Fear & Football
I’m a slow learner but I eventually get there. Fear affects our lives in so many limiting ways. We, at least most of us are not being honest about fear. Fear has been misunderstood for a very long time.
Fear takes on many forms in our lives today. Once upon a time, most of us feared the dark. That’s when the shadows and noises wreaked havoc on our imaginations, especially if we had just seen those damn flying monkeys on the Wizard of Oz or that twisted kid-napper all decked out in black pulling that hideous cart in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! Now we just knew he was hiding in our closet or under our bed or those monkeys were scraping on the siding of our house during that storm, trying to get in. No, it couldn’t be the wind and the tree limbs, had to be those monkeys!
We still fear. We fear the unknown, even if what we fear is totally unrealized or improbable. We often assume the worst outcomes or allow fear to change our behavior. However, in life, we are most often taught that our fears were unwarranted and unrealized. In fact, fear acknowledged can by our ally, our teacher. Yet fear controls us at times, causing us to be paralyzed by choices well beyond our ability to see.
In high school, my football team ran an old-school style of offense called the “Wishbone.” It consisted of 3 backs in the backfield and a quarterback. Most plays were “options” where the quarterback read the defense and blocking execution of the offense and handed the ball off to either the fullback, the tailback or kept it himself. This approach was referred to as the triple option. It has been used successfully and unsuccessfully by many a football team.
For the mighty Newport Knights of 1980, we used it quite successfully for 3 or 4 games. As memory serves, we began the season with great promise. A solid defense, a stout offensive line, some exceptional talent in the backfield and a tough-as-nails quarterback who was not afraid to hold that option to the last minute, subjecting himself, and most often dishing out, collisions with the approaching defender.
We were good… at the option. We didn’t have a great passing game. We didn’t practice it much. We ran the Wishbone and we dared you to stop it. For those first few games, no one did. We racked up yards, touchdowns, and accolades. It was impressive and fun to be a part of that success.
On or about the fourth or fifth game of the season, we traveled to an away game in Bothell. They were smaller than us by a fair amount. They were quick to be sure but smaller and our form of smash-mouth football was about to roll all over them.
When the kickoff occurred, our offense, MY offense, came out to show them how the big boys play. But something was wrong. They didn’t line up correctly. Were they poorly coached? I mean, Bothell was kind of in the sticks compared to sophisticated Bellevue, even back then.
These crazy fools were putting 8 or 9 of their defenders “in the box”, that space close to the line of scrimmage. What were they thinking? This was not a reliable defense as the other team now had the full field to use with their passing game and the defense didn’t have enough people to cover our receivers. Except… we didn’t throw the ball much. We didn’t need to. We were the Knights and we ran the Wishbone. Remember? We dare you to stop it.
As it turns out, they were well coached. They watched our game films and saw that, because we ran the ball so well, we didn’t focus much on a passing game. As a result, we weren’t that good at it. Our players were talented but a passing game is about timing and familiarity with one another. We simply didn’t have that because we simply didn’t DO that! And they knew it. They also knew that if they played a traditional defense against us, they would likely lose. They would be playing to our strength and from their weakness.
We were befuddled by their defense. Hell, I was befuddled and I was a de facto leader of the offensive line. I was the center, the foreman and I was lost. They used math against us. If they used 5 or 6 defenders in the box, we likely run all over them and win the game. But they didn’t fear our Wishbone because they knew math. They knew that if they had 8 or 9 in the box, and we could not pass well, that is to say our passing game was NOT our strength and therefore not a threat, they would have the odds in their favor as they would have more defenders than we had blockers.
They were right. We lost. A few other schools with smart coaches studied that game. Apparently, they watched film. We had hopes of a Kingco Conference championship. We had thoughts of a State title. We ended up a pedestrian 6-4 or something like that; a winning season but unimpressive.
