When the Cheering Stops

Some years back Gene Smith wrote a book about the final years of Woodrow Wilson with the intriguing title, “When the Cheering Stopped.”

Smith told how at the end of the First World War, Wilson was the most popular man on the planet. When he and his presidential entourage traveled to Europe for the Versailles Conference, crowds acclaimed him everywhere. He was hotter than the Beatles or Elvis ever were. That enthusiasm lasted about a year.

Woodrow Wilson suffered a paralyzing stroke on October 3, 1919, and was incapacitated for the remaining five years of his life. His party lost in the 1920 elections. And Congress refused to ratify membership in the League of Nations, a cause dear to Wilson’s heart.

His star had ascended and flared brightly, then had burned out and fallen to the earth. One wonders what he thought about during all those months in which his mind was working but little else. He had much to regret and surely must have suffered great remorse.

The Second World War, it has often been noted, resulted from the botched up job the Allies did at Versailles and over the next few years. (I’m halfway thinking of inserting an apology here for the extended historical allusion. But hey, this was my major and some of my best college papers dealt with this period in American life! But, back to the subject….)

The question before us is “What does a leader do when he comes to the end, hands the reins to his successor, and goes home? When he/she looks back and thinks of the mistakes made, the people hurt, the jobs left undone, how does one handle this?”

Sean Payton, the Super-Bowl-winning coach of the New Orleans Saints football team, has a book coming out at the end of June. “Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life” will give Payton’s take on coming to our city and, particularly following Katrina, rebuilding his team and recapturing the hearts of the WhoDat Nation.

In Friday’s Times-Picayune, reporter Mike Triplett provides an advance peek at the book with something Payton did to fire up the team during the week prior to the February 7 championship game in Miami.

Triplett says he is whetting our appetite. My own take on this is that this is one part of the world where that appetite is already insatiable. Payton could write a coloring book and by nightfall every house for hundreds of miles around would own one.

The problem Payton was faced with in the days leading up to the big game was how to motivate the team and keep them focused on the job at hand. Just getting to the Super Bowl is a dream most players never realize. The headiness of this experience for a player is something we outsiders can only imagine.

And that’s the problem, Payton realized. If his team was just glad to be there, they had lost their focus. There was still one more game to be played, the biggest game of their careers.

Here’s what happened. I’ll let Triplett tell it.

In South Florida, “Payton didn’t have any problem with players going out Monday night because there was no practice scheduled for Tuesday. ‘I’m not naive,’ the coach wrote. ‘If I were a player, that’s the night I’d be going out. But I’d (blank) sure make the Tuesday morning bus.’

“Five players apparently didn’t–(Tracy) Porter, safeties Roman Harper and Usama Young, defensive end Bobby McCray and offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod.

“While team officials and position coaches frantically tried to hunt them down and team and league public relations officials tried to get Payton and his players up to the podiums at the scheduled time, Payton recognized a golden opportunity.

“‘What the players had done really wasn’t that big a deal,’ he wrote. ‘Monday was the night they were supposed to go drinking. Tuesday was just Media Day. It was all unimportant. Who cares what time Media Day activities are supposed to begin? Believe me, the media will wait. And one by one, the five missing players began to show up. This is going to be a teaching moment. Teaching by confrontation….’

“‘We were going to have a little emergency meeting just as soon as the last straggler arrived. It was Tracy Porter. Finally, he appeared in the locker room. All the doors were closed. I began to speak.’

“‘You guys,’ I said, starting softly. ‘You guys remind me of a team that’s just happy to be here…. There’s a lot of things I don’t do well. But I have very good intuition. It had gotten me to this point in my career. Part of that is developed. Part of it’s innate. But I can, and I do, pay attention. And I have a good sense of what is going on here…. My intuition tells me you guys are in for a rude awakening this coming weekend. I can smell an a– kickin’ on the way. I can smell a team that looks like they’re just happy to be in the Super Bowl. You guys reek of that team.’

“Payton said he didn’t shout, but his comments were personal and direct, and he called out a few players by name–including the three defensive backs who were late.

“‘Do you honestly think (Indianapolis Colts receiver) Pierre Garcon and (blank) Dallas Clark and those other guys from the Colts are out to the wee hours?’ Payton recalled saying. ‘Late for Media Day? You’re late. You’re (blank) clueless. You got no idea.’

