What counts most when rivals suit up for the big game

As I write–early Tuesday morning after staying up to watch the Monday Night Football game between our beloved New Orleans Saints and their division rival the Carolina Panthers–I’m still thinking about the lessons of last night’s football game.  As always in a close fought duel, and this was that, there are many lessons.  But for me personally, there is one big lesson.

How badly you want this game has little to do with anything.

The air waves were filled yesterday with reports of Carolina players carrying grudges over how they felt the Saints players treated and mistreated them following last year’s battles.  Since the teams are in the NFC South division–along with the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers–they have to play each other twice each season.  (This year, the Saints lost the opener to Tampa and won the second game from them last week.  The Saints swept Atlanta both games.  And last night was the first of two games with Carolina.  They’ll play in New Orleans in two weeks, the final game of the year for both.)

Last year, a couple of Saints players sent little mementos, we’re told, to key Carolina players.  One was a broom.  No message, just a broom.  But it communicated very well:  “We swept you.”  That is, our team won both games against you.

The Carolina players did not take that very well.  They interpreted it correctly as the winners rubbing salt in their wounds.

Coaches urge their players not to do that, not to give opponents any reason to hate them any more, to motivate them highly to win next time.

But apparently it had worked.  Cam Newton, quarterback of the Panthers, carried an image of a broken broom on his shoes.  “Not this time,” it seemed to communicate.

One of the announcers for the game said, “I played in this division.  These teams all hate each other.”

Not what we would call “biblical hate,” I would hasten to say.  In fact, at the conclusion of a game you’ll often see them chatting with each other on the field.  When a Saints guy was knocked down last night, more than once I saw a Panther player lend him a hand to get back up.

Okay.  As the game was about to begin, I told some of this to my wife.  She asked, “Does a grudge help them play better?”  I said, “We’ll see.”

But I knew it doesn’t.  Sometimes a deep animosity can interfere with a player’s concentration and force him to make mistakes some of which will get his team penalized.

When the game ended, the score was Saints 12, Panthers 9.  Anyone who watched it will agree it was strange on a number of levels.  But for our purposes here, I merely wanted to point out that the animosity (grudge, hatred, intense rivalry, determination to make the other team regret what it had done, however you want to phrase it) did not matter.  What counted was skill, strength, preparation, athleticism, and such.  And, as any fan will tell you, sometimes it had to do with a referee’s call or how the ball bounces.

All of that is to say: There is no substitute for skill, talent, preparation, and focus.

I love a story Dr. James Dobson tells about his mother’s high school team in a wonderful little book Romantic Love: Using Your Head in Matters of the Heart. (I recommend the book for every couple about to be married.)

In 1930, James Dobson’s mother attended high school in a small Oklahoma town known for turning out a series of terrible football teams.  After some years of this, a local wealthy oil producer decided to do something about this.  He asked for permission to address the football team following another devastating defeat on the gridiron.

What he said that night became the stuff of legend.  They still talk about it in that little town.

The businessman announced that if the team would beat their arch-rival in next Friday night’s game, he would give a new Ford automobile to every boy on the team and to every coach.  “Knute Rockne could not have said it better,” said Dr. Dobson.

The team exploded with enthusiasm.  Remember, this was 1930 and the Great Depression was gearing up for a long run.

The boys “howled and cheered and slapped each other on their padded behinds.  At night they dreamed about touchdowns and rumble seats.”  They were going to win a new automobile all their own!  It was crazy.

The entire school caught the fever and the student body was ecstatic all week.  Each player imagined himself sitting behind the wheel of a gorgeous coupe with lovely young ladies hanging on the running boards.

The big night arrived.  The team assembled in the locker room.  Excitement was at an all-time high.  They suited up, the coach said a few things, and the team ran out on the field to meet their opponents.  They gathered on the sideline, huddled for a team cheer, and ran out onto the field.

They were annihilated 38 to nothing.

Dr. Dobson writes, “The team’s exuberance did not translate into a single point on the scoreboard.  Seven days of hoorah and whoop-de-do simply couldn’t compensate for the players’ lack of discipline and conditioning and practice and study and coach and drill and experience and character.”

“Such is the nature of all emotions,” concluded Dobson, “particularly romantic love.  It has a definite place in human affairs, but when forced to stand alone, it usually reveals itself to be unreliable and ephemeral and even a bit foolish.”

Prepare.  Study.  Work.  Discipline yourself. Plan.

No one has ever found a substitute for these yet.  Not even prayer is a substitute for hard work.

We’ve all heard of the people who gathered in their church on election day to pray for victory over a referendum to legalize liquor in their area.  When the vote was counted, the liquor forces had won by the same number as the people in the prayer meeting,who had, it seems, forgotten to go vote.




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