Tri will come to an end at one point or another, and how you react to it may be important. For some, there is significant sadness anticipating the lost joy of future races. For others the thought of no more open water swimming makes them smile! Hopefully all will see some of the intangibles we take away from the sport on a near daily basis.
A friend of mine is a Navy SEAL. That's right, SEAL, all caps, the real deal. He came to the end of his athletic career some years ago taking on the burden of defending the nation. Defending you and me, "a continuing career of service to the ideals of the nation."
He put this emotion into words and has kindly given us permission to share his thoughts and feelings as our triathlon careers also will come to a close. It's considerably more introspective than most of the "How to" articles you read but it's terribly well written. It's a little longer than most, but if you stay still the end, you'll be glad you did.
I thank Captain Roger Herbert, USN for giving me permission to print it. Happy Memorial Day to all those who serve or have served.
Sweep Three Boot and the Transcendental Nature of Sport
In the late autumn of 2000, my wife and I drove from our home in Norfolk, Virginia to Davidson College, my alma mater in the Piedmont of North Carolina. We were drawn, me eagerly, she obligingly, by Davidson’s final football game of that year and by the prospect of an undefeated season, an achievement without precedent in over 100 years of Wildcat football.
By halftime the Davidson team had made it abundantly clear to their opponents from Georgetown University that they would indeed achieve perfection on that day. But neither the action on the field, nor my hopeful anticipation of a perfect season for my beloved ‘Cats, commanded my attention as it had during the first half. Instead, I began to focus on the game clock and its complex relationship with 22 Davidson and 16 Georgetown seniors as it ticked down, for most of these men, their final moments of full-contact football.
A tightness in my stomach from long ago, a full and profound sadness that something was about to pass forever from this world, alerted me that the dynamic between that clock and those seniors had expanded to enfold me into its significance. I felt an inexpressible bond with these men and a powerful connection to another time, another squad of seniors, and another game clock, too rapidly approaching zero. I was remembering that Saturday in November 1982 when I played my own final game of college football. But what I felt had a quality unlike memory. There was an urgency, an immediacy as images of that day ran so vividly across my mind’s eye that a narration in my “mind’s ear” accompanied the procession. It was my father’s voice. “Play this one for the fun and for the memories,” he counseled in a letter that arrived two days before my tenth and final game of my twelfth and final season of organized football. “Savor every moment of it – the sensations, the sight, the smell and the touch of it – and I promise that you will own a treasure to hold and relish as long as you live. I truly envy you the opportunity.”
I re-read my father’s letter at least a dozen times before that final game, and his words played in my head as my team took the field for our opening offensive play. Quarterback Keith Martin in the huddle: “Sweep 3 boot, on one, on one. Ready...break.” I jogged up to the line of scrimmage, pleased with the call. From the perspective of an offensive lineman, there was no finer game-opening offensive play in the 1982 Davidson Playbook. While this simple running play up the middle rarely gains more than a handful of yards, it confers an immediate psychological advantage to the offensive line in its contest with the opponent’s defensive line, one of the more important subplots that determine the outcome of a football game. A complex blocking scheme that exploits angles, deceit and misdirection introduces persistent uncertainty in the minds of the defensive linemen, causing them to question their basic reads throughout the game.
Successful execution of Sweep 3 Boot relies on a double-team block performed by the left guard, my position, and the center. It’s the center’s responsibility to engage the opponent’s nose guard, arresting his forward motion, deceiving him regarding the direction of the play and exposing his right hip so that the left guard can administer an authoritative double team. It’s two against one – not fair, but a part of the game. As the drama between left guard and center transpires, a second conspiracy brews. The left offensive tackle takes an outside release that leaves his opponent unblocked. The intent is to bait an overaggressive defensive tackle, thinking himself the beneficiary of a blown blocking assignment, to over commit, penetrate the line of scrimmage and expose his unprotected flank. By the time the defender recognizes the deception, the backside guard delivers a sinus-clearing trap block, opening up a hole in the defensive line through which the runner can attack.
As Keith stepped up behind our center Jeff Kane, a terrific athlete who possessed the quickest wit I’ve ever known and a southern twang that thickened as the audiences for his impromptu stand-up routines grew. We studied the defensive front. They were in a “5 - 2” defense. Good. Sweep 3 Boot is most effective against that defensive front. “Ready, set...hit!” Keith set the play in motion. As I took my first step to the right, I saw that Jeff had done his job well – as usual. His opponent reacted away from the intended direction of the play, and his hip was so wide open that there should have been a bulls-eye painted on it. I took two more steps and planted my right shoulder pad on that bulls-eye. Jeff sensed that I had engaged, so he adjusted the vector of his attack to match mine. We drove the defender down the line until the referee’s whistle signaled for us to disengage.