“The Saints were now 30 minutes late for their scheduled interview time, with hundreds of reporters assuming there was a delay because the weather had pushed the interviews inside. But Payton said he didn’t care. His speech went on to include assistant coaches and the overall ‘happy to be here’ attitude he sensed and ‘giddiness’ he had seen on the bus rides and in the hotel lobby.

“‘Let me know if you’re gonna party all week, because I’ll go drink red wine at the Prime, too,’ Payton recalled saying. ‘We’re not gonna get vested in a game plan if this is the way we’re gonna go. Ah, h–l, I’ll go get (blank)-up with the rest of you. Is that what we’re here for?’

“Payton then ended his rant by passing on a message from his mentor and current Miami Dolphins president (Bill) Parcells, who had watched the team practice Monday but declined an invitation to speak with the Saints since he is currently working for another team.

“”Bill’s message wasn’t something he dreamed up alone,’ Payton wrote. ‘It dates back decades before him. It sounds to me like pure Vince Lombardi, but it probably goes back even further than that. I told the players, ‘Here’s what Bill Parcells said. He said, When the band stops playing and the crowd stops cheering–when people stop paying to come–and it’s quiet and all you’re left with is yourself, you’ve gotta be able to answer the question, Did I do my best? Did I do everything (blank) possible to win this game?'”

“Parcells, who won two Super Bowls as a coach and lost one, emphasized his point by saying that the mistakes he made in the loss will ‘haunt’ him forever.

“Payton said the players were silent in the locker room by that point. When he finished, he said quarterback Drew Brees followed up by calling a players-only meeting so he could give his own motivational speech. Then they finally went in for interviews.

“‘When we went to work Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, everyone was focused. No one was just happy to be there,’ Payton wrote. ‘Rather than holding a phony meeting on Tuesday, the players gave me a perfect opportunity to create a crisis. They delivered it to me in a golden wrapper.'”

And you know the rest of that story, how they took it to the Indianapolis Colts the next Sunday evening in Super Bowl XLIV. And it was Tracy Porter himself who stepped in front of a Colts receiver and picked off a pass which he ran back for the touchdown that drove a stake through the hopes of the Colts.

For leaders of all kinds–especially pastors–there must be a hundred lessons on motivating teams, staffs, and congregations in that little episode. The one on my mind this morning, however, is the Bill Parcells reference.

When the cheering stops and you’re left in solitude, stillness and silence, you will be faced with the question: Did I do my best?

Not only will you be faced by it, you will not be able to evade it. This question will dog your steps and invade your sleep and torment you….

Unless you did indeed do your best.

In the solitude of his post-presidential years, Harry Truman said he never dwelt on dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. He did the best he knew to do at the moment. “I refuse to second guess myself,” he would tell anyone asking whether it had been the correct decision.

Jimmy Carter tells of the time an admiral asked if he had always done his best during his time in the Navy. Honestly and humbly, Carter replied, “Not always.” The officer asked, “Why not? Why didn’t you do your best?” The title of Carter’s first book was taken from that episode, “Why Not the Best?”

Driving into downtown New Orleans on Interstate 10, you will pass an old Catholic church whose spire pokes into the sky alongside the highway. Look closely and you’ll see the peaked dome is covered with brilliant gold. Many years ago, when the state and federal government bought part of the church land for the interstate, they gave a truckload of cash to that church. The priest made the decision on what to do with it.

According to the folks around here, the clergyman decided he wanted people to notice his church. So, he took all those funds and paid to have gold layered over the dome.

People notice the church all right. And shake their heads at such misplaced priorities.

I wonder if in his latter years the priest lay awake at night thinking, “What ever came over me? I could have funded an orphanage or built a homeless center. I could have gotten it right, and I blew it.”

You and I who follow the Lord Jesus Christ are grateful that He forgives sinners, even those of us who have been called as shepherds to His flock and who mess up bigtime. We too get it wrong and have to humble ourselves in repentance and ask for His forgiveness.

We are everlastingly grateful that “Christ receiveth sinful men, even me with all my sin.”

Even so, we still want to get this right. We’ve played all season long and we now come down to the final game. It’s good to be here, true, but getting to this point in life was not why we came.

We came to be winners in the things that matter most.

God help us to stay focused. Party time will come later. Right now, there’s work to be done.

3 thoughts on “When the Cheering Stops

  1. The Saints story of the coaches speech should be told in schools, businesses, and churches. It’s about personal responsibility, first to yourself, and then to the people you work with.


  2. The Saints story of the coaches speech should be told in schools, businesses, and churches. It’s about personal responsibility, first to yourself, and then to the people you work with.


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