Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Few Things I Learned from Vince Lombardi, Reggie White, Brett Favre, & Joe Montana

“When we place our dependence in God, we are unencumbered, and we have no worry. In fact, we may even be reckless, insofar as our part in the production is concerned. This confidence, this sureness of action, is both contagious and an aid to the perfect action. The rest is in the hands of God – and this is the same God, gentlemen, who has won all His battles up to now.” -Vince Lombardi, Green Bay Packers Coach

We're coming up on NFL football season.  Autumn approacheth.  There is no greater idol in Wisconsin than Packer and Badger football season.  Green Bay Packer season, of course, being the most important.  That being so, I was raised in a culture of football sports.  The entire week at times seemed to revolve around the sit down on Sundays to eat, drink, and watch the football game.  In light of that, I'd like to share some of the truths I've learned about living life, from some of the greatest football players and coaches the league has ever know.  

American football is special.  In fact it's special to me.  Sports used to be my life when I was younger.  NFL is important to hundreds of millions of Americans.  It remains so today, perhaps even more so than in the past.

I was raised in the frozen tundra of North central Wisconsin.  I've been to Packer football games over 10 times.  I've been to Badger football and basketball games even more than that.  My parents were at the Superbowl between the Packers and the Patriots.  They were even at the next Superbowl when Green Bay lost to Denver.  Football is in my blood.  In Elementary and junior high I played flag football, and tackle football.  We played football at recess, football after school, football on holidays, and football in the school leagues.  My heroes were men like Brett Favre, Reggie White, Sterling Sharpe, Leroy Butler, and Robert Brooks.

“People consider me a success because I'm a good football player and make lots of money. But if my heart's not right, if I'm not living a life pleasing to God, I'm a failure.”
Reggie White

What does it mean for a man to live well?  Is it the amount of success he achieves in life?  Or recognition?  What is greatness?  What does living a life of excellence look like?  Is it simply a question of hard work?  Or is there something more to it?

For many it's about money.  Money, money, and more money.  For others it may be about acquisition of power.  For others it might be about finding the picturesque family situation, with a home, good job, summer vacations, and a white picket fence. 

People we look to, people we think have "made it" often attest to the fact that they find themselves unfulfilled fundamentally.  Think of Robin Williams, a comedian and actor loved dearly by the American public.  He was rich, successful, and then he kills himself.  Why?  He had achieved so much, yet had so little.  

I think of the story of Deion Sanders, an all star corner back in the NFL.  Yet after achieving his greatest ambition of winning the super bowl, he's on the phone ordering a new Lamborghini...  At that moment he has this terrible sinking feeling in his gut.  He realizes he's achieved his greatest goal.  The game is over.  He's at the hotel room.  It's all starting to wear off.  He realizes he feels empty.  He's at the top, and there's nothing there (as actor Jim Carey once said).  What does he do?  What's next when you've achieved your greatest aspiration?  The moments passed, and he got on his knees in that hotel room and turned his life over to a power greater than himself, Jesus Christ.  

Some of the greatest players and coaches in the NFL have been devout Christians.  Barry Sanders gave 10% of his paychecks to his local protestant church.  He was a firm believer in Jesus Christ.   Of course he wasn't perfect, but lived it to the best of his ability.  He was known to be humble, and often quite soft spoken.  Yet he was deadly on the playing field, one of the best running backs who ever played the game.  Today we think of players like Tim Tebow, and members of the Seattle Seahawks, as well as many others who profess outspoken faith in Jesus Christ.

Coach Vince Lombardi was himself a devout Catholic Christian.  In fact he said that his strength came from the reception of the sacraments and daily mass attendance.  Lombardi is known as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game.  He placed a strong emphasis on the virtue of his players and excellence on the field of play.  He rode his team hard, but also loved and supported his team just as much.

During the Ice Bowl the Packers were down on the Cowboys 14-17.  Bart Starr the Packer QB trotted over to the sideline, last play, on the goal line, and tells Coach Lombardi that the running backs can't get out of the backfield, the ground is too hard.  But he said he thinks he can, if he does a sneak.  Lombardi looked at him and said, "Then run it and let's get the hell out of here."  In other words, sometimes you gotta stop overthinking, and just do it.  And let's go.  Very simple.  Starr of course made it in and the Packers won that game.  We question ourselves so much.  We over-think things.  We sit and feel anxious.  We wonder if we can do it.  We worry.  But instead we should be courageous.  We should man up a bit, I think.  We should have faith that we are making correct decisions.  We should stop over thinking everything and act.

Lombardi told his players to strive for perfection.  Of course no one can achieve perfection in this life, but by persevering for perfection his players rose to new levels in their abilities.   In fact, in Matthew 5:48 Jesus himself said: "You are to be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect."

Lombardi, Favre, Reggie White, these were names I heard a great deal.  I looked to them to understand what it meant to be a man.  I learned from my family, from those around me, and from sources outside those groups.  Hard work was something all of these men exemplified.  Not to mention, these men were dogged when it came to achieving their goals.  Yet it always began with belief, that despite the odds, despite what others said, that they could achieve greatness.  In my experience, it's as simple as that: Believe that you can, and you can.  It's just that simple.  

