“Man, they’re gonna whoop our ass in the playoffs anyway. It doesn’t matter what we do this week.”
“What the fuck did you say?!”
I was sitting in my locker at Denver Broncos headquarters, toweling off after a shower. The locker room was broken up into sections by position. Mine was in a cluster of receivers and tight ends. Over the top of my locker on the other side of the locker room were the linebackers. I was eavesdropping on their conversation.
“What the fuck did you say?”
“Man, forget it. I didn’t say anything.”
“No, fuck that! That’s some bullshit!”
Our starting defensive end was talking to Al Wilson, our starting middle linebacker, about the Colts. We were set to play them in a few days in the last regular season game of the season. By all accounts, they were going to rest their starters, and if we won, we’d play them again the following week in the ﬁrst round of the playoffs. The previous year, they'd stomped us in the opening round. Our defensive end didn’t think this year would be any different.
And that infuriated Al. He was our defensive captain and the model of conﬁdence. He had a pep in his step at all times. He always thought he would win his matchup, and he tolerated nothing less in his teammates, especially the ones he’d be standing next to in the huddle.
The disagreement almost came to blows. The two had to be separated. Al was inconsolable. Our D-end had shown Al his true colors and Al felt duped. He also knew that with an attitude like that, there was no way we would win. And winning was all that mattered to Al. Sure enough, the Colts whooped us in the ﬁrst round of the playoffs, just as predicted; 49-24.
The higher the level of athletic competition, the smaller the margin of error. And not just physically; the mind becomes a razor blade. Because as the physical attributes of your competitors become more daunting, the ability to convince yourself that you belong in their company becomes more difficult. Especially in football, because it's so violent. There’s nowhere to hide from the brutality. If we weren’t engaging in violence on the field, we were watching it on film. In order to survive in that environment, I had to convince myself that it was noble; that it was godly. It was my destiny to beat and be beaten daily. And getting through that daily pain became a badge of honor that made me very confident.
Often times in meetings, a coach would say, “If you haven’t gotten your ass kicked, you haven’t been doing this long enough.” Everyone gets trampled. Tom Brady throws interceptions. Ray Lewis gets flattened by a fullback. Adrian Peterson gets dropped in his tracks. What separates them from the average dude is that they see those plays as anomalies. That should never have happened. And never will again. Until they do. Then it's the same internal conversation again. Professional athletes have done that for so long, and do it so well, that confidence no longer has to be re-summoned. It is an immediate subconscious response to a mistake or an ass-whooping. Blasphemy! I’m the best athlete on the planet! The loyal body follows.
And that's part of the reason that every week, all across our footballing country, inferior teams pull surprise victories on bigger, faster, stronger football teams. It's a surprise to everyone except the winning team (and maybe their most loyal fans), who adopted a vision during the week that came to fruition on game day — a commitment, to a man, to ride out whatever storm comes along. Things go wrong on a football field. Nothing goes according to plan, especially when you’re playing someone you aren’t supposed to beat. Underdogs force each other to maintain their composure in the presence of superior talent.
When I was a small college player trying to make it to the NFL, I was conﬁdent in my abilities, but a part of me was nervous about the mythological football gods I’d be lining up across from. In my first training camp — with the 49ers — in 2002, I lined up across from their starting cornerback during 1-on-1’s. He got right up in my face on the line of scrimmage, six inches from my facemask. He wanted to welcome the new guy to the NFL. I knew he was going to try to quick-jam me. He was in a very aggressive and forward-leaning stance. At the snap of the ball, I gave a slight shoulder nod to the inside and clubbed his left arm with my right hand, knocking him off balance. I ran right past him and sprinted down the sideline. The quarterback threw me a perfect ball. Touchdown.
Yes, I could compete. Because all men are beatable. All men falter. Even the biggest and baddest. That’s what the double digit underdog coach is telling his players all week long as they prepare for a supposedly unbeatable opponent.
“They don’t respect you. They’re looking right past you. But you know what? They’ve got something coming. They have no idea what we have in this room, guys. But I do. And so do you. We’re going to go in there and kick their asses all over the ﬁeld. I know it for a fact. But I need every single one of you guys in this room to know it too. If we believe in each other, no one can stop us.”
That’s the spiel at least. Sometimes it works. Most of the time it doesn’t. But when it does, it's a beautiful thing.