For those of us who are sports fans, the days and weeks of the holiday season are laced with our passion for the game of football. For college teams it marks the end of the season and the culmination of bowl games. For the NFL, it is a time when those final decisions are determined of who will vie for a berth in the Super Bowl. The playoff brackets are filled and everyone else is home for the holidays.
At a time when most religions and beliefs are centered around the spirit of giving, I find many great analogies in the game of football. Players give themselves to the game, they muster all their strength and will for the greater good of a team, to play for each other, and the respect and admiration of their coaches and families.
In the last few seasons, the NFL Network has been producing a series entitled, “A Football Life.” In each episode, a player, coach, or team is showcased for their unique contribution to the game, but more importantly, the program reaches into the personal background to reveal not only roots, but the stark and sometimes harsh realities of the human lives involved.
Champions and greats of the NFL always seem larger than life to their fans, and given their physical prowess along with the colorful and intimidating battle armor worn on game day, it’s easy to see why. Yet when those trappings of gridiron combat are stripped away, we see the tender human soul and the terrible price the game exacts upon the physical bodies of the once proud warriors.
Many came from humble beginnings, and some have fallen back to simple existence with relative anonymity, but there are those chosen few that have lived their lives as they played the game and their reach and inspiration to others goes far beyond the accomplishments of the hundred yard arena. Men like Roger Staubach, Doug Flutie, and Kurt Warner have both personified and exemplified what it means to be a champion in life, even if the pinnacle of their sport eluded them. Their stories are woven of enduring confidence, strength of will, and abounding generosity. Not only generosity of the monetary kind but of deep compassion and self-sacrifice. They remain giants of the sport long after their uniforms gather dust.
I find that I am especially moved by the stories of great coaches. Perhaps more than any other member of a given team, the coach truly has to give of himself every single day. He must be both teacher and leader, he must find ways to inspire and motivate, and above all, he must find that fleeting element that brings all his players together with a common cause. These goals must be accomplished week in and week out all through the season, and if they are both diligent and fortunate, one group will hoist the trophy that bears the most legendary coach’s name in the history of the NFL…Lombardi.
Marty Schottenheimer never hoisted the ultimate prize of his sport, but he delivered one of the most poignant descriptions I have ever heard. “There is a gleam, men. A gleam in that trophy, shown in the reflection as it is held high. A reflection of the hearts and hands that hold it aloft, of the team that gave their all for each other.”
Coaches like Marty Schottenheimer may lack the accolade of a Super Bowl title, but no trophy can measure the wisdom, inspiration, and pure kindness that he imparted to countless players and other coaches. From little league grass fields to the cathedrals of the NFL, coaches everywhere are mentor, confidant, father figure and friend to an endless stream of players and families alike.
I recently watched the story of Coach Bill Parcells, and he shared a poem that has stayed with him for his entire life. I found it both touching and thought provoking. Published by Dale Wimbrow in 1934, I share with you, “The Man in the Glass.”
(Forgive the inconsistencies, as there appear to be several variations online)
When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you King for a Day
Go to the mirror and take a long, hard look
And see what that man has to say
It isn’t your father, mother, or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the man staring back in the glass
He’s the fellow to please, never mind all the rest
For he’s with you clear to the end
And you’ve passed the most dangerous, difficult test
If the man in the glass is your friend.
You may be like Jack Horner and chisel a plum
And think you’re a wonderful guy
But the man in the glass says you’re only a bum
If you can’t look him straight in the eye.
You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get pats on the back as you pass
But your final reward will be heartache and tears
If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.
Upon first reading, it might seem as though the poem invites us to be selfish and goal-oriented, but I can say from harsh experience, the man in the glass tells no lies.
He will listen to all your woes, but sees through empty excuses. He will never fail to be there, and he will always expect the best of you, even when you don’t think you can. He silently reminds you that if you cannot exercise the simple Golden Rule, how can you hope to achieve your goals? He gives his all to you, and believes in you when no one else will.
Scripture says God created man in His own image, and I often wonder if it’s truly our own eyes that look back at us from the glass, or is it a gateway, a kind of glimpse at the better part of ourselves? The person capable of giving and caring unconditionally?
This Christmas season, maybe we can all be our own best coach and give the best part of ourselves, not just to those we love, but to those who might need it more than we know.