Giving one hundred percent is something I always did in sports.  In life it's no different.  Give it all.  And keep it up, especially when you're exhausted.  My dad always said that I gave 110% in sports like basketball and football.  I wanted to win.  I wanted to do my best.  In life it's no different.  We put in effort, we get results.  But we need God.  We need God for our strength in life.  Self-will alone just isn't enough.  We need to access that power that flows from a relationship with God.  Then He is our strength.  His power is infinite, and we receive constant strength from that.  That's a lot better than running on the small amount of force we can muster from within.  Best to connect to the ultimate power source, God.

Reggie White, one of the greatest defensive end's to play the game was actually a minister as well.  His relationship with God was vital to his life.  He was leader on the Packer defense.  His intensity was remarkable.  He set a record in the Superbowl between Green Bay and New England for sacks during a Superbowl game.  An amusing story, Reggie White was trying to decide who to sign with after some success with another team.  He had said that he believed God would indicate to him what team he ought to play for.  Mike Holgren had heard this statement in the media.  So Holgren called up Reggie White and got his answering machine.  He left the message: "Hello Reggie, this is God, I want you to play for the Packers!"  And the rest was history.

Finally we move to quarterbacks Brett Favre and Joe Montana.  Now it's not necessarily their faith that I learned from.  It was more how they played the game of football.  Joe Montana has been called the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.  Montana played every game like a game of chess.  He planned moves ahead of time.  He could connect with receivers anywhere on the field.  He was a master of the game.  You could also say that Montana was a believer.  Not necessarily in God, but he believed in victory.  He didn't wonder if he could win the game, he didn't stutter step, he didn't realistically weigh the statistics and declare pre-natal defeat.  In fact he didn't just believe he would win, he knew that he would.  He knew.  As a leader, when he knew, his men knew as well.  And he was calm, so calm under pressure.  Because to him there was no pressure.  He knew the outcome, he believed completely.  

To believe is to know beyond any doubt that victory is certain.  For the Christian follower of Jesus Christ, there is nothing less that we must believe.  We believe because we know.  We don't just wonder, we don't just hope.  We know, for certain, that we are victorious will be victorious, and have always been victorious in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

Brett Favre is my favorite quarterback.  I was born in 1985.  I first
started watching NFL football when I was eight years old, the 1993 season.  My dad and his friends told me I was very lucky because for years they had to put up with losing season after losing season.  But I came on the scene to witness the incredible career and turn around in Green Bay Packer's football.  Lucky me.  Watching Brett Favre play was a real joy.  Favre played with incredible passion.  

And so we must live life with incredible passion and abandon.  But it's more than that.  Favre did not just play the sport for victory, and he didn't just play for fun either.  Favre played in a way that I've sometimes noticed in others and in myself.  There is a moment, a series of moments really in any sports game when suddenly something just clicks.  And it's like there is this powerful spirit upon you.  You're in this zone where you're meta-consciously connected with the game in a zone of pure instinct and finesse.  You can't think yourself into that place, there's no way to force it, but when it clicks into place there is an incredible sense of rightness.  It's like everything has fallen into place perfectly, and you sense a bit of the wonder of a perfect universe.  There is this joy and energy that is unlike anything else I've ever experienced.  

Brett Favre, rolling out of the pocket, calm and collected yet pursued by defenders breaking through the line.  Everything lines up in his mind and he launches a rocket ball through a tiny gap between an LB, a corner-back, and wham.. the receiver makes a leaping grab just as Favre is torn to the ground a millisecond after releasing the pass.  Touchdown.  

In the same way, we must release ourselves to the game of life.  In the Christian faith we call that letting the Spirit work through us.  We Americans so try to pre-plan everything, sugar coat everything, and set the rules so everything goes perfectly... it's like we live on the edge of anxious meltdown.  It's like we desperately try to fix the game to go the way we want and then throw a fit whenever it doesn't go that way.  We get down in the drab debasement of life when we try to control everything.  Instead we must let go, and let God work.  We must let the Spirit work in our situations.  When QBs try to force it, 9 times out of 10 it's an interception.  But when they get into a rthymn, then progress is made.  Abandon yourself to God in life.  "Thy will be done, not mine."  Say it 10 times day.  Stop trying to control things, and instead let the Spirit work.  Incredible moments come in life when we relax and go with the flow of the Spirit.  Do you understand?  When we follow the will of God, when we live within it, God takes care of the universe.  That's his job after all.  And our result?  We receive the incredible joy and peace of Jesus Christ.  That is his gift, when we let him work in our lives.  We follow, he leads.  

As football season begins, watch for those moments in the games when reality and instinct mesh into athletic finesse and precise strategy to trigger moments of incredible talent.  Those moments capture our hearts.  Let those moments remind you that when we force things, we lose, but when we step into the patterns of the Holy Spirit, of God working in the world, when we let go and let God, we get to channel those moments of divine perfection through acts of love and mercy, exhortation and courageous self sacrifice.


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