A pair of kids show us how to deal with heartache

To say JR Hildebrand and Rory McIlroy are two of the biggest

losers is totally missing the point.

Sure, they had unfathomable meltdowns on two of the world’s

biggest sporting stages – McIlroy at Augusta National, Hildebrand

at the Indianapolis 500.

But they’ve come off looking like winners, teaching us all a

valuable lesson in how to cope with the realities of a sporting

life. Heck, life in general. Someone has to win. Everyone else gets

to lose – sometimes in the most excruciating way imaginable.

That doesn’t mean you have to look at yourself as a loser.

Funny how it took a couple of kids to show us that.

Winding down after wrecking on the very last turn at Indy,

Hildebrand went to dinner with his consoling family. They ended up

at a sports bar where, naturally, the TVs were tuned to a replay of

the race.

With just a few laps to go, Hildebrand’s No. 4 car surged into

the lead.

No one cheered. They knew it wouldn’t last. But Hildebrand

didn’t turn away.

”We were all just kind of sitting there,” he said Thursday,

even managing a bit of a chuckle, ”and everybody got a little

quiet.”

The 23-year-old Californian may spend a lifetime dealing with

questions about how he let a win in his very first Indy 500 slip

away within sight of the checkered flag. But no one can question

the poise and backbone he’s shown in the face of such a bitter

disappointment.

Over the last five days, Hildebrand has answered every question,

looked at every replay and managed to put a thoughtful, rationale

spin on his crash – which shouldn’t be a surprise, considering he’s

smart enough to have been accepted by MIT.

”I’ve always been a math and science guy,” said Hildebrand,

who turned down a chance to attend one of the nation’s most

prestigious universities because he wanted to be a racer. ”I take

a pretty logical look at how things go down.”

Yes, he made a big mistake, one he wouldn’t make again. But he’s

pretty sure he understands why he did what he did in that

split-second before he slammed into the wall.

”I don’t feel like this is going to define me,” Hildebrand

said, chatting by phone before heading off to a Friday testing

session in Milwaukee, ”unless I let it.”

Back in April, McIlroy took a four-stroke lead to the final

round of the Masters. The then-21-year-old was still ahead as he

made the turn, just nine holes away from donning the most

hideous-yet-stylish garment in golf: a green jacket.

Suddenly, he couldn’t hit anything right, his unflappable game

falling apart after he yanked his tee shot at No. 10 between a

couple of Augusta’s famous cabins, so far off the beaten path that

CBS didn’t even have a camera that could pick him up clearly. He

went on to shoot 80, burying his head as if he wanted to cry at one

point.

Then, he got right back up.

On Thursday, he was tied for the lead after the first round of

the Memorial.

”I’m fine,” McIlroy said a few weeks ago, looking back on

Augusta. ”It was a great chance to win a first major, but it’s

golf. It’s only golf at the end of the day. No one died. I’m very

happy with my life.”

For Hildebrand, there wasn’t even a chance to recover from his

one big mistake.

Last Sunday, when the rookie sped into the last of his 800 left

turns at more than 200 mph, a slower car appeared up ahead.

Hildebrand didn’t feel like he had enough time to back off – still

doesn’t, in fact, – so he kept his foot on the accelerator and

tried to pass on the outside.

The turns at Indy become littered with tiny pieces of rubber

that peel off during the 200-lap race. They’re known as

”marbles,” and they make that part of the track as slick as ice.

Hildebrand’s car got into those dreaded marbles. Essentially, that

was it. He plowed straight into the wall. Dan Wheldon drove on by

to take the checkered flag.

Hildebrand’s battered car skidded across the line in second

place, but winning is really the only thing that matters at

Indy.

Or is it?

When the No. 4 finally rolled to a stop, Hildebrand climbed out

with a look that might have been construed at shock. He managed a

weak wave toward the stands, indicating he was OK, then bent over

in anguish. Like everyone else, he was probably thinking, ”I can’t

believe I just did that.”

But, like McIlroy, Hildebrand quickly pulled himself together.

He took the media scrutiny head-on. He stopped by the garage to

apologize to his crew. He went on Twitter to thank rival driver

Paul Tracy for offering his sympathies in the aftermath.

Hildebrand won’t get his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy, at

least not this year.

But don’t call him a loser.

”You can beat yourself up about the different scenarios that

could’ve happened,” Hildebrand said. ”But I’ve tried really hard

not to do that. This was absolutely a learning process. At the same

time, I recognize I’m at the beginning of my career. I will have

other chances to rectify this situation.”

Considering he passed on MIT, Hildebrand should know a thing or

two about crunching percentages.

Then again, there are no guarantees at Indy, just as there are

none in life. Hildebrand may never get as close to winning as he

did on his very first try, no matter how many times he comes back

to the Brickyard.

If that happens, we have a feeling he’d be able to deal with

it.

These kids have taught us all a thing or two about winning.

Not losing.

National Writer Paul Newberry can be reached at

pnewberry(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/pnewberry1963