“I want the ball, coach.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes—right up the middle.”
The clock winds down on my last football game as a freshman in high school and our team is on the three-yard-line about to score. We are down five points, so to cross the goal line on this play allows us to finish the season with a win.
I line up behind my quarterback. The offense gets set. The defense makes their adjustments and I try my best to mask the smirk on my face as they begin to favor the left side—I am going right.
I look quickly to where the hole I will be running through should be. I believe in my linemen.
They will open up that gap. I know I can get there. It's only three yards.
I look away just as quick as to not give away my plan to the defense.
There is a beautiful silence in the milliseconds between the last defensive yell and the start of the play that only those who have lived it can relate to. The memory and intensity of that fleeting moment stays with you long after hanging up the cleats for the last time.
I get a great start off the snap of the ball. The handoff exchange is perfect and I begin the three yard journey to victory. An open hole. I see it. I still see it to this day, over twenty years later.
The whistle blows. I’m at the bottom of a pile of young men exhausted from a long, hard-fought, game.
It’s a peculiar thing to be at the bottom of a pile of young men wearing pounds of plastic equipment. It can be a dangerous place and often becomes an opportunity for cheap shots the referee will never see. In my experience, the only thing more dangerous is to be at the bottom of a celebration pile of your own teammates after a big victory.
The game is over.
This time, it was not a celebratory pile. An unfortunate silver-lining for being short of the goal-line by half a yard.
The play is over. The game is over. The season is over. I failed.
The young men are peeled off the pile. Those in white celebrate. Those in black slowly walk toward the sideline with their face masks pointed at the dirt.
I roll over, tears in my eyes, and take in the dark sky silhouetted by the stadium lights.
I don’t want to get up. I don’t want to face my team. I’m a failure. Hours seem to go by in those few seconds as I lay there.
A lone hand appears. It is wrapped in dirty white tape and covered with blotches of red.
“I got you, Leath. You played a good game.” My John Fitzgerald, a man no longer with us, but then just a boy, helps me to my feet.
We walk to the sideline together, too tired to pretend we are not leaning on each other for support.
“Leath.” I hear my name from a familiar voice a few yards away. I turn towards my coach without looking up and walk in his direction.
“I’m sorry, coach.”
“I thought I could make it. I thought I could...”
“Knock it off.”
Shocked at his words that snap me out the pity party I was sure to attend the rest of the evening.
“One play doesn’t win or lose us a game. You took your shot. You took many shots this game. Some successful, some not. But you took your shot, and that is worth something. Nine out of ten times, you make those yards. You’ll be alright.”
What the hell is wrong with this guy?
At the time, I thought he was crazy. It was one play, three yards, and an opportunity to win the game, and I didn't come through.
But my coach saw the bigger picture. He didn’t see one failure, instead he saw one attempt of many. He saw the effort. He saw past the irrelevance of a junior varsity football game in 1996 and knew this perceived failure by some ignorant freshman would be turned into a lesson later used to bring on success.
We lost the game, but coach was right and a lesson was learned.
I took my shot.
I believed in myself, failed, but failed knowing I did everything I could. I could have, instead, not tried and had to live with that regret.
If I am going to fail, it will be on my terms and with my full effort.
I later found out Fitzgerald thought it was his fault we lost because he was one of the guys who was in charge of opening the hole for me.
Then the quarterback told me a week later he thought it was his fault because he kept looking to where the play was going, giving the defense an idea of where the ball was headed.
Three different stories of the same event. That is life, isn't it? Life is simply the story we tell ourselves about what an event means.
The lesson I learned way back then as a player was that I can only control me. I can only affect the outcome of the game by doing my job and doing it well. That is all I can do. Like Coach Bill Walsh writes, in his book with the same title, “The scoreboard takes care of itself.”
But the lesson transcended my playing days and has helped me as a coach, too.
The lesson I learned as a coach was how important it is to focus on the long term, not what is right in front of me. My coach wasn’t caught up in the loss, he was concerned with the lesson. His ego and hunger to win some irrelevant game didn’t blind him to the importance of empowering a young man to see this temporary moment of failure not as devastation, but as a respectable attempt, one that should be repeated.
I’m grateful for my coach. He showed me it’s more important to go all out in the attempt than to define success though the outcome or other means outside of my control.
In defeat, there can be success. Be the coach that empowers others to make the attempt, regardless of the scoreboard.