2014: More Cookies from the Cookie Jar…

When looking at the year 2014, I am often compelled to remember the shattering events that began and are ongoing which tempt us to recoil in fear and revulsion. Each one has roots in historically deep divisions: political, economic, racial, religious, and theological. We must mourn these events, but also commit ourselves to live differently in the way we address the roots. Conversely, there have been other events that, while not as important as the other events, allow us a short escape from the divisions and help us to unite. Frankly, they can be a needed self-medication of fun! I think this is a good thing, if we don’t become so absorbed with them that they become lead us to ignore the important issues of our world. I call these stories: Cookies. They are the Cookie Jar of life, and sports is one of the most enjoyable for me. My last post was about the Kansas City Royals’ ride to the playoffs and World Series. I will next write about the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Kansas City Chiefs:

Andy Reid physically looks like a guy you would normally see sitting on a couch WATCHING football on TV rather than COACHING professional athletes. That is part of his effectiveness. At least publicly, Reid is a low key, fairly mild-mannered guy that handles inane questions with a great wit, delivered in a dead-pan style and just a hint of sarcasm sprinkled it. I LOVE him, and his players seem to as well. Although he may not look it, he also has a keen offensive mind that can brilliantly formulate game plans, and effectively communicate with his players. I don’t suspect he is a coach that yells, but instead uses biting sarcasm that criticizes performance rather than character. I think he probably treats players, coaches, and administrators with respect and personal humility. He is confident, too, and seems to have a thick skin but also an open mind to criticism. Reid takes his personal responsibility seriously, and is willing to admit when he made a mistake, then work to correct it.

Reid calls the plays on game day. While many teams that run the West Coast style of offense use an array of passes to wide receivers and running backs, with a scattering of throws going to tight ends; Reid has needed to play to the talent on the team which is stronger and deeper at the tight end position. They also make great use of their best offensive weapon, running back Jamal Charles. The offense became especially effective during the middle of the season when they started to use three tight end sets. Although teams would eventually jam players closer to the line in order to stop the running of Charles, the emergence of TE Travis Kelce as a receiver allowed them to open up the offense from any pre-snap set for effective play-action passes.

Offense isn’t the only way in which the Chiefs have scored since Reid and his staff got to KC, though. Both Dave Taub, special teams coach, and Bob Sutton, defensive coordinator, have done a spectacular job of developing game plans and teaching techniques that have resulted in scoring touchdowns. So much so, that they have drawn the attention of owners, general managers, and coaches around the league. The success of not only Taub and Sutton, but all the coaching staff bely what I think must be Reid’s philosophy as a head coach: hire great assistants, allow them to coach, and keep them onboard as long as possible. Coach Reid shows both his confidence and humility in sharing the spotlight. This tells you that Reid appreciates the giftedness of his staff, values their contribution, and is humble in sharing the public praise of their accomplishments. Maybe this is why so many of his coaches stay with him instead of seeking promotions elsewhere.

Clark Hunt

It is hard to step out of the shadows of a legend. Especially when that legend was your father, and a pioneer in the origination and development of the AFL. Since Clark Hunt took over as owner due to the declining health and subsequent death of his father, Lamar Hunt; he has shown decisiveness in making assessments about the progress the Chiefs were making, and then taking action to facilitate further growth. Clark has been willing to fire general managers when he felt their effectiveness was or fading. He fired long-time general manager and president of football operations, Carl Peterson, whom his father hired, shortly after taking the reins of the team.  Hunt then restructured the front office, hired and eventually fired Scot Pioli as general manager when the succession of head coaches under his and Peterson’s watches were taking the team backward as a program. In these actions, Hunt showed the capability to risk on a young unproven person, and then go in a different direction when the experiment didn’t work.

