Thursday, October 17, 2013

Football as a Means: A Review of Undefeated

The best football movies focus on high school. The players still possess a raw idealism and capacity for self-sacrificing commitment. This visceral passion infuses the game with social power and camaraderie. High school teams are still anchored in real communities where people know your name. These loyalties and sacrifices erode at higher levels. High school players exhibit the devotion and attention to authority that makes 16-20 year olds ideal soldiers. High school movies rule supreme for capturing the power and complexity of football.

Undefeated, an academy award winning documentary, follows the Manassas high school Tigers in North Memphis for one season. The moviemakers earned a level of trust and invisibility that opens windows into the compelling stories and tropes that give football such a unique and compelling American narrative. While the documentary can sometimes feel like Blind Side and sometimes like Friday Night Lights, it follows the true and serendipitous story of a poor and downtrodden football team that had not won a game in 15 years and not won a playoff game in mover 100 years. The story unfolds neither as fairy tale or nursery lessons, but as an abiding portrait of what football can sometimes accomplish through community, authority and challenge to the characters of young men. 

North Memphis exists as an independent character. Roving cameras and inside homes reveal a profoundly broken community abandoned by its job generator Firestone. Dilapidated and abandoned houses, cracked streets and left behind people populate the background and foreground. The young men slouched in a team meeting when we first meet them are cast offs with no future and seldom a real family. Mansassas coach Bill Courtney announces at the meeting:

Starting right guard shot, one linebacker shot, two players fighting right in front of the coach, star center arrested for shooting someone in the face with BB gun. For most coaches that would be pretty much a career's worth of crap to deal with. I think that sums up the last two weeks for me."

When the team meets with an ex-NFL player Aaron Hayden and he asks how many of you have two parents who went to college, no hand go up. When he asks  “how many have a relative in jail” every player raises their hand. Welcome to North Memphis.

Six years ago Bill Cartney shows up as a volunteer coach. He throws himself into coaching and trying to save the young men of the Manassas team. He loves coaching; this is clear, and would gladly give up his successful wood products business to do in it full time. His passion drives him at home, and interviews with his resigned and exasperated wife and a few shots of home life with his kids reveal how consuming and costly his coaching obsession can be. One of the film’s untouted strengths is its no nonsense revelation of how hard on family committed coaches can be. I watched Cartney struggle with his own sense of not being there for his own kids. Cartney reflects on how his own father had not been there for him and his coaching other fatherless men help to redeem that absence. I am also reminded of associate head coach telling me, “I spent 22 years being a better father to my players than my kids.”

His coaching extends who he is at work and home. His blunt, outspoken tough love drills through to the abandoned and cast off players of his team. By accident he has become the only caring male model in their lives. He knows it and feels the responsibility deeply. So deeply it starts to undermine his responsibilities to his family.

When Courtney started Manassas had only 17 players. Although the school is brand new replete with state of the art security and metal detectors, the sports facilities are a weed spotted afterthough. A local reporter points out how the real money has flown to the private schools and suburbs, so none of the public schools, despite new buildings, has any real resources to face their massive task of rescuing generations of minority students left behind and cast aside by society.

The only way the team can finance itself is to sell itself to play fodder games with richer schools. They travel hours to go get a payday of 5,000 dollars to support the program. Just like an underfunded FCS team, they make themselves a punching bag for rich suburban teams for the money. After several early season slaughters, the team is usually broken physically and psychologically before playing their district games.
No external motives, no race fairy tales, not story of black white reconciliation here; just a committed guy who loves football and loves coaching.

He spends hours with the team and spends his own money and recruits other white well off assistant coaches to drill and plead for discipline. He organizes fund-raisers to get the team off the treadmill of early season games. He and his cadre of white assistant volunteer coaches truly believe that if the students let it, “football can save your life.” It sounds like the worst form of paternalistic coach-speak. But, in this case, football provides an identity, place of safety away from streets, sense of efficacy and above all male authority figures to young men who have none of the above.

