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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.”

What Lombardi seemed to have was the ability to make those who played for him do almost anything and for that he was treated with awe. At the height of his fame, Lombardi addressed the American Management Association’s annual conference in New York. “They were finishing the salad course when a murmuring began, and suddenly the crowd was on its feet and the large ballroom exploded with applause,” Maraniss writes. “Lombardi strode to the podium in a dark suit, his hair freshly trimmed, a championship ring shining from his left hand (he loved to wear rings and had just designed the Super Bowl version, which had the word CHARACTER etched on one side and LOVE on the other).” The next day in The New York Times, the reporter covering the event wrote that after Lombardi finished, “the mostly paunchy and out-of-shape audience” seemed ready to “carry Lombardi out on their shoulders,” and then “go out and take on the Kansas City Chiefs.”

Today football coaches are regulars at executive retreats and management meetings. Bill Walsh, Shanahan’s football mentor and the resident genius of the San Francisco 49ers’ football club, “used to go into the Silicon Valley to speak to the biggest computer companies out there,” Shanahan writes. “They would pepper Bill with football questions, and he would pepper them with business questions. They would use his ideas, and he would use theirs.” There is a strong feeling in this country, apparently, that all of us have something to learn from football coaches. But what is that something? That we need to risk our lives to succeed? That we ought to skip our honeymoons to get a jump on that next sales meeting? That the reason Paul McCartney got where he is today is by telling his social secretary to mail out a card twice a year to Julian Lennon?

3.

The answer that football coaches give is that they can teach the rest of us how to build character. “Four years of football,” Knute Rockne once said, “are calculated to breed in the average man more of the ingredients of success in life than almost any academic course he takes.” Football, according to Lombardi, demanded “Spartan” qualities of “sacrifice, self-denial, dedication and fearlessness.” It was based on “the American zeal” to compete and win. It taught perfection, discipline, character, a deference to authority, and, most of all, leadership. In Think Like a Champion, Shanahan divides the principles of success in football by chapter heading: Preparing, Sacrificing, Learning, Detailing, Competing, Communicating, Leading, and so on. This is the kind of message that makes for an inspiring speech, but is it really true?

The most talented athlete ever to play for Rockne, for example, was George Gipp (who was played in the movies, of course, by Ronald Reagan). Gipp rarely went to class. He spent most of his time in bars, betting parlors, and pool halls, and rarely attended practice on the first few days of the week. Yet Gipp was an extraordinary athlete, who, in one of Notre Dame’s most storied victories, had the courage and grit to lead his team over Indiana University while playing with a dislocated shoulder and a broken collarbone. Most of us would consider the difference between Gipp the focused athlete and Gipp the feckless non-athlete a contradiction, or atleast a mystery: we would assume that the two halves of his personality would eventually have to be reconciled. But not Rockne. He pampered Gipp and indulged his numerous escapades.

Vince Lombardi was the same way with his best player, the impossibly gifted running back Paul Hornung. Hornung was a hellraiser in the George Gipp tradition. At one point in his career, he was suspended from football for a year for betting on the game. The sportswriter Dick Schaap once followed Hornung around for a few weeks, and described his typical routine as follows:

Each morning Paul would get up about quarter to nine and be on the field by nine o’clock. They would practice until twelve and there would be meetings to three. At three he’d come home, mix a pitcher of martinis and drink martinis until six o’clock with Kramer and the others. Then they’d go out to dinner, a group of players. Scotch before dinner. Wine with dinner. Brandy after dinner. Then back on scotch. Every day. I lost count by the time it had reached more than sixty just how many drinks he had in that week leading up to the Browns game. Also, he never went to bed before four in the morning, he never went to bed alone, and he never repeated himself.

Did Lombardi care? Not at all. Lombardi had a reputation as a strict Catholic and a fierce disciplinarian, but for Hornung he looked the other way. Paul, he would say over and over, is like a son to me, and when Hornung returned to football after his suspension Lombardi welcomed his prodigal son home with open arms.

Even though Lombardi and Rockne were both telling business audiences around the country that football builds character, they were far too savvy to actually let that idea dictate the way they coached. Rockne knew that to crack down on Gipp would be to lose him—and, in any case, Gipp didn’t need external discipline to succeed. Lombardi realized, similarly, that Hornung was simply someone with two very different and unconnected sides to his personality: the football player and the man about town. Lombardi’s genius, in fact, was to have this kind of insight about every one on his players. Maraniss writes:

He knew that his quarterbacks, Starr and Bratkowski, were not to be yelled at: Bart took it as an affront to his leadership and Zeke was too nervous…. Marv Fleming, the new tight end, was hugely talented, but Lombardi thought that he required constant riding to play at his best. Taylor played better when he was mad at his coach, if not the world. Willie Davis was above reproach; Lombardi shrieked at him once, then explained the next day that he was only “trying to prove nobody is beyond chewing out.” [Bob] Skoronski was sensitive to criticism and best left alone….

It isn’t that great coaching builds character in football players, then. It’s the other way around. Men with different characters play football, and the intelligent coach finds a way to structure his coaching around those differences. This is something, of course, that all great leaders do instinctively; they are blessed with an innate sensitivity to those they lead. But that’s not what audiences want to hear from football coaches—not back in the days of Knute Rockne and not today in the era of Mike Shanahan.