When Clark Hunt first hired Andy Reid, I thought it was a great hire because of Reid’s perennial success in Philadelphia. What I didn’t know was of the criticism in Philadelphia that Reid had too much responsibility as both head coach and talent assessment and procurement. Hunt listened to the criticism, judged it to be valid, so he brought in John Dorsey to be general managers in charge of player personnel. The brilliance of the hire is two-fold: 1) Dorsey spent the majority of his career in Green Bay, where he and Reid worked together during the Packers successful 1990’s which was the Mike Holmgren program led on the field by Brett Favre. At the time, Dorsey was responsible for college scouting and Andy Reid worked as tight end/offensive line coach, and quarterback coach. 2) Hunt placed a distinct line of authority between player personnel-Dorsey’s job, and player performance-Reid’s job as coach. So… you have two guys that know each other well, have worked together successfully, and like each other. The way in which the collaborative relationship has worked so far, is a credit to Clark Hunt’s foresight.

Injuries:

While every team has injuries, the Chiefs lost two starters: Derrick Johnson, who was one of their captains, called the signals for the defense, and a formidable inside presence at linebacker. Johnson went to the Pro Bowl last year, but in the first game of the season he tore his Achilles tendon. The same injury happened in the same game to Mike DaVito, a veteran starter on defensive line. So at the beginning of the year, Bob Sutton was missing two defensive leaders from game 1 on. In week 2, Bob Sutton was hit with another injury to an important veteran leader when Eric Berry went down with a high ankle sprain which kept him out for the next five games….

So? This is football right? More to the point…this is the NFL, right? All teams have injuries. Next man up…Right?

Well…

Yes and no.

Yes:

The three players were replace on the field and their influence could still be felt as they came in for treatment and for rehab. And…the defense picked up where it left off last year. Justin Houston still created havoc for offensive linemen and quarterbacks. Houston finished the year as the new vocal leader in the locker room, and broke Derrick Thomas’ single season record for sacks as Houston roled up 21 and one-half sacks, which is one-half sack less than the league record. Tomba Hali still played relentlessly, and Sutton and his defensive assistants created schemes that moved each player around to give the opponent’s offensive line even more trouble. Berry was replaced in the defensive backfield. The replacements played well, too, as the defense ended the year second in both net passing yards allowed and total points allowed per game. They also were fourth in YAC (yards after catch) for the season. (You can see the breakdown of how the defense compared to the league here: http://www.kcchiefs.com/news/article-2/Chiefs-Final-Defensive-NFL-Rankings/c43eee7d-569c-430d-a1da-92150c77bbc0 ) Obviously, the statistics compiled for these rankings included five games in which Berry started and contributed strongly in leadership and performance. But suffice it to say that the entire defensive backfield stepped up in a huge way after their leaders got hurt. Yet…

No:

Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry have been through the ringer in Kansas City. They both were part of the team that experienced one of their own, starting linebacker Jevon Belcher, kill his girlfriend, and then go to the Chiefs practice facility where he shot himself to death in front of their former head coach and general manager. This incident alone was enough to mark these men as leaders that have experienced great tragedy, yet hold together the team as best they could. You don’t replace those kinds of leaders, and the lessons they learned through such unspeakable human crisis. Johnson was the unofficial media spokesman for the defense. His experience as a three-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro in 2011 was missed as well as adding to his 981 total tackles which are just 18 shy of the team record held by Gary Spani. Johnson is particularly strong against the run, and the defense had difficulty with strong rushing teams this year.

But Berry….Berry had become the spirit of the defense. And it would eventually be determined that he had Hodgkins lymphoma. The most comprehensive information I have found on both the process of discovering that Berry has cancer, as well as how his teammates and coaches respect him was written by ESPN reporter Ashley Fox: http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/page/hotread141224/kansas-city-chiefs-eric-berry-battles-cancer-strong-support . Another article that shows the impact of Berry in the community is here: http://www.kansascity.com/sports/spt-columns-blogs/sam-mellinger/article4178140.html .

