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True Grit

1.

When Mike Shanahan was a junior playing quarterback for Eastern Illinois University—many years before he became one of the most successful professional football coaches of the 1990s—he threw the ball to a running back and, in that moment of vulnerability, was speared by an opposing linebacker. The hit left him in intense pain. Every breath was a struggle. Somehow, through sheer determination, he finished the game. At home that night he urinated bright red. He began vomiting over and over again. He was rushed to a nearby hospital. He passed out, briefly, and his heart stopped beating. The doctors cut him open and discovered that one of his kidneys had been ruptured and jarred loose from its moorings. His condition worsened. A priest gave him last rites. His father drove three hours from Chicago to be by his bedside. Then, miraculously, Shanahan rallied, and the first thing that crossed his mind was to get back on the football field. He asked his coach. His coach said no. Shanahan persisted. He petitioned the school. They said no. “I was crushed,” Shanahan writes in Think Like a Champion. “All I could think about was never playing football again.”

This story is told in the first few pages of Shanahan’s book, but not as an example of youthful folly, or even as an ironic commentary on his addiction to the game. Mike Shanahan believes he’s a champion football coach because he’s the sort of person who would happily play with one kidney. One of the players on his current team that he respects most, he tells us, is the offensive lineman Mark Schlereth, who in his career has undergone twenty-three surgeries, including seventeen on his knees—yet has only missed eleven games. “In October 1995,” Shanahan writes, “Mark actually passed a kidney stone on a Monday morning and started that night against the Raiders.” This is what champions do. Think Like a Champion is dotted with short testimonials from other players or celebrities who have known Shanahan over the years, and in one the superstar quarterback Steve Young writes that Shanahan reminds him of “the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where they cut the guy’s legs off because he said, ‘I’ll kick you to death.’ After they cut his legs off, he says, ‘I’ll bite you to death.’ That’s how Mike is—you can’t keep him down.” Young adds: “I loved playing for that guy.”

The feeling is mutual. Shanahan recounts with pride the day that Young, while under Shanahan’s tutelage, threw for an extraordinary six touchdowns in the Super Bowl. An ordinary player would rest easy after a day like that. Not Young. “That night,” Shanahan says, “just as he got in the limousine to take him back to our team hotel, [Young] felt lightheaded. He felt like he might pass out. He felt his stomach turning worse than it did before the start of the game. Suddenly Steve could not help himself. He leaned over and threw up. All over his agent’s shoes. Then it was back to work. Once you achieve each of your major goals, like Steve did, it’s time to set more.”

Great football coaches have always been obsessive types, men of enormous determination and will. Vince Lombardi, perhaps the greatest football coach ever, cut short his honeymoon so he could get back to the high school where he was then coaching before the first fall football practice. Shanahan didn’t take his honeymoon at all. The day he got married turned out to be the same day that recruiting season started for Northern Arizona State, where he had just been given the job of running back coach. Instead of going to Acapulco he and his newlywed put their belongings in a U-Haul and drove nonstop from Atlanta, Illinois, to Flagstaff, Arizona, through a tornado, dust storm, sleet, and snowstorm. “My thinking has always been,” Shanahan writes, “that you should do anything, move anywhere, outwork anyone so long as you have the chance to chase your passion and dream.”

Every day of his life is scripted, his days mapped out in thick three-ring binders. He and his staff work 100-hour weeks during the season, thirty hours of which he spends putting into writing how he ought to act in every conceivable situation. “What are we going to do on fourth and one from the thirty-three yard line?” While on the road, he allows his players two free movies in their hotel rooms, to entice them to stay in before games. Why two? “…Some players were flipping through the channels and they might watch only five minutes of fifteen different movies. We would get hit with a $120 movie bill.” Shanahan makes millions of dollars a year, and his players make millions more, but he’s not above worrying about the extra dollar. The best seller Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff is not for him, because the champion, in his view, always sweats the small stuff. “Sweat it morning, noon, and night,” he preaches. “Make the small stuff that others might neglect a regular part of your plan. Return your telephone calls promptly. Fill out expense forms neatly. Send out thank-you notes for little favors. Do all the paperwork that is necessary.” Who knows? What if the difference between success and failure lies in the small stuff? “This spring,” Shanahan goes on, “someone relayed to me that Julian Lennon, son of former Beatle John Lennon, said that Paul McCartney never forgets to send him a card before each Christmas and each birthday. That tells you something, maybe everything, you need to know about Paul McCartney. Is it any great surprise that he has reached the level of great success he has?”

2.