4.

The second thing that laymen think they can learn from football coaches is the secrets of motivation. Most of those who buy Shanahan’s Think Like a Champion will be businessmen and managers who want to know how to create a dedicated, hard-working, loyal workforce—who want to know how to build morale. But it’s not clear that what football coaches know about motivation is any more useful than what they say they know about character.

Once, in the 1920s, Rockne took his Notre Dame team down to Georgia, into the heart of anti-Catholic, Ku Klux Klan territory. In the locker room before the game, he gave his usual passionate speech about pride and dedication, then suddenly lowered his voice. Robinson writes:

Arriving at this climax, Rockne slowly removed a crumpled telegraph from his pocket. In silence he stared at the words on the missive. Then he began to read aloud: “PLEASE WIN THIS GAME FOR MY DADDY. IT’S VERY IMPORTANT TO HIM.”

It’s from Billy,” Rockne said, referring to his beloved six-year-old son, the team’s unofficial mascot. “He’s very ill and is in the hospital.” When Rockne finished, some of the players “began to cry, while others jumped up from their perches and swore they would annihilate Tech just for Billy. Indeed, that’s exactly what they proceeded to do.”

Billy, of course, was at that moment back home in South Bend, the very picture of health. This story seems like a parody of a half-time speech, but the truth is that football coaches play these kinds of psychological tricks all the time. They manufacture antagonisms. They find mildly incendiary quotes from opposing players and blow them out of proportion. They send “messages” to their team by disciplining or firing players on some flimsy pretext. Do they care that their players will see through these ruses? Not really. Football seasons are very short, and the tenure of the average player is not much longer, which means that the long-term consequences of treating your players like small children are minor. Maraniss writes that once at a tense moment during contract negotiations with one of his star players, Bob Skoronski, Lombardi

rose from his chair, walked around the desk and affectionately rubbed his tackle’s crew-cut scalp. The tactic silenced Skoronski and settled the debate—a pre-emptive strike that compelled Skoronski the following year to open by saying, “Coach, I want you to sit in that chair and not come over and touch me during these negotiations.”

Shanahan confesses that he spends long hours trying to figure out how to keep his players as close to their hotel as possible while the team is on the road. At the Super Bowl one year, he cordoned off the second floor of the hotel and filled it with games—air hockey, pool, pop-a-shot, ping-pong—so the players would have no reason to wander out from his supervision. “And it was all free,” he exults. “Our guys loved it.” It was almost as big a hit as Shanahan’s two-free-movie brain-wave. “These guys,” Shanahan writes, “they’re making millions of dollars, and they go nuts for the two eight-dollar movies and the sixteen dollars in savings.” In the coach’s universe, players are naive dupes, to be patronized in the name of winning. What coaches want from their charges is something very specific—and something that no one else outside the game would ever want from an employee: that for a period of a few hours on an occasional fall afternoon they sacrifice all concern for their own well-being for the good of the team. That is not to be confused with morale-building, which is a long-term process. This is more like the inducement of temporary hysteria.

Knute Rockne, in the 1929 season, suffered from a life-threatening blood clot in his right leg, and was confined to a wheelchair. Before Notre Dame’s game against archrival Carnegie Tech, Rockne was wheeled into the team’s locker room, accompanied by a writer, Francis Wallace, and a physician.

In the rear of the locker room Francis Wallace stood next to Dr. Maurice Keady, who had been attending to Rockne’s case. Dr. Keady turned to Wallace and shook his head. “If he lets go and that clot dislodges and hits his heart or brain,” he whispered, “he’s got only an even chance of ever leaving this room alive.”

No sooner had Dr. Keady confided this morose assessment to Wallace than Rockne started to speak. His voice was surprisingly strong, and he didn’t falter. “A lot of water has gone under the bridge since I first came to Notre Dame,” he began. “But I don’t know when I’ve ever wanted to win a game as badly as this one…. I don’t care what happens after today. Why do you think I’m taking a chance like this? To see you lose?” He paused for a moment, then his voice rose to a shout and he literally spat out the next words. “They’ll be primed, they’ll be tough. They think they have your number. Are you going to let it happen again? You can win if you want to.” There was a brief pause as Rockne drew a deep breath. Then, in rapid-fire fashion, he unleashed a barrage of barked challenges.

Go out there and hit ‘em, crack ‘em, crack ‘em, smack ‘em! Fight to live. Fight to win, win, win, win!” …In that 1929 locker room Rockne’s words sent the players rushing for the door as beads of sweat poured from their impassioned coach’s face. Realizing that Rockne was choked with emotion, Dr. Keady felt for his racing pulse. Wallace, a writer sometimes addicted to hyperbole, didn’t exaggerate in the least when he later reported that “Rockne wanted to win more than he wanted to live.”

The truth is, of course, that all the great football players and coaches feel that way. They’ll play and coach without kidneys, and while passing kidney stones, and after twenty-three operations, and with life-threatening blood clots and in freezing cold weather, and after throwing up on their agent’s shoes. That’s what makes them good at football. Whatever lesson there is in this for the rest of us is a mystery.

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