Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

Coaches and athletes like to justify the existence of interscholastic and intercollegiate sports by pointing to the life lessons athletic competition fosters.

“It’s not about winning and losing, it’s about how you play the game,” they say. Most of the time, that’s simply not true. If it were, there would be no market for scoreboards or trophies.

Yet, occasionally something happens that makes you take notice. Something happens that makes you believe that a greater good is being served on the baseball field, the gridiron, or in this case, the volleyball floor.

During October, the Anna-Jonesboro volleyball team raised money for a 3-year-old girl in the community who is battling cancer. At the same time, Anna-Jonesboro coach Amy Fitzgerald Wilson was diagnosed with cancer last April.

After the Anna-Jonesboro team had made its donation to the child’s family, it was time for the teams to be introduced. Sparta was the Wildcats’ opponent that night. And, as each Sparta player was introduced, they approached the Anna-Jonesboro bench, shook Fitzgerald Wilson’s hand and gave her a $25 gas card — in total, $400 to offset expenses of traveling to her treatment.

Sparta coach Abbey Gerlach Miles organized the effort.

“They did it in a really unique way,” Fitzgerald Wilson said, battling tears. “I ended up giving some of the money to the little girl we were sponsoring that night. They definitely needed it more than I do.

“It was very touching. It was very selfless. It was very humbling.”

The gesture was also a prime example of one of life’s more overlooked lessons: It’s only a game. The final score of each contest seems like life and death when you’re intimately involved. However, when real life intervenes, the frivolity of our games becomes apparent.

“The game is the game, but I think all the girls on both sides learned so much more of value that evening,” Fitzgerald Wilson said.

The story doesn’t stop there.

Anna-Jonesboro played at Carterville on the Lions’ Pink Out Night later in the season. Someone had purchased a jersey in honor of Fitzgerald Wilson. Carterville coach Erika Lange wore the jersey on the Carterville bench.

“The response from other teams, the players, the coaches, has been humbling, and it just goes to show how many great people we have out there,” Fitzgerald Wilson said. “It’s not just about the sport. It’s not just about winning and losing, it’s about life. That’s what I always try to make my cancer fundraiser about.”

Fitzgerald Wilson, who just turned 40, will hopefully settle the score with cancer Dec. 19 when she has surgery to remove the tumor.

“I’m doing great,” she said. “I cannot complain. I’m a pretty ornery person anyway. It’s just something to work through daily. Cancer is everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you play by the rules. I feel very fortunate.”

I suspect the players from Anna-Jonesboro, Sparta and Carterville will remember those two nights for the rest of their lives, although the scores of the games are likely to be forgotten.

LES WINKELER is the sports editor for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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