One of the strange things about the American obsession with football—as opposed to the sports obsessions carried by most other cultures around the world—is the particular status granted to the coach. In soccer, the coach is a distant figure on the sideline. He may shout occasionally to his players, but the field is generally too large and the crowd too loud for him to be heard. His ability to call plays, or send in substitutions, is severely limited. A soccer coach is not the director of the action, he is more like the producer—a man to handle broad strategy and logistics. The American football coach is, by contrast, a micromanager, an autocrat who presides over a fleet of assistants, analyzes his adversaries by computer, and spends hours in the classroom, painstakingly leading his charges through playbooks as thick as the September Vogue. The movements of every player on a football field are, with few exceptions, rehearsed and choreographed by the coaching staff, and the coach issues explicit instructions to his team before every play through a direct wireless connection between his headset and the helmet of his quarterback. Football may be the only professional sport where a first-class coach is more valuable than any individual player—where the coach has the greatest impact on his team’s performance—and from this fact a mythology surrounding the football coach has grown.

The first coach to reach iconic status was Knute Rockne, who turned Notre Dame into a football powerhouse in the 1920s. A square-jawed, gravel-voiced Norwegian immigrant from the South Side of Chicago, Rockne achieved an almost unimaginable celebrity after just a few seasons in South Bend. He gave hundreds of speeches around the country, and lined up lucrative endorsements. When he died in a plane crash in 1931, the mayors of Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York came to his funeral, the President telegraphed his condolences, and the King of Norway sent a special delegation. “It’s no exaggeration to suggest that although Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones, Bill Tilden, Helen Wills, Tommy Hitchcock, Gene Tunney, Earle Sande, Lou Gehrig, and countless others of that sports-dizzy decade had their cheerleaders in the press corps, Rockne still managed to gain the lion’s share of attention,” Ray Robinson writes in Rockne of Notre Dame. “He continued to win more unabashed idolatry than most of them, and the man in the street seemed to have a special place in his affection for him.” Once, down 10-0 at half-time to Northwestern in 1925, he burst into the locker room, his face red and the cords in his neck bulging in anger. The team’s effort, he said, so disgusted him that he was going to leave the sidelines and sit in the stands for the second half. “With that instruction,” Robinson writes,

Turning to his assistant Hunk Anderson, Rockne said, abruptly, “You take over, Hunk.” Rockne stalked out of the premises. For several seconds not a whisper was heard in the locker room. Then, as if shot out of a cannon, the players bolted from their perches and stormed onto the field, almost running over each other to get out there first.

Vince Lombardi was the next great football icon. He was a brilliant, profane, irascible, charismatic, hot-tempered, paranoid, bull-chested Italian boy from Brooklyn, and during the 1960s, he led the Green Bay Packers to an unprecedented five championships. Richard Nixon considered making Lombardi his running mate. John F. Kennedy would call him to talk football. Lombardi and Douglas MacArthur used to discuss Army’s football prospects.

Lombardi’s crowning achievement was the so-called Ice Bowl of 1967. His Packers were, by all accounts, a banged-up and over-the-hill crew that year. Yet Lombardi willed them into the championship game against the upstart Dallas Cowboys. On game day the temperature was thirteen below zero with a vicious wind from the north. The field was a block of ice. “Players,” David Maraniss, in his marvelous biography of Lombardi, When Pride Still Matters, writes, “said it was if someone had taken a stucco wall and laid it on the ground.” The referee’s whistle froze to his lips, and he lost a layer of skin prying it lose. “This is what I wore,” Maraniss quotes one fan who sat in the stands that day:

Longjohns. Work shoes. Over the work shoes I put those heavy gray woolen socks that came over the knees. Pair of galoshes over that. Flannel pajamas over the longjohns. Work overalls. A T-shirt. Flannel shirt. Insulated sweat suit. Heavy Parka. Face mask with holes for mouth and eyes. Wool tassel cap. And then I climbed into a sleeping bag. I had foam on the ground and seat for my feet and butt.

On the field, the two teams numbly trade blows, in a frozen, brutal tableau. At half-time, Green Bay clings to a narrow lead. In the third quarter, it turns colder. One of the game’s announcers, Frank Gifford, says, famously—“I think I’ll take another bite of my coffee.” Late in the game, Dallas scores to take a three-point lead. Green Bay misses a field goal and seems to be fading. Some of the fans begin to head for the exits. But Lombardi will not let his team quit. Slowly and steadily, Green Bay works the ball down the field. With twenty seconds left, the Packers somehow make it to the one-yard line. Once, twice, the Packers try to run it into the end zone and fail. On the third down, with just seconds left to play, the quarterback dives in for the winning score. “Of all the games I’ve done,” one of the announcers says later, “that final drive was the greatest triumph of will over adversity I’d ever seen. It was a thing of beauty.”

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