I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise, and yet it always does. Time passes. We grow up and grow old. Memory fades. It seems like we’ve barely reached our feet when suddenly we’ve been running for so long, so fast, that we forget to check out the scenery. And we try not to slow down, because we’re so afraid we won’t be able to run that fast again.
It’s nice, then, that every once in a while life makes us take a breath. We get a moment to look back in wonder. We enjoy an afternoon of remembering goals set when we were younger, celebrating old triumphs, appreciating the people who shared our race and helped us on our way.
That’s the way it was Sunday afternoon at this year’s induction ceremony for the West Deptford High School Athletic Hall of Fame. For more than two decades, outstanding athletes and championship teams have been recognized with admittance to the hall. The program we received Sunday listed each of those who have been so honored, and I read through each name almost reverently, remembering the glory days of my classmates and coaches, celebrating the accomplishments of those who conquered WD’s playing fields before and after my time there.
But the real spotlight was on this year’s class, which included my former classmate Mike Page, whom I remember as a gifted basketball player. Others, like field hockey powerhouse Chelsea Cipriani and South Jersey record-holding football kicker Jake Brownell, graced the halls of West Deptford after I graduated (and of course, learning that someone who graduated in 2005 was old enough to be inducted into a hall of fame made me feel pretty ancient).
The event program included each of their impressive resumes, indicating not only points scored and titles won, but also what happened next. Mike Page graduated from Bucknell and had a career in professional basketball in London. Chelsea Cipriani graduated from Wake Forest and now coaches college field hockey. After graduating Temple University with a degree in biology, Jake Brownell went on to earn a master's in Religion and is currently studying to be a sports medicine surgeon.
But can I be honest with you? As deserving as all of these people are, I was only there for one reason. Every year the Hall of Fame welcomes one team and four individuals, and this year the fourth individual inductee was my brother, Mark.
Now, as much as I enjoy looking back on my growing up years, I always have a hard time playing “remember when” in November. You see, it was in November—in fact, 14 years ago this week—that we lost our mother to cancer. And even though we know—she taught us—that she was now at home, and waiting for us, November is always a bit bittersweet, the autumn air a little heavy with its mixture of gratitude and loss.
But as I listened to my brother Tim as he shared memories of growing up as Mark’s favorite tackling dummy, the sweetness of those growing up years overcame any bitterness. And as Tim recited his litany of the many ways he lost to Mark through the years—how his big brother chalked up victories not only on the WD fields, but in their “blacktop Nerf football with a steady quarterback. One-on-one night wiffle ball with table lamps hanging out of the upstairs kitchen window. Driveway hockey with a net made of wood and chicken wire. Rolled sweat sock basketball with a rounded wire hanger slammed in the closet for a rim…..I lost them all to Mark Dixon!”—we all remembered the latest, the hardest challenge my brother faced, the fight that finally had a name at the end of last year: when Mark was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
But as Tim knew better than anyone else, my brother Mark just won’t consider the possibility of losing. And yesterday was another victory lap.
“When the smoke cleared, and before the final whistle blew, Dixon turned on the afterburners and didn’t stop until he was on his knees, blessing himself in the end zone, because he beat cancer,” my brother shared with the room full of hometown heroes.
And in his own speech, Mark tried to bring the topic back to sports after thanking all the members of his forever home team—his wife and daughter, our parents and the brother and sisters that supported him in his latest battle.
"What is the value of sports in an educational setting? What do we learn?" he asked those who had gathered at Nicolosi's for the occasion.
"I can tell you what I learned. I've learned about friendships and respect, I have learned to set goals and set them high. I have learned to gather up a good team and about working together towards a common goal. I have learned that to reach that goal it usually takes hard work, sometimes very hard work," Mark reminded us.
"But most of all, I have learned that if something is important, no matter what obstacles are out in front of you, never give up," he concluded, and an entire banquet room wiped their eyes.
I wish I had the space and the words to share all that transpired in that room on Sunday. But I guess it was just a case of you had to be there—not only for the ceremony, the accolades, the honors, but also for the growing up years, the pickup games of horse, the teasing at the dinner table, the scary nights and the glory days that come with family. Each member of my family knows these moments well. All of them are kept carefully in our hearts, bundled like the thousands of photographs of my brothers in various uniforms that my father took during their high school playing days. The Hall of Fame induction allowed us to open that box and smile. And on Sunday, we acknowledged publicly what we always knew—that, win or lose, we’re all in this together.
After the ceremony, I congratulated Mike Page, who was my classmate in the class of way back when. “I graduated with you,” I told him, and I could tell he couldn’t place me.
“I was Mary Dixon,” I reminded, and as he graciously smiled as though he remembered, I added, “I’m Mark Dixon’s sister.”