Adversity… Everyone battles with adversity at some point in their life. In fact, it could be said that the fire of adversity, and how it is responded to, will tell the end of the story in the middle of the book. But not all stories, or books, are straight forward, nor are the presumed endings the actual endings. Although sports certainly belong in the Cookie Jar for fans, for the participants, sports have the capability to form character, and an approach to life that is transforming. There are always people that fail to understand the synergism that sometimes occurs within an athletic team, even members of the team itself. Every so often, a group of people come together in pursuit of a common goal, or a surface, perceived common goal which changes into something else. Something deeper, and richer, and humbling:

Shared adversity.

“There are lots of things in the world, but I’m not sure that comradeship is not the best of them all—to know that you can do something big for another chap.”[i]

Sir Earnest Shackleton

Famed Antarctic explorer and noted successful failure.

Shackleton is probably now most noted for a failed attempt to cross the continent of Antarctica. He is famous because in an expedition which was plagued by tragedy, he showed remarkable leadership qualities that allowed his team to survive despite repeated opportunities not to. Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell, in their book, Shackleton’s Way, tell the story in a way that shows how a group of people can share adversity in such a way that is life changing for all involved. Shackleton’s words above express the joy of effort spent on behalf of another. Another historic leader expresses the same passion of self-sacrifice and shared adversity:

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[ii]

Jesus Christ

Justin Houston knows about shared adversity, too. When Eric Berry was diagnosed with cancer, the Chiefs lost their vocal leader. His absence left a void, and the team needed someone to fill in, if just until Berry returns. Houston has been the teams most dominant player this year, and he decided to step into the role…just until Berry puts on his number 29 jersey again. Houston’s role on the field is to rush the quarterback with abandon, and he has done that better this year than anyone in the NFL. Every time Justin Houston lined up in a passing down, I think his main thought is not about hitting the quarterback, but about the sack dance he will do after exploding off the ground following the play.

For those of you who don’t know what a sack dance is, I will explain. Every defensive player has prepared a celebration…a choreography of movement…to be done after tackling the quarterback. Each sack dance means something. It is symbolic and specific for each particular player. It is meant to set him apart from other players, to be seen on national TV, and hopefully on Sportscenter. Houston is no exception. But his sack dance isn’t about gaining personal notoriety; it is rather to express shared adversity with his comrade and teammate: Eric Berry. As Houston jumps off the ground, he immediately faces the direction of a camera and pulls up his jersey, so the white t-shirt underneath can be seen. On the t-shirt is the number 29 drawn with magic marker. Houston thumps the number twice, and then presses his hands together in the traditional symbol of prayer. By doing so, Houston is saying to Berry…

You are not alone, Eric…

You are not forgotten, Eric…

I am praying for you, Eric…

God and I are with you in this fight!

I think this was the reason he finished the season by recording 4 and a half sacks in his last game. Every down, he must have thought…”I gotta tell Eric. I gotta SHOW Eric. And the only way is through this huge offensive tackle… No problem.”

Jamal Charles is the most effective Chiefs’ player on the offensive side of the ball. Before the season began, Charles and the Chiefs were involved in working on a contract extension. He was already under contract, but both he and the Chiefs agreed that his compensation did not equal his value to the team, nor reward him for his excellent performance in the past. It was taking some time to work out the details, and the media publically wondered if Charles would hold out of training camp until the new contract was signed, even though he still was under contract with the team. Eventually, the day to report to training camp came, and the media recorded the players as they lugged their suitcases up to the dorms of the college campus where the Chiefs hold training camp. As the morning dragged on, there was no announcement of Charles’ contract being finished, and the question in all of Kansas City was… “Is Jamal Charles going to report to camp?” The day wore on, and the time to report was closing in, yet Charles had yet to report. Finally, about 30 minutes after the designated time for all veterans to report, the announcement was made that the contract was signed, and Charles arrived at camp. A hasty press conference was assembled, and Charles walked calmly in as it was getting organized. There was a lot of good natured banter going on between Charles and the media when one reporter asked:

Reporter: “Did you hold out for 30 minutes?”

Charles: “No, my car ran out of gas on the highway, so I had to walk.”

Reporter: “Wouldn’t anybody give YOU a ride?”

Charles: “No. I had a hoodie on….”

