For people who played football1 growing up, on every team there were bound to be players who memorized both offensive and defensive playbooks and knew where to be to make a play against his teammates. These players tended to garner the coaches’ favor because they were excellent at doing what the coaches wanted them to do. But as most kids learn, these players tended to be studs on the practice field and complete soup sandwiches come game time. They were practice heroes.
I was reminded of this phenomenon recently while kickboxing. About 40 minutes into a relentless circuit of bag work, up-downs, jump squats, pushups, etc. we were expected to count our reps out loud. The guy next to me would sound off loudly, but wouldn’t do any of the reps until the instructor ambled our way. Since he was rested, his reps looked solid, his punches packed power and his kicks shook the bag. By comparison, I must have looked like a sad, sweaty sack of weakness. Maybe I always do, but that’s beside the point. I guess the point is that some people show up to be told they look good, while others show up to better themselves.
A Trip Down Memory Lane
I’ve been thinking a lot about my father recently, and one of my favorite memories is germane to the concept of practice being an avenue to self-improvement rather than self-importance; preparing the mind and body with enough experiences to recognize what’s happening, and respond quickly in a situation when the decision counts.
Like many red-blooded American kids, I wanted to grow up and play in the NFL. Never mind that I was a bean pole, come high school, I still entertained this delusion. And as it happened, one of my favorite players, the legend Art Monk, had his own football camp—what better way to prepare for my future career?2 After much cajoling, my parents relented and sent me away for a couple weeks.
Driving to the camp, my father looked over at me and said, “Look. Your mother and I are paying a lot of money for you to go to this camp. We expect you to take this seriously and treat it like a job, not a vacation. So bust your ass.” Despite my protestations, I could see the reservation in his eyes.
On the first morning of the camp, Art Monk arrived on the practice field with the same message; that he had a successful career because he put in the time and worked hard, and that we should spend our time at the camp doing the same. With that, we were parceled out into cohorts based on our positions, and the punishing series of drills and two-a-days in the ghastly Virginia summer began.
The defensive back (DB) coach looked like a BUD/S instructor and dogged me the entire two weeks, constantly telling me to do more reps and take more laps. Most of the other DBs were stronger, faster and more talented than me, so I supposed this was my punishment for not rating, and the painful road to becoming a better player.
At the end of the camp, the offensive and defensive teams, which had been practicing separately for the two weeks, met on the playing field for a contest in front of the parents and coaches. I don’t remember much of the game, but I do remember one of the last plays.
After breaking from the huddle, I assumed my position standing about 10 yards back from the line of scrimmage as free safety, ready to watch the play develop and respond appropriately. The quarterback took the snap, looked right, and then pitched the ball to the tailback who was running left (my right). The offensive line, tight end and wide receiver picked up our linebackers and strong safety, and the tailback had a clean line toward the corner.
As I sprinted toward the gap where the tailback was heading, I heard the DB coach’s familiar voice screaming my name, punctuated with “STICK HIM! STICK HIM!” As I made the edge, I delivered an old-fashioned helmet-to-helmet shot to the tailback, tackling him for a loss.3 When I got up, I saw the DB coach jumping up and down, and assumed he was just excited one of his players made a play.
When the game was over, we all took a knee as parents circled around and the coaches gave their speeches about how much we’d improved over the course of the camp. As we knelt there sweating, the coaches held an award ceremony. Toward the end of it all, the DB coach spoke up to hand out the Best Defensive Back award. “This kid showed up every day and gave his all. In pushing himself, he pushed his teammates to go further. In my opinion he was the best player on the team.” I was utterly shocked when he called me forward to accept the award. Seeing the look of pride on my dad’s face meant everything.
Of course, I don’t have much to show for it today. I don’t even know where the trophy is. But winning that award was probably the most significant accomplishment of the first 25 years of my life. It’s certainly the one I’m most proud of; not because I had stellar skills and talent (I didn’t), but because my dad was proud of me for giving it my all in practice.
Back to Reality
No surprise: I never made it to the NFL. I don’t even own cleats anymore.
But every so often I’m reminded that life off the football field has its own practice heroes. And you probably know the type: someone who performs well in the confines of a defined situation—say, a test or a job interview—but falls to pieces in the chaos of the real world.4 Or someone who relies on rhetoric to make up for vapidity, conviction to mask incompetence.5 Or perhaps someone who “is a conformist or a self-centered careerist who has shrewdly calculated his teachers’ prejudices and expectations and discovered how to regurgitate efficiently what they want.” One wonders if they’re haunted or empty when nobody’s around to give them approval; may it ever be so.
So as the football season gets ready to begin, here’s to the ruthless “justice of sport” on the playing pitch and not the practice fields.6 May the victors win with class, and the vanquished keep their heads held high. I’ll be pulling for Art Monk’s old team in the weeks and months ahead, albeit with a seasoned appreciation for disappointment.
# # #
1 American football, but I’m sure this applies to the other one as well.
2 To give a sense of how legendary this guy is, “Upon his induction into the Hall of Fame, Monk received the longest standing ovation in Pro Football Hall of Fame history, lasting four minutes and four seconds when later timed by NFL Films.”
3 I’m glad the NFL has started to address helmet-to-helmet collisions and protect players. Football is a dangerous sport, and players of all ages should be protected from long-term mental / cognitive damage.
4 I was reminded of this while reading William Deresiewicz’s “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.”
5 See Plato, Gorgias (Oxford University Press: 2008).
6 See James Salter, Burning the Days (Vintage: 1997).