Monday, January 27, 2014

Four Remarkable Stories, One Common Lesson

As published in The County Times ( in Jan 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

A long time ago, I used to play a little softball.  I have a few faded jerseys, soiled championship t-shirts and body scars to prove it.  My glove is somewhere.  A random softball still appears in my house from time to time.  An abused joint occasionally creaks and reminds me of, as fellow Marylander Jim McKay famously said, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”  Like many rec-league athletes, my pre-game routine included a feverish exit from work, scurrying to a nearby bathroom to imitate Superman’s phone booth wardrobe change and a quick drive to the field.  On good days I’d preserve enough time to loosen the hammies and right arm.  On bad days (meaning time ran way too short), I’d stretch on the field before the first pitch and limber up the throwing arm by employing Pete Townshend’s windmill guitar move.

Despite my youthful exuberance, the long workday preceding games contributed to different levels of motivation.  Sometimes I was ready to go; other times I brought what I had.  For important games – rivalries, playoffs and certainly championships – I would incite my competitive juices by playing Eminem’s “Till I Collapse” at volumes my mother wouldn’t appreciate.  The song is a personal call to arms – a raw play to basic human emotions.  More than the obvious stoke to one’s internal fire, it was (for me anyway) a healthy shot of resolve, an audio elixir to help me cope with the ebb and flow that inevitably occurs during athletic competition.  Errors happen.  Momentum shifts.  Victory can appear likely, then nearly impossible an inning later.  Dealing with negativity, maintaining resolve and ultimately overcoming adversity is nearly as fundamental to success as physical talent – in any sport. 

The chatter leading up to last Sunday’s NFL conference championships – a heavyweight twin billing featuring New England versus Denver and San Francisco versus Seattle - was predictably a present- and forward-look focused on the games, the personnel and the quarterbacks.  I couldn’t help but consider the past and the road each team traveled – or survived - to reach the NFL’s final four. 

While the four teams were prohibitive favorites to play deep into January, none arrived at their presumed destination via a tranquil script.  Seattle played several games without its starting offensive tackles, absorbed the year-long suspension of star cornerback Brandon Browner and, due to a slow recovery from hip surgery, got virtually nothing from wide receiver Percy Harvin, the team’s key offseason acquisition.  San Francisco played 11 games without its best wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, who sustained an Achilles tendon injury in the spring, and five games without stud defensive end Aldon Smith while he received treatment for alcohol abuse.  Denver’s road to the AFC Championship was as rocky as its famed nearby mountain range.  Left tackle Ryan Clady and center Dan Koppen suffered season-ending injuries in the preseason.  Von Miller, the team’s best defensive player, was suspended the first six games and tore up his knee in week 16.  And head coach John Fox missed several games while recovering from heart valve replacement surgery. 
And then there’s New England.  The Patriots were chameleons this season, reinventing themselves weekly based on available personnel.  One star tight end - Aaron Hernandez - is incarcerated; the other – Rob Gronkowski – is recovering from knee surgery.  Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, perhaps their best defensive players, were lost for the season weeks ago.  I could go on…and on…and on.  Frankly, New England’s presence in the AFC Championship game is arguably the organization’s greatest accomplishment.

In their survival stories, the common message of the NFL’s elite quartet is this: no matter what you seek in life, and no matter how probable the achievement of a goal may appear, you have to expect the unexpected and prepare to overcome adversity during the journey.  Or, to use a golf analogy, a hole may set up perfectly for your natural draw and strong mid-iron game.  But what if you inexplicably slice your drive into the rough?  Well, you just have to regroup and find a way to make par.  Humming an Eminem song as inspiration is optional.  

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