Jeff did so. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t fully harvested the sight, smell and touch of this play as my father had counseled in his letter. My skirmish ended in the dirt several seconds after the whistle, a transgression of football etiquette that often results in a penalty. The justifiably-vexed nose guard slapped me smartly on the ear hole of my helmet and delivered a sharp invective. I was okay with that. I was out of line and, frankly, deserved it. What my opponent did not understand, however, was that this was a spiritual matter for me; it was not personal.
Or at least it was mostly spiritual. In the interest of honest reporting I should admit to a measure of personal enmity toward my opponent. I had faced this man before, my sophomore year during a pre-season scrimmage. He was introduced to me through his school’s media guide as the “Human Eraser”, a nom de guerre that I suspect was self generated. He was not a likeable person. After a particularly bad play for him, he relieved his frustration by attempting a field goal…using my head as the football. During a review of the game film the next morning, our offensive line coach, Bob Estock, mercilessly exercised the dreaded “clicker,” the mechanism that allows a coach to rapidly reverse the action of the reel-to-reel film projectors used in those days, to replay the incident at least a half dozen times to the unabashed delight of my teammates.
Back to the play. Running back and team captain Leonard Walker had picked up about four yards. As the indistinct mass of oversized college boys sorted itself out in preparation for the next play, right tackle Stan Klinger, a consummate field commander and a much larger man than I, seized me by the back of my shoulder pads, lifted me off the turf and reprimanded me for my over-enthusiastic play. “Knock it off, Roger.
Although I remained ever cognizant of its profound ontological significance, I heeded Stan’s counsel and played the rest of the game with less concern for metaphysics and more focus on mechanics. When the final whistle sounded, I was more or less prepared. It had been a long and disappointing season for the team and for me personally. But we had won our final game, and I was reasonably pleased with my final performance.
Although I don’t recall exchanging any pleasant words with the Human Eraser, I shook hands with several of my opponents and retired to the visitors’ locker room. It was here, as I prepared to downstage from my final college football game, that the magnitude of the moment became explicit. For me and the other Davidson seniors, it was over. Each of us, through the tears in our eyes, sought out another senior or a most-beloved coach to embrace and pledge our enduring love. Having made the rounds, I turned my attention to logistics – taking off my uniform, showering, packing my gear, getting on the bus…getting on with life. This, I discovered, was profoundly difficult. Never again would I feel the slight discomfort or the potential energy of shoulder pads and a football helmet. This observation arrested all of my forward momentum. I slumped back down onto the bench in front of my locker, covered my tear-wet face with filthy hands, and inhaled deeply that amalgam of odors – athletic tape, sweat, mud, grass and blood – that so perfectly conjures the essence and ideal of football.
How long, I thought, could I stay right here? Had this been a home game, I’m certain I would have remained in shoulder pads and sweat for the better part of the evening. But there was a long bus ride ahead and the underclassmen would not have understood, appreciated or tolerated an unbathed senior riding home in full pads. I would have to overcome this inertia, and soon.
I then recalled some more lines from my father’s letter. “I have, as you well know, believed that football is the finest character-building sport a young man can embrace. But football is, of course, a means to an end, not an end unto itself – the end being preparation for the rest of your life.” Thanks, Dad. That’s exactly what I needed. I pulled my shoulder pads over my head for the last time and got on with it. By “it,” of course, I mean life.
My father’s counsel seemed right. It was certainly useful. But like many useful things, it was an oversimplification. Years later I would realize that both my father and I were guilty of discounting a sacred encounter. We should have known better.
The two and a half decades of life experience since my graduation from Davidson seemed to validate my father’s characterization of the relative value of sports in the context of a human life: character building to be sure, but of no standalone importance. I received a commission as a naval officer and, though I had no intentions of dedicating my professional life to the Navy, I began what has become a continuing career of service to the ideals of the nation. I quickly discovered that even in peacetime the consequences of my actions, or inaction, could be both grave and immediate. I was introduced to the tragedy of combat, witnessed soldiers and civilians killed in battle and observed first-hand the heroic capacity of ordinary men. Certainly the block I missed against Furman’s defensive end is less than insignificant by comparison. Even the day-to-day triumphs and tragedies of our adult lives – the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, the promotion that rewards years of effort – are infinitely more meaningful than Davidson’s unexpected win over Boston University or that lopsided loss to Lehigh.
Today I hold the rank of Captain. My purview of national threats and opportunities has never been broader. My accountability for the lives of my troops, and for accomplishment of a mission that becomes more complex every day, has never been more absolute or consequential. It may seem inconsistent, therefore, that I now find myself questioning, for the first time since I “hung ‘em up,” the validity of that generally accepted tenet: it’s only a game.
Several years of mental fermentation have matured this reevaluation into something I can now, with difficulty, articulate. But I trace its inception directly to that same November 2000 victory over Georgetown that gave the school its undefeated season. This was the first Davidson football game I had attended since graduation. It was also the first Davidson game I had ever watched as a spectator, the bench-warming days of my freshman year notwithstanding. When I walked into Richardson Stadium that day, I naturally felt exhilarated to return to this place that contained so many memories, both fond and painful. But as a grownup with grownup concerns, I had no expectations that the game would offer anything more than an entertaining diversion from life’s more urgent matters.
