As the 2008-09 football season reaches its peak, I am musing over my experiences with the game and the wisdom we can glean from the statements of its great coaches who spent so much of their time doing what we do: developing others.
I grew up playing football in a part of the United States where many people worshipped at the gridiron rather than religious services. To give you a sense of what it was like, here’s a famous comment from coach Wally Butts of Georgia about Alabama:
“In Alabama, an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in Bear Bryant.”
As a seventh-grade quarterback, I lived in great fear of dropping the ball on the snap from center. My only greater fear was what to do with the ball when I got it.
“Gentlemen, it is better to have died a small boy than to fumble this football.” – John Heisman
When I was supposed to throw a pass, the ends simply seemed to disappear in the crowd. I threw the ball into the abyss, not knowing where it might go or to whom — and it felt awful!
“Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad.” – Coach Darrell Royal, University of Texas
Over time, I got badly beaten up so often that I started to develop a wry sense of humor about the game.
“There’s nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you.” – Coach Woody Hayes, Ohio State
Not caring so much turned out to be a good thing. Laughing at the situation and refusing to get all worked up became a calming factor. Some of the coaches actually had us pray that we would win, and I had the impression they wanted us to pray that we would beat the brains out of the other kids. I was not convinced God saw something good about me hurting other kids, and I was hoping God would help the other team adopt this same perspective.
“I’ve found that prayers work best when you have big players.” – Coach Knute Rockne, Notre Dame
As I eventually had the opportunity to play for coaches with more perspective, I gained vision on the field. I started seeing my receivers. The deafening noise of my fears subsided. The more I enjoyed playing the game, the more I had fun. The more fun I had, the better I played. All of sudden I was a “star.” I had to laugh again. I was certainly no star, I just learned how to relax and lose myself in the experience.
Later, when I was in college and boxing, I learned it was very similar to football and shared some of the same goals, but boxing was far more honest about the objective of the game. I was still convinced that the idea of trying to hurt other guys seemed pretty dumb, and it was even less intelligent to be in a position to get hurt.
“The only qualifications for a lineman are to be big and dumb. To be a back, you only have to be dumb.” – Rockne
Under my breath, I was gaining the ability to laugh at the whole rigmarole. The businesses of sport and learning seemed to be backward. When Oklahoma had a succession of national championship football teams but the university itself faced stiff resistance getting dollars from the state Legislature, then-university President George Lynn Cross made his famous plea to the legislators:
“Let’s build a university the football team can be proud of!”
As an athlete and a sports fan, I think there is much we can learn from sport. I’m glad I had the opportunity to play, but I hope we can get all of this in a little better perspective. In business, we often seem to glorify athletics as a great example of teamwork, motivation and commitment to winning. But there’s a lot to be learned from what they do wrong, too. As coach Murray Warmath of Minnesota said:
“If lessons are learned in defeat, our team is getting a great education.”
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