Classic line…

A GREAT line…

Charles broke the slight silence with, “Naw…I just walked.” And then he smiled.

When he made the statement, his eyes got serious, even though he had a slight smile on his face. The line and his facial features while delivering it spoke volumes to a particular audience: African-American males. The hoodie became a symbol of the tragedy of the deaths of so many black men, during the Zimmerman trial following the shooting death by the hand of Zimmerman of Trayvon Martin. Trayvon’s death preceded the events in Ferguson, Missouri surrounding the shooting death of a young black man by a white police officer, as well as several other highly publicized deaths of other black males. Jamal Charles’ message by the use of that line, spoke to the crisis of African-American men dying by violent means. In effect, Charles was saying to black men everywhere:

“I am one of you! Neither my fame nor my money matter… I am one of you!

I run out of gas, too.

They won’t pick ME up either.

They think I am dangerous.”

It was a subtle, effective message that Jamal Charles is about shared adversity not only with his professional teammates, but also with his community.

I gotta love that guy…

[i] Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell; Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer, Penguin Books, New York, NY; 2002; Pg.215.

[ii] John 15:13

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2014: The Cookie Jar…

At the end of each year, nostalgia seems to run rampant.  News organizations, magazines, newspapers, blogs… All these publish their lists of best and worst. The terrific, the tragic, the memorable, the melancholy… It all gets laid out to be mulled over and mummified for posterity.

I will try my hand at it.

Here are a few thoughts about the Cookie Jar moments of 2014:

THE KANSAS CITY ROYALS!

Since I moved to Florida three years ago, I have had to keep up with my favorite baseball team through the internet. While this lacked the immediacy of listening on 810 WHB to the games and all the related discussion of the minutiae of every managerial decision, player move, and hang-nail injury; it did allow me to see the season from a larger perspective.

For me, the theme of the 2014 Kansas City Royals was:

They Just. Keep. Playing!

Optimism:

As a team, these guys showed an audacious tendency to keep grinding even when things looked bleak. They kept an optimistic attitude, with the belief that someone would come through right when they needed to. And they were right! It didn’t need to be a huge thing, but all the little things compounded to be big things. There seemed to be a level of expectancy in the dugout that, even when an opportunity was missed and a guy didn’t get the job done, somebody else would have his back and pick him up. It worked! Especially in the playoffs. Although they ended up just 90 feet short of scoring the tying run and forcing extra innings in game 7, which was disappointing, the attitude of the organization…top to bottom…is that these group of guys have graduated to a new level of expectancy which will propel them to the playoffs again.

When you look at winning sports teams, regardless of the sport, you find a core of individuals…leaders…that have an optimistic belief that they can and will win. Usually this begins with a head coach, in football, or a manager, in baseball; but you need these kinds of players, too. A handful of player-leaders that are optimistic in the way they work when the spotlight isn’t on, whether it is watching film, studying scouting reports, in the weight room, or in team meetings; pull the other members of the team along. Sometimes that also means confronting individual teammates that aren’t buying in to the concept.

Several years ago when I was a youth pastor in Delaware, I invited a former professional football player to speak at a fifth-quarter youth event after the high school football game. Since I was also an assistant coach with the team, he also spoke to the players before the game, and he told a story about when he was a rookie on the New York Giants when they won the Super Bowl under Bill Parcels. The player…sorry…I forget his name… was leading the league in kick-off returns heading into the Super Bowl, but was being replaced by another player in the game plan leading up to the final game. When he found out during a meeting early in the week that he wouldn’t be starting, he got up and walked out of the meeting in disgust. A veteran player noticed him leave, followed him into the hallway, and confronted him about his leaving the meeting. After patiently hearing what the rookie had to say about the unfairness of the coaching decision, the veteran got into his face and said:

“Listen kid, I have been in this game for a long time, and I have never won a championship! You are NOT going to ruin my chance. You are better than this! You play football because of love. Love of the game and love for your teammates. Love isn’t selfish, so get back in that meeting!”