When Courtney and his coaches lose a player, they believe they also lose a soul.
This infuses the football quest with a sense of urgency that all the best high school and college coaches carry—they “to build a platform of character” from which the young men have a chance to forge a life. Courtney and the film prove what players have known forever, what sounds like clichés to outsiders, becomes truth to insiders. Good leaders create mantras and repeat and model them endlessly until they become truths for the players and the coach. In Courtney and the team’s case:

"Young men of character and discipline and commitment end up winning in life. Football doesn't build character. Football reveals character."

It takes time, patience and endless passion pouring into what can seem like a black hole of emotional apathy and resignation in the team. But Courtney has been at this for five years now. He has a core of seniors who stayed with him and slowly committed and grew to trust this large passionate white guy from far away.

The team possess O. C. Brown a large easy-going and very talented player who could earn a scholarship. OC lives with his grandmother and as he says “I’m not very smart…Football is my way out.” But he struggles with grades and above all the dreaded ACT. Almost without noticing it, the film points out how he ends up moving in part time with an well off white assistant coach where he gets tutoring. In the end after failing the ACT once,  he squeaks by with the minimum 16 and earns a scholarship to Southern Mississippi. It felt eerily like scenes from Blind Side without the fairy tale aspect. The coach is direct and to the point, “if I were a piano teacher and found a great talent, I’d try to help.”

I kept expecting the black-white dynamic and subtext of the idea of well off white guys plying their coaching passion with a bunch of underprivileged black kids to dominate the story and reveal the insidious racial paternalism that this could represent. Courtney feels absolutely authentic with the kids. Certainly his blunt language and his “us” against them motivation about how the kids have to overcome the rep of inner city teams who “quit” drives home. We see him visiting the kids in their homes and hugging, cajoling, demanding and helping them keep together during the craziness of high school years.

In the case of Chavis Brown, a talented but troubled young man, the coach suspends him for attacking his own teammates. But Courtney literally chases Chavis to stay with the team and endure a suspension. Chavis does and in one of the profound and wrenching scenes complete with subtitles to help with the kid’s thick north Memphis accents apologizes to the team and gives the teams coveted “uncommon man” award to his teammate Money Brown.

Money is an undersized player who succeeds because of his “mental toughness.” He has a 3,8 but no money to get to college. Worse he injures himself and in scenes reminiscent of every football injury film ever shot. he meets with caring and honest doctors who tell him he cannot play but has a chance if he can rehab.

Money despairs and struggles with losing football and facing the inability to get into college for lack of money. He quits coming to school. Again Courtney’s mantra, “you can’t quite because you are frustrated,” matters. Courtney goes to his house and literally drags him back. Courtney demands and models to them all that “character is revealed in failure.” He knows there are not second chances in North Memphis, if the kids quit, it is all over not just for the team but for their futures.

Character and discipline and team before self. He desperately screams, yells, cajoles and loves them to internalize this in the  hopes they can carry that beyond the high school. At the end it all comes out in football where he yells, “Please remember discipline. Please remember character, and let’s go kick their ass.”

At the end the coach knows he has to leave coaching at the school for the sake of time with his family. His solution, ironically, is to coach at his son’s school and coach his kid’s teams. The documentary really reveals how coaches really are coaches. Coach-speak grows from deep inside and what people may consider clichés, remain deep truths when spoken by a passionate and smart and caring coach to young men struggling, “Success does not reveal character. Character is revealed by failure.” We all hear this ten times in the movie. The coach lives it and the players struggle with it and now and then understand and live it when Chavis returns and Money gets to college and plays in the last game. The team hears it after the first defeat in their first game.

Courtney believes that one way to cut through the apathy and despair is to “reach hearts through something you love.” In this case football is all  he and these young men have. The coach never stops demanding that the kids “get their heads on right” and pay attention to “character” and put “team before individual.” It slowly sinks in to the reluctant and cynical, no cynical is to optimistic, resigned team and to those of us who watch. The coach and team capture the real lesson of football at this level. In a close game, Courtney looks at the team and exhorts them to act with “mind with heart and bodies. Let’s finish this thing.”

