First and Ten

Recently, this blog has discussed some heavy topics and looked at some dark movie clips, so I’m lightening up a bit for this post. We are in the middle of the high school football playoffs, the college bowl season is about to begin, and the Super Bowl will be here before we know it. In short, it’s a perfect time to talk about football.

Football has taken a hit lately (pun intended) with all its injuries and now the threat of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, resulting from too many blows to a player’s brain. But it’s still America’s sport – at least for now. In the 2013-2014 school year (the latest year I could find statistics for), 1,093,234 boys played high school football, compared to 541,054 who played high school basketball, 482,629 who played high school baseball, and 417,419 who played high school soccer. Why is football so popular? Perhaps there is a smidge of truth in what New York Times best-selling children’s and young adult author, Laurie Halse Anderson, once said: “The same boys who got detention in elementary school for beating the crap out of people are now rewarded for it. They call it football.” More likely, the popularity of football is due to what fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett said: “The thing about football – the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football.” Said another way, football teaches its players and fans not just the rules and strategy of the game, but many truths about life.

There have been at least 180 movies made about football, and there are some important life lessons we can learn from many of them. Here are just a few:

We should celebrate Diversity. Not everyone can play quarterback, just as not everyone can be the head of an organization. To be a successful football team, you need players who are good at offense, defense and special teams. And within each of those, you need individuals who have different skills. Most wide receivers do not make good interior linemen and vice versa. And kickers and punters are generally not exceptional at anything other than kicking and punting. The key, then, to a great football team (and any organization) is realizing what your needs are and drafting (or hiring) different persons who fit those needs. Do you remember the scene from Leatherheads[i] where Dodge, played by George Clooney, attempts to find the right role for each of his teammates? His kicker is a huge man, and when his kickoff goes sideways directly into the crowd, and his field goal attempt goes directly into the rear of the lineman in front of him, Dodge realizes his more natural position might be as a blocker. Dodge moves the kicker into position and tells him to hit anyone that gets close to his quarterback. Taking Dodge’s directions literally, this giant of a man punches two rushing defensive linemen, followed by the referee who steps in to stop him. But you get the idea. Just ask Dak Prescott what it’s like to play quarterback when your All-Pro left tackle, Tyrone Smith, is out with an injury. You end up getting sacked eight times in a single game. Likewise, just ask a CEO how her workday goes when her staff is not around to handle the numerous tasks of a functioning company.

Merit is (or at least should be) rewarded. I realize some coaches have blind spots and sometimes play their favorites, even when someone on the bench is more deserving. But all sports put heavy emphasis on statistics that reflect results, so those who produce generally play more. Here is a scene from the movie, Invincible,[ii] the true story of Vince Papale, a 30 year-old bartender, who is given the chance by the Philadelphia Eagles at an open tryout and ends up making the team, even though he would be considered too old for a rookie, didn’t play college football, and played only one year in high school:

At 30 years old, Papale became the oldest rookie in the history of the NFL, and played three years for the Eagles. He was a special teams standout and voted a captain of the Eagles in 1978 (as well as “Man of the Year” due to his many charitable activities). Papale is an example of the way life should be – those who produce should get the rewards, regardless of who you know, how you look, how well you play politics, or regardless of your social or educational background. I know, I’m a foolish dreamer, but companies should be more like football teams. I have found, for example, that the best attorneys are not always graduates of the highest regarded law schools, but it is hard to convince some employers (including mine) to look at anyone who didn’t graduate from an Ivy League college or another highly rated law school.

Great things are accomplished through preparation, teamwork and hard work. Jerry Rice, generally considered the greatest wide receiver of all time and who still holds the NFL records for the most receptions, the most touchdowns, and the most receiving yards, said, “The enemy of the best is the good. If you’re always settling with what’s good, you’ll never be the best. Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.” First it takes preparation, both physical and mental. Good coaches know the best players are the ones that are both physically and mentally prepared. Or as the future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning once said, “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” But football is more than just 11 guys congregating at the stadium. That group of guys must become a team by putting aside different backgrounds and especially their egos for the betterment of the team. Remember the Titans[iii] is the true story of the T.C. Williams high school (Alexandria, Virginia) football team that is racially integrated for the first time in 1971 under a federal mandate and how that team became a unifying symbol for the community as the players and their parents learn to trust and depend on each other. Here is a montage of scenes from the movie, illustrating how they ultimately became a team:

