t have to leave the possessions he brought along with him unattended in order to make multiple trips. We sat quietly for a while, breaking the awkward silence with forced utterances about the weather and our shared disdain for the expenses incurred due to automotive mechanical failures. I think he could tell that I was struggling to find a social connection. I could certainly tell that Matt having to swallow his pride to ask for assistance was hard enough without his shame turning into an hour-long ordeal.
Finally, one of the questions I floated into the ether, hoping to speed up our shared ordeal, struck a chord. I asked him about his hometown.
Matt was from Tupelo, Mississippi. So is Elvis Pressley. And baseball great Dave Clark. So is Alex Carrington, a football player that went from a two-star recruit (who you never would have found at the type of event I was in Atlanta to attend) to turning his lone scholarship offer from Arkansas State into a career in the NFL. I found out that Machine Gun Kelly’s last bank robbery was in Tupelo. And apparently Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself helped get Tupelo electricity. By the time I’d started to have my fill of Matt’s Tupelo board-of-tourism pitch, the cashier rang a bell and called my name to come and pick up the food.
The ringing bell brought me a sense of relief, which was quickly chased away by feelings of guilt for feeling relieved that my experience with Matt from Tupelo was coming to an end. I suppose I felt guilty for looking for some sense of reward in the situation. I wanted to feel good about myself for my charitable contribution, and I felt anything but. Before I could get too far into the deep end of my silent crisis of self-pity, Matt interrupted all my weird, swirling thoughts by saying, “No one else helped. The type of thankfulness I feel is not in my lexicon, I wish I had the right way to say thank you, so you’d know I meant it.”
I wish I had the right way to say thank you, so you’d know I meant it.
Matt hit on something that has been a struggle for me for as long as I can remember. Suddenly, all the awkwardness of the situation melted away, and as we walked together, transporting the Waffle House cuisine to the auto repair shop where he and his wife had been camped out, I opened up to Matt from Tupelo.
I told him I struggled with how to express gratitude every single day. When he said he didn’t believe me. I told him about all of you, the Arizona high school sports community, and how you helped take care of the family of a sportswriter many of you had never met when things were looking bleak for his family. I told him about my daughter’s late-2015 medical emergency, and the food, blankets, money, visits, childcare, messages, prayer, and tears of strangers that helped carry us through. I told him not having the right words to express just how thankful and fortunate I am keeps me up at night. I told him not knowing how to live life day-to-day while carrying a level of gratitude equal what I’d been given makes me perpetually anxious. I was oversharing with Matt from Tupelo, as he had been about his beloved hometown.
I asked him to do me a favor and just say thank you, and know that it’s enough. He told me I should do the same. He asked to pray for my kids, took the food, and left me standing on an Atlanta street corner.
As I prepare to head back to the Rivals 5-Star Challenge, I’m reminded of that conversation and the impact that it had on me. I try and take as many opportunities as I can to simply say thank you, and believe that people display acts of benevolence and grace because that’s who they are and how they were raised, not because they want something in return. Burdens are enough of a burden without making gratitude a burden. The Arizona high school sports community has been good to me, and in the countless times it has been necessary in the wake of illness, tragedy, or misfortune- you have all been very good to each other. Take the opportunity to make sure you thank the parents, coaches, teachers or teammates that come alongside you in your times of need, and believe that your gratitude is enough to fulfill whatever self-imposed debts you may have saddled yourself with.
You don’t need to wish for the right way to say thank you. Just say thank you.