The team loses the first game of the season. The team loses the last game of the season in the playoffs to one of the teams that used to pay them as mercenary punching bags. In between they win nine games and OC garners a scholarship; Chavis begins the journey to becoming a functional person and Money rehabs and plays in his last game.

The title reminds us that losing a game is not the same as being defeated. One’s heart and mind and spirit can remain unbroken and undefeated even amid defeat. The coach and players learned the lesson so dear to Courtney’s coaching heart—character endures. To repeat, the true test of character is “not success, but failure.” Character endures, character gets back up, character continues to work and achieve after set-backs.

For Courtney and the committed coaches of high school and college football, that remains the abiding truth, the end for which football is but a means. One hopes the kids when they leave and face that bleak unforgiving neighborhood can remember.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Wisdom of Athlete Cliches

In one of my favorite sport movies Bull Durham, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, “the million dollar arm with a five cent brain,” asks his grizzled mentor, Crash Davis, to “teach” me more stuff. Crash sits him down on their rickety bus and says, "it’s time to talk about clichés." He begins with “I am just happy to be here.”

How many times have you listened to the same words or variations from athletes as they answer the same hackneyed question for the umpteenth time? Consider that a midlevel major league player would be asked similar questions by multiple reporters over 900 times a year.

Athlete speak seems to involve what Washington, D.C. would call a “non-answer answer.” It sounds like an answer but has absolutely zero content. Now these answers evolve for reasons. First, no athlete wants to call out or publically insult teammates or members of the other team. Athletes have to play every day with each other. Real problems are hashed out in private. Second, no athlete wants to give the other team motivation for a game or insight into a team’s problems. In pro sports, athletes will move across several teams and no player wants to alienate or insult someone who may be a teammate next week or next year.

What do we want them to say? “W botched the double play because he played out of position or X missed the ball because he was not only not playing to the scout or Y misread the trajectory and broke wrong?” He could no more say that Z was out too late with his mistress and not as fully focused as he could be. Come on guys! The need to protect team cohesion and relations, as well as the endless sameness of the questions and situations abrade the answers and wear away all the externals. The clichés gleam like polished rocks eroded and buffed by hot air and weather of media storms.

I believe, however, that athlete speak also contains some strong and consistent wisdom that athletes and coaches do believe and that are worth listening to. At the end of a recent come from behind over time victory, the Seahawks young and very smart quarterback Russell Wilson described the mood in the locker room at the half time after the Seawhawks had been soundly trounced for 30 minutes. Wilson feels not only smart but genuine and is too young to have built up the smooth deflective armor of words and poise that many veterans adopt to protect themselves. Here is what he said:

"The mood in the locker room was unbelievable," he insisted. "We knew that if we could just hang in there, if we could just play one play at a time, stay in the moment...and we did throughout the entire second half."

Now the reality is that most cliches began as and in fact still reflect deep truths. They become cliches by repetition and trained ignoring. Wilson in fact described exactly what the battered but not beaten Seahawks did.

Athletes and trained professionals have worked hard to practice reflectively and train their emotions and cognitive responses. They respond under great pressure with quick decisions that reflect perception of what the situation requires, coordination with fellow players and execution based upon powerful and trained pattern recognition and cognitive and emotionally united instincts. Often the cliches refer to these practices lying below the surface of actions. 

For instance, it is absolutely critical to "play one play at a time." The most dangerous thing an athlete can do is carry the emotional dredges of the past mistakes or success into the next play. This distracts from full attention and can code the execution either with too little or too much optimism. Emotions impact all performance and it is critical to let them go each play. One step at a time matters as a way to live and overcome adversity and stay on track when a person is ahead. The Seahawks, their coaches and their execution focused upon each play without giving up or pressing too hard.

High level performance requires being totally present to each moment. Elite athletic competition requires supreme pattern recognition from players and coaches. Being in the moment means players put aside emotional and physical and external distractions to bring their entire and multi-dimensional attention to bear at each moment of the competition. This can lead to interceptions, stopped plays or break aways or simply superb execution that wins a critical third down on a stalled drive. High performance achievement requires this ability to be entirely present to oneself, call upon one's skills and be present and connected to team mates and the opposition. This being present, playing one play at a time and persevering lay the emotional and psychological foundation of situational awareness that sets timely interceptions, blocks, sacks or brilliant runs.

