“Who is he?” said the T.

“What does he want?” said the E.

“What’s that in his hand?” said the A.

“What’s that by his head?” said the M.

The letters stared at the new arrival. They had not seen his likes before. He was tall and straight and cocky, with a Sharpie tucked into his bottom and a cell phone pressed against his top. He pounded his chest. He pointed to himself. He held a hand to his ear, as if to say, “I can’t hear you,” then he held a finger to his mouth, as if to say, “Shhh.”

“What’s he doing?” whispered the T.

“Beats me,” said the E.

“Putting on a show?” said the A.

“Looks kinda silly,” said the M.

The new arrival dropped to the ground and did push-ups. Then it popped up and struck a pose. Then it shook back and forth in assorted dance steps.

And then it spoke.

“Move over,” it said.

The other letters laughed. Move over? Why? They had been together forever. Just the four of them. T, E, A and M.

“What’s your name, kid?” the T asked.

“I,” came the answer.

The others chuckled.

“There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ ” the letters said.

Showmanship on the football field

The new letter stepped back. It pulled out a newspaper, which showed New Orleans receiver Joe Horn talking into a cell phone after scoring a touchdown.

It pulled out another newspaper, which showed San Franciscoreceiver Terrell Owens, during a game, autographing a football and delivering it to his broker in the stands.

It pulled out another newspaper, which quoted Minnesota receiver Randy Moss saying, “I play when I want to play.”

The new letter laid the newspapers at the old letters’ feet.

“Move over,” it said again.

The other letters examined the stories. This wasn’t the game they stood for. In their game, players didn’t invent personal celebrations. In their game, players didn’t bang their chests. In their game, nobody said “I play when I want to play.” You played when your team played, as hard as you could, from start to finish, same as everyone else.

“Move over,” the I said again.

“But there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ ” the other letters said.

The new sports world order

The I pulled out a small TV set. It showed Warren Sapp skipping through another team’s warm-ups. It showed Allen Iverson skipping practice. It showed Keyshawn Johnson berating his coach on the sidelines. It showed Pedro Martinez pointing at a batter and threatening to bean him.

It showed running back T.J. Duckett doing an end zone dance with his team losing by 25 points. It showed receiver Chad Johnson holding up a sign during a game that read, “Dear NFL, PLEASE don’t fine me AGAIN!!!!!”

The old letters shook their heads. This was all so alien. All this chest thumping and spotlight grabbing. What happened to humility? Grace? Team spirit?

The letter I held out one more newspaper. It said that, despite the 15-yard penalty and the $30,000 fine, most young fans thought Joe Horn grabbing a cell phone in the middle of a game was funny and acceptable.

“I guess times have changed,” said the T.

“We gotta change, too,” said the E.

“Let’s make room,” said the A.

“I’ll slide over,” said the M.

They cleared a space. The I only laughed.

“There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ ” it said.

It was then the old letters realized: the I had not come to join them, but to replace them.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. He will sign copies of his latest best-seller, “The Five People You Meet In Heaven,” at 5 p.m. Monday at Aria Booksellers in Howell and at noon Tuesday at Sam’s Club in Southgate. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and
“Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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