Love is the definition of optimism. You could tell that the 2014 Royals loved each other and loved the game by the way they stayed together and kept playing to the final out.

Playful:

Salvador Perez is a big, little kid. If you haven’t seen it yet, go to his Instagram account: instagram.com/salvadorp13/

Salvie was relentless in taking videos of Larenzo Cain, Royals’ center-fielder. But Cain isn’t the only player splashed on Salvie’s page. His cell phone records the players being themselves. You see the playfulness of the team in unguarded moments. Like when he catches a player singing and/or dancing to the music in the locker room. You can hear Perez whisper to the video’s audience as he documents the player and the performance. Once they know they have been caught, the players turn red, and often chase after Perez in feigned anger. So much fun to watch! You can tell they enjoy each other.

Then there are Ned Yost’s press conferences. Yost frequently uses humor to explain either the decision making process, or to answer a pointed question which seems tailored to get either a pointed reply, or for the reporter to be the straight-man to Yost’s comic. When asked if he felt any pressure preceding Game 7 of the World Series, Yost responded: “Pressure? I don’t think there is any pressure…Isn’t this a fun series? This is why you play the game.” He went on to describe the amazing play of his own players, as well as the excellent performances of the San Francisco Giants players. Yost had been on teams before that had reached the series, as a position coach, so he had a little perspective of just how precious the moments were. His aim as manager was to win, yet he wanted his players to enjoy the experience. It seems to me, that good performance and enjoying the magnitude of the event are related. Joy walks arm in arm with performing to the best of one’s ability, because you love what you are doing. Yost’s attitude and those of the players connect playfulness with another important quality:

Humble Confidence:

Two players that especially exhibited this quality were Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. These were the players that had lived through the bad years of Royals baseball. They had been there when the Royals were habitually penciled in at the bottom of the division…during Spring Training! Gordon learned humility by being the first player drafted as a third baseman in college for the University of Nebraska. Gordon spent his early years with Royals by being moved back and forth between third base and the outfield. Although known as a potentially great hitter, he struggled at the plate to fulfill the potential. Through the years of struggle, Gordon has become a 4-time Gold Glove recipient in left field. He also has become an above-average hitter, with power to all fields. Gordon’s humility and confidence were formed in the fire of struggle.

Billy Butler has been known for his bat rather than his fielding. Butler spent much of his career as a sub-par first baseman, with a consistent bat and decent power numbers. When Eric Hosmer, an excellent fielder at first base, was called up from the minors and installed at first, Butler had to learn how to be a designated hitter. Butler was honest about his preference to play in the field, rather then being relegated to DH, and his hitting seemed to suffer without the regular activity of playing in the field. But he kept working, and adapted. Butler’s numbers fell off in 2014, but he continued to hit intelligently and contribute in the clutch. He seemed to especially be elated when he got a hit late in the game, when he knew he would be replaced by either the mercurial Terrance Gore, or Jerrod Dyson. Both players are base stealing phenoms, and place tremendous pressure on the other team. Butler isn’t known for his speed, and yet was so inspired by the exploits of Dyson and Gore, that he stole second on his own in a playoff game. That is humble confidence.

Gratitude:

A tip of the cap… this is the symbol of these Royals. I’m not sure when it began, but throughout the playoffs, Royals’ pitchers would tip their cap to a defensive play that got them out of a jam. Sometimes it came after a pitch that was a mistake and the opposing team’s hitter made solid contact. Other times, the pitch was good, but the hitter was better and the ball flew through the air looking for a hole in the defense upon which to fall. However, a flash of Royal blue would suddenly appear, and the ball would fall harmlessly into a well-worn mit. Damage dodged… Upon replay, it was fun to watch the pitcher’s response. The smack of the bat, and the head on the mound would snap around, with eyes wide in apprehension. Only to get larger in hope that his teammate, streaking towards the ball in flight would get there before it either hit the ground or escaped over the wall. Once the play was made, you saw the mouth open in a scream of “YES!”, the fist raised in triumph, and then the baseball signal of gratitude: the tip of the hat. In the field, the defensive player, with a look of confidence in his eyes, might smile slightly, and return the salute.