That team went undefeated, winning the state championship despite racial prejudice, school board politics, and maybe worst of all, a devastating injury to one of the team’s best players, rendering him a paraplegic for the rest of his life. Even sadder, that same player (Gerry Bertier) is killed when hit by a drunk driver ten years later, just after he had won a gold medal for the shot put in the Paralympic Games. As leaders and teammates in life, there is little we can’t accomplish if we have the same attitude and drive as the coaches and players from the T.C. Williams 1971 football team. Legendary college football coach Lou Holtz may have said it best: “Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.”

We compete not just against the opposition, but with ourselves. We’ve all heard the expression, “practice makes perfect,” but a friend once taught me the expression ought to be, “perfect practice, makes perfect.” We will perform as we practice, whether in sports or in life in general. In life, though, we don’t really get to practice, but how we handle the small, everyday tasks will have a major impact on how we handle the major drama in our lives. If we can learn how to do the little things effectively, the big things will take care of themselves. But in a world where we all admit nobody’s perfect, how can we ever practice perfectly? Coach Gaines in Friday Night Lights[iv] has the right idea:

In sports, we will always be able to point to someone who is faster, stronger and more athletic overall than we are. In life, we will always be able to point to someone who is smarter, better educated, and more talented than we are. If we compare ourselves to others, then, we will always end up disappointed. So instead of comparing ourselves to others, we should compare our performance against our own abilities. The question we should be asking ourselves is, did I do a given task to the best of my ability by using my best judgment and putting in the appropriate amount of time and effort? If we can say yes to that, in the final analysis, we performed perfectly.

Although winning does matter, you can’t win all the time. Unfortunately, in life there are very few participation trophies; the world’s highest rewards are reserved for winners. But even the best and brightest don’t win all the time. Not every pass is completed, not every run results in a touchdown, and tackles are sometimes missed. But maybe that’s a good thing. It is through our failures that the best lessons are learned, as we think about what went wrong and resolve not to make the same mistake again. How we react to our failures, is the measure of the type of person we are. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” There is a difference, then, in experiencing defeat and being defeated. And even when we are riding the high of success, we should remember that it can all change in an instant. Just ask Gerry Bertier from Remember the Titans. Or Joe Theismann after his leg injury ended his career. Or just recently, All-Pro quarterback Eli Manning, being benched after starting 210 consecutive regular season games and leading the New York Giants to two Super Bowl titles. Sadly, sometimes, even though we give it our all, we still come up short, as illustrated by this second clip from Friday Night Lights as the Panthers end up a yard short on the last play of the state championship game:

Sometimes we don’t get that promotion. Sometimes a deal falls apart. Sometimes the girl we think we are madly in love with chooses the other guy. If we won all the time, life would be easy. But it’s not. So the journey becomes as important as the destination. What can we learn along the way? What relationships do we foster? What memories can we log in our play book of experience? These are the important matters that can make winners of us all.

[i] Leatherheads

  • Production Company: Universal Pictures, Casey Silver Productions, Smokehouse Pictures
  • Director: George Clooney
  • Screenwriters: Duncan Brantley, Rick Reilly
  • Starring: George Clooney, Renée Zellweger, John Krasinski
  • Release date: April 4, 2008

[ii] Invincible

  • Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures, Mayhem Pictures, Who’s Nuts Productions
  • Director: Ericson Core
  • Screenwriter: Brad Gann
  • Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Greg Kinnear, Elizabeth Banks
  • Release date: August 25, 2006

[iii] Remember the Titans

  • Production Company: Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Run It Up Productions Inc., Technical Black
  • Director: Boaz Yakin
  • Screenwriter: Gregory Allen Howard
  • Starring: Denzel Washington, Will Paton, Wood Harris
  • Release date: September 29, 2000

[iv] Friday Night Lights

  • Production Company: Universal Pictures, Imagine Entertainment, Friday Night Lights LLC
  • Director: Peter Berg
  • Screenwriter: David Aaron Cohen (based on the book by Buzz Bissinger)
  • Starring: Billy bob Thornton, Jay Hernandez and Derek Luke
  • Release date: October 8, 2004



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