The Pursuit of Happiness
Scott Wagers was smiling and I don’t know why.
He was laughing when he should have been ripping out his hair. He was having the time of his life while the weight of the world rested on his shoulders.
In February, Lamar fired Pat Knight with five games left in the season. Knight got closure and a nice buyout. Wagers was left in the not-so-unique position of an assistant coach wondering about his future.
Lamar brought in an interim head coach who was not on Knight’s staff. He ultimately got the interim tag removed and is left with the decision of what to do with Wagers and Knight’s two other assistants.
Wagers arrived at Lamar for the start of the 2013-14 season. The previous 13 years of his life were spent as an assistant at East Tennessee State. And it wasn’t just his life. It was that of his wife and their two kids, a son and daughter.
So after 13 years of stability in a business that is certain of anything but, Wagers was in a state of flux.
And on this particular day, the timing for me to see him was especially terrible. It was four days after Lamar ended its 4-win season and a permanent hire had yet to be made -the interim coach was still the interim. The Montagne Center (where Lamar plays) was filled with more questions than victories.
So Wagers, still with the title of Lamar assistant coach, walked onto a previously vacant Billy Tubbs Court with a basketball and his son. The Lamar women’s team, which had a postseason to prepare for, had finished up their practice a few minutes prior.
Then Scott Wagers proceeded to be as happy and full of life as anybody I have ever seen with a basketball in their hands.
He and his son played games in which the first to hit a certain number of shots won. Wagers’ son was of elementary school age, but his gelled blonde hair and face were perfectly modeled after his father’s.
The rules changed each game to level the playing field. Wagers, who played college ball at Tennessee Wesleyan, stayed glued to the foul line with different requirements. Initially he could only swish his shots, then he had to swish his shots and make 10 consecutively without missing. He added a rule that he had to bank his shots, then make the free throws with his eyes closed.
His son had to adhere to the rule of making any shot he wanted, as long as it was outside of the paint. The kid had some game.
Wagers’ reactions were better than his trick shots.
“THE OLD MAN’S STILL GOT IT,” he would howl after making his 10th shot to win the round, shooting his fists triumphantly in the air. He’d jokingly point to a nonexistent crowd to thank them.
His son, with the slight sting of defeat still present, laughed.
They finished up their time with some full-court one-on-one. To finish, Wagers showed his son how slamming the ball on the right spot of the hardwood in front of the basket would bounce it in the hoop.
This was Scott Wagers, the guy who was at one place for 13 years, came to another place where the team finished 4-26 and the coach who hired him was fired midway through the season.
This was the guy who didn’t know if he would have a job in a week or a couple days. Would he have to lift up his whole family and move again?
So I asked him, verbatim, “Scott, how are you smiling right now?”
“Avi,” he said. “I have a son.”
Did he mean that he had to stay positive in front of his son? Or was Wagers saying that while spending time with his son, how could he not be smiling?
I didn’t press further to find the answer. Instead I wished him well as they both walked out of the gym.
The most difficult aspect of my first full-time sportswriting job never involved an angry coach, mob of helicopter parents or tight deadline.
It was the adjustment of being alone.
I went into a situation before where I didn’t know a soul when I decided to pack up my life in Maryland and attend Indiana University. I made friends there and a new life. Doing it again in Beaumont, Texas wouldn’t be an issue, I thought.
I was wrong. It has been extremely difficult. And I caution anybody in the field who has a job offer in a place that is a flight away from anybody they’ve ever known, to think long and hard about the situation they’re putting themselves in.
Because just as Scott Wagers taught me that day on the basketball court, so much joy can be derived from surrounding yourself -or at least being reasonable driving distance from- those you love. Whether they be family, friends (yes, bros can be loved) or a significant other.
Life makes you choose when you’re in this biz. It’s just so rare that everything is able to click at once with the right location, including the right people, being in the same spot as that job you love.
I thought sportswriting would be enough to overshadow the opportunity cost of being transported to another world that’s a mix between Cajun culture and Texas badassery (yes, I’m using this word without reservations). And for some people maybe it would be.
I thought I was one of those people when I was sitting at home unemployed during the summer following college graduation. At that point, I was so desperate for a job that I would have taken one anywhere without question -and I did.
But I’m realizing that there’s a scale of happiness in life and we put things on one side of the scale and see how much they “weigh” (how much joy they bring us). I used to think that sportswriting weighed the most because I really do love what I do and still have a passion for it. What I underestimated was how much physically seeing those who meant something to me, weighed.
I lived at home for 17 years and then was in a dorm (with roommates) for two and then a fraternity house for two more. Beaumont was the first place where I opened the door to where I lived after coming back from work and knew I might not see anybody else for the remainder of the day. I had to just get used to the silence, which can be nice at times, but not for long stretches.
I’m not going to quit sportswriting, but this goes out as a “buyer beware” to those journalists applying to a place far away that is not big enough to be a social hub. You may not miss them your first week on the job, or the first month, but at some point, you’re going to wish you could get in the car and see somebody you care about. Instead, you’ll settle for a phone call or Skype, which helps, but it’s really a Band Aid over a gash.
Scott Wagers was smiling that day and now I know why.