True Grit

Vince Lombardi
Vince Lombardi; drawing by David Levine


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…

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