EDITOR'S NOTE: Coach Pat Tyson read this during the Youth Runner Camp last summer. It's Jeff's talk at a Gonzaga University XC Banquet. It's not so much a running story, it's Jeff's personal story and packed full of advice for life. Jeff was Nike's first ever employee and came up with the name Nike.
I used to be a little kid, just groovin' and sparkin' along. Like every little kid an innocent victim of the daily events and circumstances that surrounded me. I had no idea that I had within me any capacity to make plans or set goals, or act in ways that could shape an identity of my own choosing.
It never occurred to me that I could participate in determining the quality of my own life. I was just a little kid. What did I know?
Just before my 9th birthday, all that changed.
My life began in the 4th grade.
It was a day in early September when a young man appeared in our classroom to announce that he had been authorized by the principal to start a 4th grade boys' football team. His name was Bobby Wendell, and he would be our coach.
He explained that we would play “6-man, 2-hand touch” - whatever that was, and we would compete with other schools in and around our town of Menlo Park, California.
When I say “Young Man,” I should clarify that Bobby was an 11-year old 6th grader. But Hillview Elementary School only went to the 6th grade, a grade which to me and my 4th grade peers constituted full adulthood. We believed that 6th graders wee in possession of all knowledge and wisdom.
I bring Bobby's age to your attention only because it makes this story all the more remarkable. Of coudrse, for us, as I said, Bobby's competence and leadership skills were never in question. So it came as no surprise to us when subsequent events proved that our confidence in Bobby was well-founded.
I should also clarify that at this time in my life, had you presented me with a football, a basketball, and a baseball, I might have identified the football in fewer than three tries. But quite possibly not.
Nevertheless, when Bobby asked, “Who wants to play?” my skinny arm went up. I must have liked the sound of that world “Play.”
Was I in for a surprise.
In the next few weeks, Bobby taught us the rules and techniques of football. He taught us to carry the ball, to hand off, to lateral and throw the forward pass. He taught us ball security and to use ou tiny bodies to screen the ball as it moved through our backfield so as to deceive the other team. He taught us to drive block, to plant little kids on their butts.
It may have been “touch” football, but there was no rule against blocking.
Then, he taught us our plays. We learned line bucks and counters, sweeps and reverses, end-arounds and bootlegs.
After school, into darkness, Bobby drilled us. We walked through our plays, then jogged through them. Feeling the music and rhythm of our bodies, a ball, and a team in a symphony of motion.
Then, when Bobby judged we were executing as close to perfection as anyone could reasonable expect from a clamor of 9-year olds. We ran our plays at full speed, at game speed, perfecting our timing.
Finally, Bobby taught us smothering defense.
Football practice, I had discovered was demanding and rigorous. But is was a revelation to me that play could have a purpose, that there was a right way and a wrong way to play a competitive game, and that when every one of us was playing the right way, and playing the right way together it was beautiful! And so much fun!
I was to become our stating left halfback.
My favorite play was the “2 left sweep” in which I would take a quick pitch from Cliff Davis, our quarterback. Break left behind a pancake block by Tommy Douglas, our left end, fake out the cornerback. Then, as often as not, outrun the defense to the end zone. (I was really fast.)
By the way, the “2 left sweep” and the “3 right sweep” - which was the right halfback to the other side – were forerunners of Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers power sweep, still some 10 years in the future. Our plays and player positions were numbered, signifying where the ball was going. “2” in my case being the number for the left halfback.
I have always believed that the power sweep and the numbering of the plays and player positions were two things the NFL picked up from Bobby, our 11-year old coach.
We would plan six games. In our first four games we killed. We were undefeated and unscored upon. Averaging something like 40 points a game.
Our ball handling was so good that in one game, against Central, I slipped the ball to Tommy Douglas on an end-around, and no one saw the exchange. When I was run out of bounds, the play was whistled dead. Though the ball was on the other side of the field, headed for the end zone.
I remember extending my empty hands to the official with what was probably the most self-satisfied smile I had ever bestowed on a grown-up.
Already, at age 9, I took such total delight in successfully executing a hidden ball play that fooled everyone, that I didn't mind the bad call. And neither did my teammates. Back in our huddle, we were grinning so foolishly at each othe that we were all but useless on the next play.
We were taking as much pleasure in the process as in the outcome.
But by our 5th game, we had grown full of ourselves. We ignored Bobby's lessons of disciplined play, execution, timing and teamwork. Against a good team, we played carelessly. We were sloppy. We showed off. We horsed around. We played like children.
We won that game 8-to-nothing, but we had embarrassed ourselves and more importantly we'd embarrassed Bobby.
The following week, as we prepared for our final game, the championship game, against a similarly unbeaten team, Bobby made sure that we appreciated the seriousness of our crimes; he made sure we felt the full burden of our shame.
For the entire week, we returned to basics: Ball handling and blocking, walking through each of our plays, again and again, into the increasing chill and darkness of the late fall afternoons. That week we threw not a single forward pass. No did we do anything at game speed. Everything was in slow motion. We were bored and frustrated. But we kept our mouths shut.
We understood that we were being punished for disrespecting ourselves, our coach, our lessons, and our own hard earned excellence. We also understood that we deserved our punishment. We were traitors. We had betrayed something larger than ourselves. Though as yet we had no notion of what that something was.
