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Learning Lessons for Life in Football by Tom Brokaw

The following is excerpted from a speech given by Tom Brokaw, 1993, the anchorman for NBC Nightly News, at the Heisman Awards dinner on December 14 in New York.


Learning Lessons For Life In Football

By TOM BROKAW
Reprinted with permission of Tom Brokaw

I loved the game of football, but as the backup quarterback on my high school team my contributions were mostly from the sidelines and running the opposition offense during practice days in our two championship seasons. The book on me read: slow but he has a weak arm.

The offensive line was supportive, to a fault Late in my senior season, we were well ahead in the fourth quarter and I was running the offense.

After a touchdown, I decided I wanted to register at least an extra point before the year ran out. I shared my desire with Mongrel my huge center, and Dirty Glennie, our block of granite all-state guard, who played so hard his uniform was always dirty.

They cleared a hole large enough to drive a pair of trucks through I strolled across the goal line, complaining to them that I had hoped for a little more glorious end to my football career.

I remain attached to this game that at once defines our culture and, in many ways, defies it.

After all, football, with the exception of its natural gender bias, reflects our strengths as a nation and as a society. It is democratic, with a small "d." No one asks your pedigree. It is a meritocracy. All the money in a trust fund won't give you great hands or great heart. You still have to run fast, hit hard and play by the rules.

Moreover, it is a game that combines working class traditions with white-collar skills. Eleven minds and bodies in harmony on the playing field, reinforced and directed by a similar circuitry on the sidelines. On a field 100 yards by 160 feet when these elements are perfectly combined so the sum is greater than the parts, football games are won. This same formula, on other, grander scales, builds nations, wins wars, rights wrongs.

On the modern gridiron, this determination to move as one, to identify a common objective and achieve it requires as well a racial harmony sadly lacking in other endeavors. If only we could transfer the essence of racial teamwork we weekly witness on the gridiron to our other institutions. If only the individual communities - white, African-American, Latino, Asian - would take the lessons of racial harmony they so admire within the goal lines to their other worlds of work and home. Victories on the gridiron will be especially hollow if they are achieved in a climate of racial hostility or enw.

Football, of course, is also a game of rules, occasionally imperfectly enforced but rules that have common meaning. They govern the Heisman candidate as well as the walk-on. To succeed, the players must know the rules and abide by them. To violate the rules places a team at risk, jeopardizes a player's place on the field and off.

Away from the gridiron, the rules and laws of society are equally well known and the consequences of violation are familiar as well But recently society's rules have been badly frayed. The cost has been horrendous in terms of young lives lost, families terrorized, communities divided.

Football is also a game of values. No one knows better than the players the real meaning of a cheap shot. Just as it has no place on the playing field, neither does it in life. Other values. The well-earned victory. Sure, a ball will take a lucky bounce your way. The other team will make a bonehead play. But in football you can't count on that. Every game it takes at least 10 yards in four downs to make a first down. In one way or another you have to cross the goal line to score a touchdown.

Embarrassing Compromises. Off the field, to those who are the elite in this game, other values may have seemed a little vague or confusing in their young lives. Grown-ups and peers who should know better are a little too eager to compromise their values - and yours - to win favor. Sometimes those compromises take on epic proportions and lives are ruined, institutions are shamed, a game of hitting and running and passing is defined by a game of winking and shading and sliding by.

The greatest heroes are those who live by the values learned on the field. They'll endure and serve us all well

Finally, the bonds football players form now will last forever. Well after I left my hometown, I returned to help console my mother following my father's death Early one summer morning I went for a run on a country road, and in the distance a car turned out of a farm driveway. "Dirty Glennie," I thought to myself- the tough little guard who gave me that one moment of glory. Sure enough he skidded to a stop beside me, tumbled out of the driver's seat, gave me a little grief about running in the South Dakota heat. We laughed about his weight and then there was a moment of awkward silence, separated as we were by such different lives now. Then Glennie did something I'll never forget He raised his powerful forearm and said, "Hey, Brokes, if you ever need me, I could still clear them out for you."

We need all the Glennies in the world - and each other.