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Sports helped mold Brown's Bob Flanders
I knew who Bob Flanders was long before he was appointed the state receiver for Central Falls, long before he became a assistant justice of the R.I. Supreme Court.
It was back roughly 40 years ago, back when he was a very good running back on a struggling Brown football team, a 6-foot, 205-pound kid from Long Island who still holds the all-time Brown record for the longest touchdown run from scrimmage — 94 yards.
The Ivy League was full of kids like Flanders back then, middle-class kids who used football to get into school, kids who probably never would have gotten through the campus gates without sports, kids who used sports to open up the world for them, sports as life-changer.
You don’t think sports has the potential to change a family’s history?
Talk to Bob Flanders.
“I had never even heard of Brown,” he said on a recent morning in a conference room inside Hinckley, Allen & Snyder, a downtown law firm.
He was at a Long Island parochial school where sports were important, the oldest of seven kids. His father was a salesman. The Ivy League? The Ivy League might as well been on the moon. And there was no way his parents would have been able to afford it anyway. But he was all-Long Island as a quarterback, he was a very good student, and both Dartmouth and Brown began recruiting him, complete with offers of financial aid.
It was not a good time for Brown football. The coach was Len Jardine and it just wasn’t happening for him, Brown always mired in the second division, battling for respectability, not Ivy titles. Flanders was one of the few bright spots, a running back who switched to quarterback his senior year.
He also played baseball, good enough to play in the Cape League, the best summer collegiate league in the country.
It was a fractious time on college campuses, the late 1960s and early ’70s. The Vietnam War. The explosion of the counter-culture that seemed to make every other kid look as if they’d just stepped off a Sgt. Pepper album cover. The women’s liberation movement. It often seemed as if the country were in the midst of a nervous breakdown. It was not the easiest of times to be an athlete, but through it all Flanders blossomed as a student, good enough to be Phi Beta Kappa and be accepted into Harvard Law School.
He also was drafted by the Detroit Tigers.
And he got married.
So for the next three years he went to Harvard during the school year and played minor-league baseball in the summer. One year it was in Batavia, N.Y. The next it was Clinton, Iowa. Then it was Montgomery, Ala., in the heart of the South. And all the time it was riding rickety buses in the middle of the night, long rides when he would sit in the dark and ask himself what was he doing this for, as if he had come to know that chasing a dream always comes with a price tag.
He played in places where they would auction off a pig in the seventh inning, places that seemed to be out of a different time and place, so very, very, far from Harvard Yard. One of those summers his teammate was Ron LeFlore, who later went on to play for the Detroit Tigers, but then had just come out of prison. Minor-league baseball can make for strange bedfellows.
To say it was all an amazing experience is an understatement.
He was both an outfielder and a relief pitcher, but he never got to go to spring training due to law school, never got to truly commit himself to it, and at the end of three years his spikes got put into that footlocker labeled childhood. It was time for real life.
But the lessons remained, lessons he’s taken with him through his life like some moveable feast. How to manage your time. How to be on time. How to get along with others. How to be part of a team. All of the lessons sports teach us, even when we don’t know we are learning them.
And the biggest lesson he learned?
He learned to deal with failure.
“In sports you always are failing,” Flanders says. “Most of my football career I spent on my back. Every year at Brown we would only win two or three games. The best baseball players fail two out of every three times at the plate. The very game I ran 94 yards for a school record I also shattered my knee. Sports teaches you how ephemeral everything is. It teaches you that the most important thing in life is just showing up every day.”
Flanders has come to believe that, maybe most of all, sports teaches you how to manage failure. They teach you that there’s always another game, always another day, another opportunity.
It’s one of the reasons why he was attracted to litigation as a lawyer, how it’s about winning and losing, just like sports.
Sports, that shaped his life as a kid.
Sports, that got him to Brown and Harvard Law School.
Sports, that changed everything.
The lessons of which he still carries with him every day of his life.
By Bill Reynolds, The Providence Journal