And then, on a bright Saturday morning, the championship game was upon us. We played as well as we knew how. Played as well as we had been coached. With a speed, fury and precision born of repentance and a desperate need for redemption. At halftime, we came of the field leading 30-to-nothing.
In those 4th grade football games, halftime lasted about 5 minutes. You sat on the sideline grass, got a sip of water, and listened to encouraging words from your coach. But this day, Bobby was silent. He said nothing at all.
Instead he stood with his back to us, ams folded, staring at the opposite sideline where our opponents sprawled on the grass while their two coaches – big, heavy set men, paces back and forth, waved their arms, and yelled at them in voices that carried across the field.
Finally, the whistle blew to start the second half as we got to our feet, only then did Bobby turn and face us. To this day I remember his exact words.
“I want 30 more in the second half.”
We burst onto the field, no time to waste. We had played hard in that fist half. To score another 30 points would take all we had left.
That frantic second period became an all-out team effort. We were moving the ball, but the other team was doing all they could to stop us. Lake in the game, still needing points, we went to the air. Nat Floyd snagging a Cliff Davis pass for our final score.
When the last whistle blew, we dragged our exhausted bodies off the field, narrowly escaping with a 62-to-nothing championship game victory. In the aftermath, as we mingled with the other players and coaches, all of them stunned, some of them in tears, I absorbed another life lesson:
When you dare to compete, you take a terrible risk. Not just that you might lose – there's nothing wrong with losing, losing is part of life. But rather, the greater risk is that you might be crushed, killed, destroyed, humiliated. Losing is one thing. But 62-to-nothing? That's getting wiped out.
So you better be ready. Every way you know how, mentally and physically. You better be ready. For to be unprepared for competition is to invite disaster.
In later years, when I was more familiar with the concept of sportsmanship and the questionable ethics of running up the score against an over-matched opponent, I briefly wondered at Bobby's ruthless second half challenge. Then I realized that he had one last lesson to teach us: He didn't wan't us putting on the brakes. He wanted us to floor it! He wanted us to understand the level of success we could achieve. When we prepared as well as we had. When we performed as well as we had practiced. And when we harnessed the best of our individual abilities in service to a team, a team united by a common purpose. We could be successful beyond our imaginations.
The lesson on sportsmanship could wait for another day.
Well......from that day forward, I was a different boy. No longer a clueless little kid being ping-ponged back and forth by parents, teachers and events. Though I did not yet fully realize it, I had been handed the keys to the kingdom. I had been given the roadmap for success. Success at everything worth doing in life.
I was 9 years old, and suddenly the world was mine.
My story must sound familiar to you, because each of you has had coaches who taught you the rules and the beauty of the game. Who revealed to you the process. Who set you on the path to success. (If you didn't have those coaches before, you certainly have them now...right here.)
But have you yet realized that the world is yours, too?
You are here tonight being honored and celebrated for your achievements in cross country, indoors and outdoor track. Congratulations to each and every one of you. You have challenged your limits and pushed them back, which is work of fundamental importance.
But the ultimate reward of competitive spots is not what you achieve on the field of play. Rather, the ultimate reward is what you become from having committed yourselves to the imperatives of athletic training and competition. You have become Super Heroes. That is not too strong a word.
And what's more – I'm happy to report your super powers are of equal strength. Whether you run a sub-4 minute mile or a sub-5, or even a sub-6, it's all the same, each of you by your dedication, effort, and persistence has gained a set of skills and attitudes that elevates you above your non-competitor peers.
Each of you, by your choices, resolve, and focus has acquired the behavior of champions:
Preparation, hard work, repetition, doing it right, doing it right every time, no detail too small.
Regardless of your athletic achievements, every one of you has been irreversably transformed. There's no going back. You are winners. Now and forever. You are winners.
In the future, wherever your dreams and aspirations take you, rarely will a day pass when you don't draw upon the lessons and experiences of competitive spot to advance yourself and your team toward a goal that you share.
Sooner than you think, you will be approaching halftime in your lives. Armed, as you now are with the habits and conduct of professionals. Armed, as you soon will be, with your Gonzaga education and degree. You're already ahead of the game. In fact, your halftime score is 30-to-nothing. You've been kicking it.
The second half of your lives will include the larger challenges of marriage, family and productive, satisfying work. To meet those challenges will require the same courage, same discipline, the same passion, patience, persistence, and the same teamwork that has brought you here tonight.
Just that. Nothing new. Nothing More. And nothing less.
But you are ready. You are prepared. You won't be wiped out. You hold in your hands the keys to the kingdom. The world is yours.
So, you know what you have to do. Make a plan, show up, do the work, compete.
Be brave. Be tough. Take risks. Leave your comfort zone. Put yourselves on the line.
Embrace challenge. Commit to the process. Welcome the pressure. Believe in yourselves. Believe in your teammates.
Never give up. Do what you love. Do what you fear. Keep pluggin'.
And most of all, most of all, have fun.
Because preparation, competition, doing your utmost, and achieving excellence is fun. It's so much fun.
It's what got you through the first phase of your lives; it's what will get you through the next.
“I want 30 more in the second half.”