This public gesture became a point of connection for the team, I think. They knew they could count on each other to not only perform, but to lift each other up through their effort and selfless play. It also became a point of connection for the fans. As the regular season ran down, and it became apparent the Royals would fall short of the division title, the fans continued to flash signs which said: “We Believe!” They packed Kaufman stadium supplying boundless energy and noise, off which the players fed. The players realized how hungry the city was for a winning baseball team, and they played with a hunger of their own, which matched that of the fans. The two, fans and team, were a sort of larger team, too. And after every game, won or lost, hundreds of fans stayed around, hoping to further communicate their gratitude for this magical group of men. Eventually, players, manager, and coaches, would trudge up the stairs from the locker room, wave to the cheering fans, tip their hats, and clap their hands for the fans, in appreciation for their support and patience.

It happened in the community, too…

  • Eric Hosmer and a few of his teammates, went to a bar after a game one evening, and bought the entire house a drink to say “Thank you” for their support.
  • After the American Championship win, several Royals players went to The Power and Light District in downtown KC, where the games were being telecast on a giant screen, watched by hundreds of fans. They each took the mike and voiced their gratitude for the support of these fans, which either couldn’t get a ticket because they were sold out, or couldn’t afford a ticket.
  • The Kansas City Chiefs organization took out ads and posted on their website congratulations as well as encouragement to keep the streak going.
  • Royals players even showed up at a Chiefs home game at Arrowhead stadium which is right across the parking lot from Kaufman, dressed in red and gold Chiefs jerseys. The national media picked up on it, and interviewed James Shields with his teammates gathered around him.
  • A fan in Nebraska emailed several Royals’ team staff and players, explaining how badly he wanted to attend a playoff game, but he couldn’t afford the tickets. A role player responded to the fan’s request, by giving him two free tickets.
  • A South Korean fan watched the regular season games on the internet and became part of a growing Royals Twitter community. He took his vacation in August to attend a weekend series in Kansas City. The media in KC followed him around, and became tour guides in the city. The story became a city and internet sensation, so when the Royals made the playoffs, Royals fans everywhere asked Sung Woo Lee if he would be able to attend one of the playoff games, and he responded “Only if my bosses will let me off work…” So the Royals interceded with his company, paid for him to fly to KC, and gave him a ticket to the game. On Lee’s original trip, Billy Butler invited him for barbecue at local Zarda barbecue. (I prefer Gates, myself!)

During the playoff run, there was an understanding that something special was happening. A new storybook was being opened. With each pitch, a feeling of anticipation grew within the team, the city, the nation, and even the world. It quickly became a feel-good sensation, with even players and managers from other teams enjoying the run.

Gratitude changes people…

Hustle:

During the Royals heyday of the 1970’s and 1980’s, one of the hallmarks of their winning formula was hustle. George Brett, Hal McCrae, Willie Wilson, Frank White, even Bo Jackson played with an aggressive style that put the opposing team on notice that the Royals were unwilling to offer a gimme on any play. They slid hard into second base trying to break up a double play, they hustled to first base on a routine grounder, they rounded first base quickly and often stretched a single into a double, or a double into a triple. They stole bases, their pitchers threw high and inside. When an opposing team came to Kansas City, they knew they were in for a fight.

While these Royals don’t have the same blue-collar, street fighter demeanor of those Royals; they certainly have the same aggressiveness on the field and in the base paths. Gordon crashing into walls to make a catch, Cain flying above the fence to pull a potential home run back into the park, Moustakas diving into the stands after a foul ball, Hosmer diving to tag first base to get the out, or Perez firing the ball to first or third while still kneeling behind the plate to pick off an inattentive runner.

Then there is the aggressive base running by Gore, Dyson, Escobar, or any of the speedier players. Being aggressive on the base paths puts pressure on the pitcher, catcher, and the rest of the defense. The opposing team knows it must be perfect, and this knowledge in itself often creates defensive mistakes. The Royals were superb when on base. Even the softest hit ball could produce a run. A wild pitch might even score a guy from second!

