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Amateur sportsMarch weather brings out the magic of play

Posted: Saturday, March 10, 2012 | 12:00 AM

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Elite athletes like David Beckham are still driven to a degree by the natural instinct to play, not unlike the rest of us. (Chris Young/Canadian Press) Elite athletes like David Beckham are still driven to a degree by the natural instinct to play, not unlike the rest of us. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

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A freakish, glorious spring day surfaced in Toronto mid-week. The sun shone, a warm wind rustled the leafless trees, and it reached 15 degrees on the temperature gauge. I'm told it was just that way in many parts of the country.

I ran in shorts and sleeveless, with my bounding terrier Davey leading the way, down to the shore of Lake Ontario. On the way we encountered cyclists, a legion of joggers, children on scooters, soccer players, and someone flying a giant-sized kite. Then we sprinted past the skateboard park where literally hundreds of kids were rocketing over jumps and turning impossible tricks.

People were playing.
A freakish, glorious spring day surfaced in Toronto mid-week. The sun shone, a warm wind rustled the leafless trees, and it reached 15 degrees on the temperature gauge. I'm told it was just that way in many parts of the country.

I ran in shorts and sleeveless, with my bounding terrier Davey leading the way, down to the shore of Lake Ontario. On the way we encountered cyclists, a legion of joggers, children on scooters, soccer players, and someone flying a giant-sized kite. Then we sprinted past the skateboard park where literally hundreds of kids were rocketing over jumps and turning impossible tricks.

People were playing.

They were folks of all ages. Lots of infants could be seen toddling around on the sand with their snowsuits half-off chasing beach balls. A gang of mothers running while pushing strollers created a traffic jam on the bike path as the serious peddlers waited for an opportunity to pass on their triathlon machines.

In the bay there were even some kayaks at work. The paddlers were taking advantage of the open water to navigate an early-season course.

Once done running, I phoned my dad, who lives up near Georgian Bay, to wish him a happy 81st birthday. My mom had to go fetch him from the front yard.  Apparently he was practicing sand wedge shots by hitting golf balls out of the rapidly disappearing snow banks.
Everybody was playing.

This wonderful, refreshing, gift of a day got me thinking about the natural instinct that all human beings have to play at games. It strikes me that, if given the chance, we all seem drawn to the place where we begin. We gravitate towards the field of play. Maybe it's because it's the closest we can get to a feeling of youth and complete freedom.

Playing has no ulterior motives. It's just playing.

I thought about what was happening in the sporting world. I had seen that the marvelous 36-year-old NFL quarterback Peyton Manning had been released from the only professional team he had ever suited up for. Apparently, the four-time NFL MVP, who had missed the entire season for the Indianapolis Colts because of a series of neck surgeries, was due to be paid a $28-million US bonus if the team kept him.

The money, at least for now, has prevented him from being part of a team.

It's not that Manning needed to collect on the bonus. He's a rich man and he's won all of the biggest prizes, including a Super Bowl title. It's just that he has this instinct to keep going.

"I still want to play," said the gracious Manning upon his release. "But there is no other team I want to play for."

Then there is the subject of David Beckham, the English footballer, who at 36 years of age can still create a stir wherever he goes. Beckham has an estimated personal wealth of $125 million. He doesn't need to have beer cans thrown at him while executing corners at Rogers Centre during the course of Champions League play against TFC.

Then again, Beckham loves to play above all things. He responded by setting up the tying goal and making a difference, proving once again that he still possesses the ability to play better than the others and determine the outcome of the game.

It's well known that Beckham is desperate to appear in an active role at the Olympics in London for Team Great Britain. He would be one of three over-age players allowed on each squad in the under-23 soccer tournament. It's not that he needs to play, he just really wants to.

That's the kind of player you want to have on your team.

My last example relates to Heather Moyse.  

Who, you say?

The 33-year-old Canadian Olympic bobsleigh gold medallist and international rugby star is just beginning a new playing career. She's decided that she wants to be a top-flight cyclist and represent her country as a sprinter.

"She's got the power," said Cycling Canada's CEO Greg Mathieu when I asked him about her chances. "But she lacks tactics."

Nevertheless, at the Pan American championships in Mar Del Plata, Argentina this week, Moyse raced to fourth place in her first international appearance. That's not bad for someone who's just getting into the sport.

Earlier, when Moyse talked with me about her cycling ambitions and I asked her why at this age she would undertake another athletic challenge as opposed to moving into another phase of her life, she had a quick response.

"Because it's there," she said. "It's another game to play and that's when I'm at my best."

It was a small window, that uncommon day of warm weather and sunny skies in the middle of the week. Today it's raining and the temperature will drop at least 10 degrees to "more seasonal levels," as the meteorologists say.

Fewer people are outside playing.

Still, those brief few hours got me thinking. I was struck by this natural state of being that humans seem to gravitate towards. When conditions are right, regardless of age or ability, we seem to instinctually want to have fun and participate in games. It's unfortunate that not all of us can enjoy that opportunity on a consistent basis throughout our lives.

Reality and survival can and do get in the way.

Still, for a moment on a warm March day, it was good to recall the mystery and the magic of play.

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