Hurricane Katrina was a life-changing event. Hundreds of people died. Thousands of lives were disrupted. Homes were destroyed. Businesses lost. Families displaced.

Meanwhile, the pro football New Orleans Saints were among the homeless because the Superdome suddenly wasn’t so super.

But the Saints never stopped playing football. When they upset the Carolina Panthers in the first week of the NFL season, some commentators suggested that the Saints may have become “America’s team.”

The dilemma facing the Saints grabbed the headlines, but think of the numerous high school and college athletic programs that were adversely affected.

In a way, it seems silly to talk about sports in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But the national disaster had at least one thing in common with the unnatural disaster known as 9/11, in that the games went on.

Many people have said that sports provide a distraction, but sports are more than a distraction. They’re a reflection of life.

There’s plenty to criticize in sports-big egos, selfish owners and players, and misplaced priorities, to name a few. But for all its problems, sports give us an opportunity to heal, to move on, to reach out, and to help keep life in perspective.

Television brings into our living rooms pictures of sold-out college and pro football stadiums. During trying times like these there are moments of silence, opportunities to donate to relief efforts, and reminders that people are hurting.

Sports give something for communities large and small to enjoy and rally around. In a way, football resembles town hall meetings, with the major difference being that a lot of people attend football games.

Consider the number of people who attend middle school, high school and small college football games each week. The games provide a place to cheer on the local team while visiting with family and friends.

It’s a little bit like a family reunion, even if we are a somewhat dysfunctional family.

While the major team sports receive most of the attention and water cooler talk, sports aren’t just about major college and professional sports. Sports give athletes of varying abilities a chance to compete in a plethora of sports.

Sports at the grade school, high school and small college level are about personal achievements and improvements-physical, mental, spiritual and intellectual-that make us better people, just like physics, orchestra or high school theater.

And sports aren’t limited to student-athletes. Local marathon men Bob Woelk and Randy Wiens run marathons. My dad ran marathons into his 60s. I don’t believe any of these men have come close to winning a marathon, but there’s more to sports than winning. There’s the sense of accomplishment by working hard to meet the challenge, to finish the race.

A friend of mine in California tells me that triathlons are really popular out there. About 1,500 people of all shapes and sizes took part in one such event that includes running, swimming and biking. He said that he saw a paraplegic in a triathlon. Helpers lifted him out of the water at the end of the swim, put him in his “vehicle,” and he pulled himself up the boat ramp.

It was enough to bring tears to your eyes. Why did he do it? Not for fame or fortune.

My friend’s son-in-law competed with a couple of thousand participants in an iron man competition in Brazil earlier this summer. He was in the first five coming out of the 5-mile swim, and was in the lead after 80 miles into the 105-mile bike ride when it happened-his body cramped completely.

He ended up walking the 26-mile marathon run and, of course, didn’t finish very high. But he finished. He certainly didn’t complete the race for fame or fortune.

Sports are like a gigantic mirror that reflects life. When we look in the mirror, we see that sometimes character is built, other times characters are built. We see good sportsmanship and bad sportsmanship. We see inspiring stories and tragic stories. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose.

If that’s not life, what is?

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