Finally the Seahawks just kept at it with consistency. They endured mistakes and successes. Did not matter, but they kept present, focused upon execution of each play and gradually built up momentum and scored and chipped away.

Wilson in his thoughtful and balanced way described what many athletes have said thousands fo times and been ignored, but he spoke the truth and told exactly what happened at an attention based focused level.

Athletic wisdom may sound like cliches but it embodies serous wisdom and a way of being in harsh competition.

So professional athletes and most visible elite athletes draw upon a standard repertoire of answer across all sports. Consider:

  • We just take it one day at a time.
  • I do my best and the good Lord willing, I will get better.
  • We just have to go out and try our best each day.
  • He’s a competitor and never gives up, so he came through.
  • We all have days like this  (could be good or bad).
  • The other guys picked me up.
  • I want to compliment the other team; they played a great game.
  • I couldn’t t have done it without the rest of the team.
  • Just go to let it go. Tomorrow is another game.
  • Guys are not focused. We have to be focused out there.
  • We need to work on that in practice.
  • We’re in a groove, on a wave, in the flow and will ride it.
  • Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. That’s the game.

Each of the phrases divulges a real truth about sport. The fundamental rule of all sport must be to take it one day, one episode, one moment at a time. Sport involve constant failures. If a player lets a dropped pass stay with them or a strikeout or missed jump shot, then the memory and upset from the failure will poison and undermine their next pass, next shot or next strike. Elite athletes must have no memory from one moment to another.

Elite athletes like any of us who seek to strive and succeed, need to remember Kipling’s injunction in IF: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster 
And treat those two imposters just the same.”

The mental and emotional discipline of being focused on each moment, each pitch, each movement of the person you guard, each set and pattern before you defines the attention of a fine athlete. Athletes must be totally present and aware and attuned; they must bring their best attention and effort on each play because at the elite level small mistakes or miscues lead to immense and brutal consequences. So competitors never give up and achievers remain focused.

In competition if athletes let their emotions get the best of them,they lose focus. If they let the other team get into their heads or let their own emotional anger at the other team influence them, it can subtly lower performance or lead to overcompensation. It opens them and their team to being angered or thrown off their concentration by the other team.

Staying focused but also staying connected to their team remain essential. Team members may not like each other but have to trust to commit to their own expertise and place. If a player tries to do too much because they don’t’ trust their team, a player will get out of place and upset a formation or play. A player will leave openings and overcompensate and the other team will adjust and exploit it. So trusting and relying on their teammates and acknowledging them is critical, just as critical as respecting and acknowledging the other team when the opponents play well. That respect and acknowledgement can trump simmering anger or resentment that the other team may seek and exploit.

All of us and all athletes have those moments, those wonderful transcendent moments when we are in the flow. The moment when we are living at our highest potential and our skills and practice and training come together. It can feel like an epiphany, but when we have them, like Crash Davis says you have to “respect the streak” and we have to respect our performance and ourselves.

So we all have days like this and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but you carry on, you show up and you do your job. And every athlete does know in his or her heart of heart that Crash is right, “I am just happy to be here.” That is life, not just sport. Trite, but true.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Are the Mariners Zombies or Just Cursed?

I will not care any more

Another wreck of a season ends.  The fourth 90 loss season in six years. Hiroshi Yamauchi, the man who saved the Mariners for Seattle, recently died. Eric Wedge quit after four (or was it three?) undistinguished years and joined Jim Hargrove as the strangest exit for a Mariner manager. Felix Hernandez has had seven managers since he has been here. Three general managers in a decade. I lost count of total number of managers, interim or full time or part time.

I mean this is a mess. Even though I follow all the sabermetric blogs and know there are some explanations for the failures, especially in roster construction; I believe  the issue transcends human reason or analysis.The last decade of unending failure and smashed dreams leas me to conclude that the Mariner’s might suffer from a zombie disease or curse.

I will never watch another Mariner's game in person.

