When I was coming of age, getting old enough to appreciate things outside of myself and my friends, my parents moved to suburban St. Louis. The timing was great. We moved to a sports town as I was getting old enough to appreciate sports.
I remember the first St. Louis Cardinals game I went to with my dad. It was the summer of 1980, and we sat in the upper reaches of the old Busch Stadium. I was 11 by then, and held a tenuous allegiance to the Pittsburgh Pirates, based on my dad’s roots in western Pennsylvania. Dad wasn’t particularly a sports fan, but with a nod to his past and our new present, we went to see the Pirates play the Cardinals.
At some point in the game, I remember changing allegiances. As I recall, two guys were sitting behind us and, fueled by the beverage that lent its name to the stadium, they yelled at me for rooting for the Pirates while I was wearing a Cardinals shirt.
That was enough. In the fuzzy recesses of my mind, from that moment I was a St. Louis Cardinals fan.
And so, some of my earliest sports heroes were 1980s era Cardinals: guys like Tommy Herr, Terry Pendleton, Bruce Sutter, Vince Coleman, and Willie McGee. By and large, these guys were work-a-day players who played the game hard and well.
And I especially remember Willie. He carried himself kind of awkwardly, almost apologetically. He played well, roaming center field with speed and precision – but he presented as if he just might be embarrassed by how well he did. Less showboat, and more submarine – he didn’t demand you notice him, but you couldn’t miss him when he got to work.
I miss Willie. He had that rare quality of being a great ballplayer without worrying whether the camera caught his many athletic achievements.
When we watch the Super Bowl this Sunday, we’ll see something different. We’ll see players who look for the camera, making sure that it catches the post-play celebration. In football, it’s the touchdowns, of course, that are cause for celebration. But it’s also the fumble recoveries, interceptions, sacks, and seemingly every first down. Every good play, it seems, is cause for a “look at me” celebration.
But in every case, it wasn’t just one player who made the play. You picked up the fumble that someone else caused. You intercepted the pass because your defensive lineman pressured the QB. You sacked the QB because they were double-teaming the lineman next to you. You got a first down because of 3 or 4 good blocks. You hit the game-winning field goal because your snapper put it right in your holder’s hands, and your holder quickly and effortlessly spun it laces-out just like you like it – all giving you the opportunity to do the only thing the team asks you to do and pays you millions to do it: swing your leg really hard in one direction. That’s great! But it was certainly a team effort.
Though it’s often one guy getting the attention on the field, it’s never just about one guy. There are always others who contributed to the field goal/interception/sack/touchdown – and without them the success simply wouldn’t have happened. And that’s not just the other guys on the field – it also includes the coaches who called the play, the trainers who keep you in top shape, and even the practice squad guys who don’t see the field on game day but who push you in practice everyday.
And the excessive celebration also concerns me because, when you get down to it, these guys are simply doing their jobs – jobs that they are paid handsomely to perform. Now, I know, these are some of the most talented, peak-of-physical-condition humans on the planet. Absolutely. And I love to see them do what the rest of us can only dream of doing. But somewhere along the way, what matters most is that we do the job well – not that we preen and posture about doing the job well. I can’t help but wonder if something isn’t lost when the celebration outstrips the action. Are we becoming a people – and here I am talking about way more than sports – who are more shaped by our response to what we’ve done than to the thing we’ve accomplished?
Think about it this way. How would you react if the garbage man did a dance every time he emptied your trash bin without spilling so much as a banana peel on the ground, while returning your bin upright on the curb with the lid closed? What would you think if the bagger at the grocery store demanded you videotape him as he put all the frozen food together, made sure the eggs were secure, and that the bread wasn’t smushed by the milk? How shocked would you be if your kid’s teacher jumped on her desk to do a victory dance when all her kids pass their state-mandated tests? Or the plumber calls for cheers when he unclogs your toilet?
For most people, we do our jobs and do them well – without excessive accolades. This doesn’t mean thanks and praise aren’t warranted; if anything, we ought to show our gratitude more, not less. But showing and receiving appreciation is one thing; ensuring everyone knows what you’ve done and how amazing you are, is another.
Recently, I was talking with an 8-year-old boy, and I watched as showed me his “touchdown dance.” He clearly works on his “end zone” moves – perhaps more than the play that will actually get him there. And why wouldn’t he? Isn’t that what he sees every time he watches what the bigger guys do?
But what does it say when a young boy is more focused on the dance to celebrate a touchdown, than of doing the work required to get in the end zone? Is it possible that the focus on celebration diminishes the reality that it takes a lot of work to get there? For in the end, end zone experiences are just a small part of life; most of football involves the behind-the-scenes work: training in the gym and time in the playbook and listening to coaches and learning from other players and getting good rest and eating right and recovering from setbacks. Sounds a lot like life.
So, I’ll continue to value the lessons that sports teaches us – for life involves lots of things outside of the spotlight that prepare us for moments when the camera is on us. But what I want my 8-year-old friend to learn – what I want to remember – is that the spotlight is never about me. And the only reason I reach any kind of victory in life is because of the grace of God and the help of others – and because I’ve done the work behind the scenes, and learned from my many mistakes, and have continued to move forward, and grow.
And when those rare end zone moments come, we need to remember the spotlight isn’t just shining on us. We couldn’t have reached that moment on our own. We never do.