Royals’ pitchers were at their best when they were pitching aggressively. The starters knew they could go hard for 6 innings, and then turn it over to the “Lights Out Three” as I like to call them: Herrera, Davis, and Holland.

Finally…

Probably my favorite Royals’ story of 2014 happened after the Series was over. Royals’ young starting phenom pitcher, Yordano Ventura was driving through a small bedroom community of Kansas City when he saw a softball complex with the lights on. Pulling into the parking lot, Ventura got out of his car and walked over to a field where a co-ed softball game was being played. Ventura walked up to the fence and said, “Can I play?” The players and small crowd that had gathered to watch the game, crowded around the 23 year-old, smiling young man and the game was put on hold temporarily. After brief conversations filled with “thank you’s” and “way to go’s”, the game was resumed….with Yordano Ventura, World Series star…

…in Centerfield…

Put him in, Coach!

Everybody Loves a Party…

I have enjoyed watching how the players of the New Orleans Saints have represented their city. It has been endearing to see each one acknowledge the responsibility they felt to win the Super Bowl for the city of New Orleans. And I certainly drank the Kool Aid! I was impressed with how the players and coaches performed. They were both confident and humble. They took risks and were aggressive, but not reckless. They were Champions on several levels, both on the field and off. And now New Orleans is celebrating!

I watched a PBS news program the other day and saw a couple of New Orleans local media personalities interviewed about the effect the Saints victory was having on the city. While listening to their responses, I began to think how much better reality can be than fiction sometimes. One media guy has a radio call-in show. He poignantly spoke about how the racial and economic divisions had been bridged by the love of fans for their team. What divided dissolved in the face of a common love… or the divisions were at least set aside. Maybe, as these fans begin to celebrate together, personal connections might happen. How cool would that be?

I think God likes it when we celebrate. I think he realizes that we need to celebrate. A good party lightens us up. It helps us to draw near to other people. Fun can cover a multitude of differences… as can grief. Maybe there is value in parties and funerals as a means to draw us together.

To help us see our similarities rather than our differences.

To redefine our shared priorities.

To reconnect with our shared beginnings and endings.

To acknowledge we are all both wonderful and dreadful.

To communicate both the  finiteness of life and infinity of our souls.

The writer of Ecclesiastes spoke about the proper timing of everything in life. How cool is it for God to watch the celebration of our love for even the insignificant events in life and accept it as thanks? How much better is it for us to understand the goodness of God as we celebrate…

… and to make our fun a prayer of gratitude?

I’ve Become an Atlanta Falcons Fan….

I wrote the following note on my facebook site just after Tony G was traded this past spring. I will miss watching him every Sunday, but now have another game to watch… and that’s a good thing!

So Long, Tony G…
I’m in mourning today from yesterday’s news that the Chiefs traded future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez to the Atlanta Falcons for a 2nd round pick in next year’s draft. Although I know the deal makes sense for both teams and for Tony G, as well, I’m sad because the fans of KC will miss seeing the end of his brilliant career. In this day of overused superlatives, Tony’s play and committment to Team was a mix of postmodern mold breaking and old school work ethic.

Tony’s body broke the mold of how tight ends were supposed to look, play, and be used in the offense. Although former Denver Bronco’s TE Shannon Sharp cracked the old mold, Tony blew it apart with a combination of size, speed, and ability to make the spectacular catch appear routine. Standing 6’6″, and just a shade over 250 pounds, with 4.5-4.6 speed in the 40 yard dash, Tony’s physical tools were unique. However, there are many football players that look good in the uniform and out that aren’t really players. Tony’s body was a gift, but he didn’t take the gift and rest on ability alone. He honed his natural ability into spectacular skills through tenacious work habits. Joe Posnanski, a columnist from the Kansas City Star, wrote a column about Tony’s career and ending in KC:

“The thing that struck me about Tony Gonzalez is that every time I saw him catch a pass — every single time, no matter if it was during practice, on the sideline during a game, or just goofing around afterward — he always tucked the ball away.