Bothell should have feared us. We gave them every superficial reason. Instead, they studied us and found a way to use their strength (speed) and take away our strength (size). They illuminated their fear with knowledge acted confidently in their strength. They also didn’t worry about outcomes, or at least they didn’t seem to. They worried about executing their game plan effectively AFTER illuminating their fears with knowledge gained through study. They embraced their fear and they found a way
By turning on the light they saw nothing to fear and an opportunity for success. We did what we always did but in this case, we did so against a completely different set of circumstances than before. Suddenly, the mighty Knights were afraid. And we played like it. Too late in the game we tried to pass the ball. You know, that little-used part of the game we didn’t focus on because, well, we run over people. Our fear of the unknown, their defense, along with our ineffective passing game left us unable to overcome either the math or our fear.
Bothell didn’t really win because of math. They won because they studied us and looked for an opportunity to be successful. They won because they embraced their fear, they leaned into it and listened for what it had to teach them As a result, they were jumping around after the game and we were dejected, defeated and shocked that we could have lost to those little dudes.
Fear is still a part of life. It can sometimes control me, but not as much as it once did. I still let my mind wander down the “worst case scenario” rabbit hole more than I should. Age and experience tempers fear. If we are paying attention to the facts, we realize our fears are not the harbingers of utter devastation we expect them to be. We can also learn to embrace fear, to welcome it. We can accept fear as just another teacher in our lives bringing good things like perspective, caution if needed, grit, analysis, optimism, opportunity and more.
All of our emotions are teachers. We take their lessons too far at times but if we can pull back from the brink of worst-case thinking and step into our fears, we can find so much depth, so much hope, so much growth. I am learning this; to lean into my fears and see where they take me, what they have to teach me.
Many of us were once afraid of the dark, the unseen, because we believed we were vulnerable in the dark. I just recently returned from a vacation. We stayed in a home atop a hill adjacent to a small town in Northern Italy. Just off of the upstairs living area was a large balcony. Each morning, several of us would gather with coffee and camera to catch a sunrise more colorful and beautiful than the last. Whenever our schedule allowed, we would have that same ritual in the evening, this time with a glass of wine replacing the coffee and the camera ready for sunsets that were more breathtaking than any I can remember.
Sometimes, well after dark, that foreboding place and time where the boogeyman reigns, I would venture back up on the balcony (yes, wine in hand). There were very few street lights. The small town was well in the distance, not illuminating the night sky as a big city would. I would make sure porch lights and adjacent room lights were off. It was dark. It was that deep dark. The kind that makes your senses heightened. But it also offered something unique.
Out there on the balcony, in the deep dark of night, I would look up and… oh, the stars! They weren’t just brilliant, they were more numerous that I may have ever seen. It was glorious. It stirred my soul. It made me feel small and yet really connected with this big, beautiful world. It awoke my imagination. I wanted to see stars from different vantage points in the world. I wanted to know that moment from different perspectives, in different cultures and see what the darkness revealed and what these stars looked like in a different hemisphere.
This beauty, these moments were not in spite of the darkness. They were because of it. Being willing to embrace the dark and step into it actually produced the beauty. In this case, it was the light that was the enemy of the moment. The stars waited for darkness to reveal their glory.
Several years ago a doctor confirmed my worst fears, He said; “cancer of an aggressive nature” and he was talking about me!!! He said comforting stuff too but that is what I remember.
I have experienced cancer and the fear it tries to produce. I have also seen cancer get its ass kicked by people who are willing to learn, to lean into it and identify it as another teacher in life. You’re allowed to have fear with cancer. Of course, seek the best medical processes available. However, regardless of the outcome, cancer and fear lose if we embrace all of what life, even cancer, has to teach us.
Like the stars, some of our greatest opportunity will be visible because of darkness. Some of our most profound growth will come as we step into our fears and learn we are made of much heartier stock than we believe. Sometimes, the darkness is just what we need to see the brilliance, those millions and millions of glorious stars.
Everything exists to teach us. It is all here for our growth. It is a hard practice. I have not mastered it but I am a work in process.