For those that know me, it may be a bit surprising to hear that, as a child, sports were the very last thing on my mind.

Really, they’d ask? The same guy who grew up in Title Town USA? The same guy who has spent time working both as a sports editor and a youth sports advocate? And the same guy who teared up at the end of ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary about the Boston Red Sox’s epic comeback during the 2004 ALCS? (Yup, that really happened.)

Yes, I am that same guy. And it is truly amazing to see just how much sports ultimately ended up shaping me into the person I am today – both literally and figuratively.

Just 15 years ago, I was a short, overweight little kid who was more than content with watching countless hours of cartoons and chowing down on junk food. I was not very active, had very little friends, and had about as much confidence as a rookie cornerback facing off against Tom Brady for the first time.

However, after moving to a new town in fifth grade, I was introduced to an entirely different group of kids that took me under their wing and introduced me to this game called “baseball” – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, it may sound as though I am ripping the entire premise of this blog post from the plot of The Sandlot, but much like Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez and the rest of the crew helped bring Scotty Smalls out of his shell by introducing him to a whole new world of fun and friendship, my story ends up playing out in much the same way. The different life skills Smalls gained and the way that he was able to create an identity through an activity that he never would have given a thought to otherwise is what’s truly of note here – and I believe that is exactly why youth sports are so vital to the development of any young child.

When I first began playing baseball, I tried focusing on the simple stuff – like how to swing a bat properly or how to field a grounder (ALLIGATOR TECHNIQUE, PEOPLE!!!) – and it was quite apparent how far behind I was in terms of development compared to the rest of my teammates. In fact, it was so bad at first that I almost quit entirely. Yet one of my teammates, who remains my best friend to this day, didn’t let me give up, and I eventually hit a WHOPPING .089 during my rookie year.

However, me learning how to hit a ball is not the most important thing to take away here; rather, the fact that I learned I could actually be successful at something other than sitting down and, even more importantly, find others who would help me do so along the way changed my life forever.

As the years went on, I continued to try even more sports and gained even more friends, and I can proudly say that I no longer look like a blind lawn gnome trying to find his way out of a wet paper bag while on the field of play. I also learned the importance of maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle, and for someone who was once trending toward morbid obesity as a child, I truly believe that my decision to finally become involved in an organized sport – albeit at a later age than most – may have saved my life.

Furthermore, my passion for sports grew so much that I served as the beat writer for my high school’s athletic teams, continued dabbling in sports journalism in college, and even spent time working as a sports editor for Bleacher Report for a few years post-graduation. Now I am working for one of the nation’s leading youth sports nonprofits, and I cannot even express how much I love my job.

Not only did youth sports provide me with confidence, companionship, and entertainment, but they have literally helped carve out the path I have taken thus far in life. And while I am not saying that every one that plays sports as a child will travel down the same path as I have, I am saying with absolute certainty that any child will benefit from participating in youth sports in at least some way.

I wish I could go back in time and tell little Michael to start swinging a bat even sooner, but at least I am now able to devote my time toward helping other young kids throughout the nation get off the couch and into the game – and I can only hope that they are impacted as positively as I was and learn as many lessons as I did along the way.

– Mike Mattes, Program Assistant