Zombies exist in many forms, but the their essence lies in the fact that they have lost their souls and most reason. They may be undead or they may just be bodies without souls. Either form will do to describe some of the Mariners.

When I consider why I still watch the Mariners, I realize I have always loved Zombie movies. Zombies have human bodies and they move, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, and they go through human actions, but they produce nothing really but mayhem.They seem to have a purpose, but only end up eating hopes and dreams of living humans.

I prefer canonical slow and awkward zombies, myself. Maybe that accounts for following the Mariners with Jose Montero, Justin Smoak or Michael Morse or Jose Vidro, or so many others. So we have the Zombie Mariners, not all of them, mind you, but enough to guarantee lifeless defense and erratic and perfunctory offense.

I will never ever ever watch a Mariner’s TV game again. This time I mean it.

If not zombies, they might just be cursed. This is the west coast, and we do wimpy curses. Nothing like the Bambino or even a Cub’s curse. Although the Mariner's have never made it to the World Series, one of only 2 teams in history. 

In the Mariner’s case, the first curse begins with trades. Getting traded by the Mariner's is good for your career. The club excels at trading ok players who become fine players. I can think of Raul Ibanez who left and excelled at Kansas City and Philly. Adam Jones flourished at the Orioles. In the last couple years Doug Fister excelled at Tigers or Steve Delabar at Toronto. Even the manager Bob Melvin gets fired and goes on to become a fine manager elsewhere. I sometimes think that the only reason the Mariners have not traded Dustin Ackley or Justin Smoak is the fear that they will become stars the minute they go elsewhere.

The other side of the curse is that good players come here to die. Eric Bedard’s total implosion distills a whole history of players like Richie Sexson etal.  Adrian Beltre is a classic case. He came, died, and was resurrected at Texas. For good reason players steer clear of the Mariner’s. It’s not the park, it's the curse.
I will never watch the Mariner's cute spring commercials.

I stopped writing sad laments at the end of baseball season two years ago. It just became too hard to miss baseball season when the last two months of each year ended up an exercise in masochism. This is getting silly, even stupid. Five years into the third rebuilding phase, I have to wonder if the real issue is not zombies or curses, but Seattle has become the baseball twilight zone. A world that exists in haunted shadows of lost dreams and hopeless projections.

So Eric Wedge joins the 7 managers in the last 11 years. He let everyone know that he would not stay even if the team offered him a five-year contract. How is that for a vote of confidence! Wedge wanted more -2 WAR a veteran on longer term contracts to support his under achieving and slow developing younger players. Instead Jack Zduriencik got him -2 WAR veterans with one-year contracts. 

Sadly Wedge could also not get a multi-year contract from a GM who could only get a one-year extension. So Wedge quits and Zduriencik stays for one year; many of us fear Jack Z will trade still developing talent for over the hill guys to try and save his job with an above 500 season. Think of that, going above 500 after 6 years can save his job!!! 

I still remember when Jim Hargrove drove off in the middle of a season in his red truck and left baseball. Seattle turned him into a zombie, I think.   I'll bet Hargrove never watched another Mariner's game.

 Actually I don’t believe the Mariners are zombies. Felix Hernandez or Ichiro could never pass for Zombies. Of course no one would ever mistake Jay Buehner or Randy Johnson as zombies. It is now clear, however, that Alex Hernandez did not have a soul and hence qualifies as a zombie. He simply masqueraded as a human when he was here.

No I think the deeper problem is that the Mariner’s general management stink. They cannot stay with a plan. They misjudge talent. They have no conception of roster construction—I mean five first base/DH guys three of whom end up playing in the outfield!!! If we were European soccer clubs we could vote out the management, but we can't.

This is my fate. If I were Marcus Aurelius and a stoic I would hug myself with strong stoic words of endurance and virtue and maybe even wonder about an after life. I am not. I am not stupid, really, but I am a Mariner’s fan.

Sometimes I wish I were not a Mariner's fan. I wonder if free will permits a person to renounce their fan hood? I must ponder this.

I will  never watch another Mariner’s game; at least until next spring training.