Always.

I saw him catch probably 5,000 passes through the years. He tucked every one of them away.”

Joe started his article with the above quote. Tucking the ball away is fundamental for a receiver. Protecting the ball from fumbles caused by grasping defensive players. It is the second fundamental you are taught after catching the ball with your hands. Len Dawson, former Chiefs quarterback, member of the NFL Hall of Fame, and color commentator for Chiefs radio broadcasts, constantly harped on Tony’s habit of catching the ball with his hands rather than allowing it to come into his body. That is the first fundamental of catching the ball. I’m sure Tony learned that lesson as a high school and University of California basketball player. Playing both sports in both high school and college is frowned upon by many proponents of either sport, due to the risk of injury. But playing more than one sport is also old-school, as is playing because you love to play. Tony’s love of the game, his passion to get better could be seen in Posnanski’s article. Another part of a tight end’s job description is to block. In the past, blocking was the highest priority of a tight end’s job, especially in the KC era of Martyball, when TG was drafted. Marty Shottenheimer was a coach who loved to run the football in his offense. When Tony was a rookie, he wasn’t the best blocker. However, Tony worked on it…no…HE WORKED ON IT! Every year, all year.

Tony was also a good teammate. He especially exemplified that in the past year when he encouraged Tyler Thigpen, third string quarterback made starter due to injuries, to spend extra time outside of practice not only throwing the ball with Tony, but also studying film of their next opponent. The dramatic improvement of the offense, although not resulting in wins, certainly was a testament of the time they spent together.

Lastly, Tony has been criticized in the past and just recently, for some of the things he said publicly. He has been called a whiner. I believe this to be an unfair characterization. Tony was brutally honest in his assessment of any given situation when asked. A whiner comments without being asked and the comments are usually self-serving. Tony was brutally honest about his performance as well as that of his teammates and administration. He certainly wasn’t Shannon Sharpe, spouting trash for purpose. Instead, he was honest about the outcome, focus, and performance of his team.

I played tight end in both high school and college. I loved watching Tony Gonzoles play every Sunday. I will miss that.

Say it Ain’t So, Brett…

I used to be a Brett Favre fan. Not a Packer’s fan, mind you, but a Favre fan. Favre was the perfect quartback and team player. A linebacker in a QB body. He loved contact and competition. He acted like a kid on a muddy field with his buddies, joking, talking trash, and playing…. incredibly. He wasn’t afraid to gamble on his arm strength. He was brash and confident. He gave credit to his offensive line. He seemed to know what football is about. He understood that football is the ultimate team game. Individual talent is great, but if you don’t have strong teammates, your talent is wasted. Ask Archie Manning…. or Dan Marino….  I mean, quarterbacks are important, but it doesn’t matter how strong the arm or quick the ability to read the defense, if you don’t have time to throw. Or defense, no matter how prolific the offense, soring points is not a big deal if your defense can’t stop the other team…. just ask Trent Green. It takes every player to prepare to be successful.

Attitude and interdependence are huge parts of a successful team. Working, sweating, bleeding, fighting, running, during 2-a-days is where teams are built. So when Brett Favre comes waltzing into camp with his bravado….here’s the cavalry…. it instills cracks in the foundation that is formed and molded in training camp. I understand that talent is always king in sports. But character runs the country.  Confidence is built when players know they can count on each other to reach deep within themselves for something extra when times are hard,

A quarterback needs to lead. Leadership is built on respect, trust, and confidence. The players of the Minnesota Vikings can say they don’t care when Favre comes into camp… that he is a Hall-of-Famer… but that will mean nothing if a playoff berth is on the line, and he throws two interceptions because he is trying to play a real-life Madden 2009.

So, Brett, if you’re listening… Go home. You may be able to play in the games, but your team needs your leadership at practice. You love to play the game? Go play with your kids….