After a series or two, mundane thoughts evaporated. I became utterly enthralled with what I perceived to be transpiring on the field. At first I saw what any sports enthusiast expects from an athletic competition: skill, speed, strength and the joy of sport. On closer observation, however, I began to discern much more. Somewhere in the subtext of this trivial game, I’m certain that I also witnessed, on both sides of the line of scrimmage, those transcendent human virtues that, on rare and exalted occasions in the course of our lives, render us noble. I witnessed the indefatigable physical courage of the Davidson offensive linemen who propelled their bodies, play after play, into the much larger and physically more powerful defensive line of their opponents, ultimately prevailing. I witnessed the pride and Promethean tenacity of a Georgetown defensive back who, despite his team’s unrecoverable fourth-quarter point deficit, chased down a Davidson receiver after a desperate, sixty-yard pursuit, stopping him within feet of the end zone. After the game ended and the goal posts came down, the team gathered on the 50-yard line, sang, though slightly out of tune, their school’s fight song and reveled in the unrestrained love between teammates who accomplished what no other Davidson team had. They were brothers in every respect. Creed and color assumed their appropriate conditions of irrelevance. At that splendid moment of triumph under the lowering November sky, the only currency of personal merit that concerned these men was character – a thing that could be found in abundance that day.
I understood, then, that these men occupied a sacred space. They occupied that transitory moment of spiritual unity that some of us are fortunate enough to experience from time to time in our lives.
While driving home to Norfolk on the morning after the game, still under the influence of a vague nostalgic buzz, random thoughts on the sport of football, indeed on athletics in general, occurred to me. By the time we crossed into Virginia, my thoughts had organized themselves into something approaching insight, perhaps even an incipient philosophy of sport. That philosophy is simply this: athletic competition is important, and that that importance is self-contained, an end unto itself.
This importance relies on two qualities that are inherent in sports, particularly at the top levels of competition. The first is collective assent to a fabrication. There exists in sports a suspension of disbelief among the competitors, an understood contract that stipulates that all participants will place great value in the outcome of a contest that otherwise has no intrinsic value, and that they will apply their best efforts to achieve victory. When athletes meet at the center of a wrestling mat, on the soccer field, on their starting blocks or on the basketball court, they agree that the contest is fundamentally important. And for the simple reason that they consent to this artificial condition, it is no longer artificial. Because they agree that it is important, it is.
The second quality that confers standalone importance to athletic competition is difficulty. It’s hard. We create games. We identify rules, objectives that determine victory and defeat. In varying measures according to the game, achievement of those objectives is difficult, and, as both Spinoza and Ed Farrell (my Head Coach at Davidson) remind us, “All things noble are as difficult as they are rare.” Because athletic competition is difficult, it provides the competitors with opportunities to manifest the physical virtues of skill, speed, strength and agility, qualities that our culture holds in considerable esteem if our literary tradition from Homer to Hemingway is a reliable gauge. But more importantly, athletic competition also provides opportunities for athletes to measure those moral virtues that we unequivocally hold in the highest esteem: valor, intellect, perseverance, commitment, humility and fellowship. Opportunities to test, to confirm and to display these rare and precious qualities certainly exist outside of sports and in undeniably more substantial contexts. But those opportunities are infrequent and seldom possess the same immediacy of an athletic competition – a metaphor, constrained within space and time, for that very-human struggle that seeks human excellence.
So after more than twenty years of post-football life experience, I must now reverse my original position. I must respectfully disagree with my father and pronounce that football, and any uncorrupted athletic competition, is indeed an end unto itself. The primary value of a sport is not to prepare the athlete for the rest of his or her life, although this is an indisputable effect. The principal value of sport is immediate, and resides in the heart of every athlete who understands that he or she is a part of a sacred story: the search for truth, beauty, goodness and unity…the search for the better heart of man. I would never suggest that an outcome of a particular sporting event carries enduring significance. It does not. Rather, just as oils and a blank canvas provide the artist with an opportunity for aesthetic experience and expression, sports provide the athlete with an opportunity for the experience of human virtues and the expression of character. Just as a well-executed painting is an end and not a means, a well-executed Sweep 3 Boot can contain its own rewards.
Today, as my aging body creeps wearily toward 50, I feel duty bound to share the rest of my father’s inspiring message with any serious athlete I meet. Play your sport for the fun and for the memories. Savor every moment of every game, of every practice, of every grueling hour of preparation and execution. Savor the sensations, the sight, the smell and the touch of it, and I promise that you will own a treasure to hold and relish as long as you live.
As my father said so well in 1982, I truly envy you the opportunity.
|A bumper sticker in Kona, Hawaii|