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Sports Heretic
    by Robert Ringer

"Sports do not build character. They reveal it."
      - Heywood Broun

    With few exceptions, interviews with athletes tend to be about as intellectually stimulating as watching "Desperate Housewives." One of those exceptions is the recent interview Steve Croft did on "60 Minutes" with New England quarterback Tom Brady.
    Contrary to what cliche-crazed sports announcers would like people to believe, most great quarterbacks are not blessed with equally great intelligence. Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas were probably the two greatest quarterbacks of all time, and, to put it gently, neither of them were ever mistaken for Rhodes Scholars.
    Brady has always come across to me as being cut in the Montana-Unitas cerebral mold, which is why I was so intrigued by his interview on "60 Minutes." Throughout the interview, he never once said, "That's what it's all about" or "We got the greatest fans in the world." Instead, his thoughtful answers revealed a highly introspective, modest young man with a great deal of depth.
    As a star athlete in today's vulgar, Rodman-ized world of sports, Brady is really boring. He hasn't covered his body with tattoos, he doesn't wear earrings, and, no, he hasn't married himself on national television. Which is why you don't hear much about him in the news.
    There were many aspects of the "60 Minutes" interview that had to give hope to that shrinking minority of the population that stubbornly clings to the heretical (see Word to the Wise, below) belief that there is more to life than sports. With great difficulty, I'm going to limit myself to just the four aspects that impressed me the most.

    1. Handling negativism

    After a successful senior year as quarterback for Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, California, Tom Brady received no college scholarship offers. This prompted his father to put together a video of his high school football achievements and send it to 60 colleges.
    As a result of his dad's efforts, only one school - the University of Michigan - offered Brady a scholarship. He began as the seventh-ranked quarterback for the Wolverines, but finally worked his way up to number one in his junior year.
    After a good but unspectacular career at Michigan, Brady was drafted in the seventh round by the New England Patriots in 2000. The NFL's scouting report on him stated: "Poor build ... very skinny and narrow ... lacks mobility and the ability to avoid the rush ... lacks a really strong arm."
    As I've said so often, the Discouragement Fraternity is everywhere - even in pro football. The only question is how one chooses to react to the negativity of the "experts." And Tom Brady is the poster child when it comes to that.
    Steve Croft asked him what he thought it was that all the NFL scouts missed, and Brady responded simply, "I think they underestimated my competitiveness." The experts in any field can evaluate your talents, your skills, and your intelligence in their never-ending quest to discourage you, but they can never know what's inside your heart. A relentless desire to succeed trumps every negative your detractors can point to or create.

    2. Humility

    Whether or not he consciously thinks about it, it was obvious to me that Brady clearly understands that people hate arrogance and love humility. His words, the tone of his voice, and his facial expressions all send clear signals of humbleness.
    When Croft asked him, "Do you ever feel the urge to say 'I told you so'?" Brady replied, "It would be too easy to do. Why be the jerk? I mean, I don't need to say it. Let other people say it. It sounds so much better."
    It's hard to believe that Tom Brady performs in the same profession as a look-at-me clown like Terrell Owens, who bears a remarkable resemblance to a drugged-out pelican every time he goes into his imbecilic end-zone dance. Which reminds me that, in addition to its being a virtuous trait, there's also a practical side to humility.
    For example, Brady will never have to worry about being suspended for "conduct detrimental to the team." He'll never make an ass of himself on national television. And he'll always have people pulling for him rather than hoping he'll fail. Life is tough enough when everyone's rooting for you to succeed. Why make it more difficult by purposely irritating others - particularly those with whom you have to work?

    3. The changing world

    In sports, players get hurt, others are traded or quit, and some just get benched by the coach. Brady's situation is not unique by any means. Perhaps the most famous case of changing circumstances for an athlete who was ready to seize the moment has its roots in baseball lore.
    On June 22, 1925, New York Yankee first baseman Wally Pipp asked to sit out that day's game because of a headache. Manager Miller Huggins replaced him with a kid named Lou Gehrig. Pipp, now but a footnote in the annals of baseball, never started another game for the Yankees, while Gehrig went on to set a record by playing in every Yankee game for the next 14 years. (A record since eclipsed by the Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr. in 1998.)
    Johnny Unitas, voted quarterback of the NFL all-time team by the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters, began much the same way. After being cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers and serving a stint in semi-pro ball at $6 per game, he ended up as the backup to Heisman Trophy winner George Shaw on the Baltimore Colts.
    But circumstances quickly changed for Unitas. Shaw suffered a broken leg in the fourth game of the 1956 season against the Chicago Bears, and head coach Weeb Ewbank handed the reins to the unheralded Johnny U.
    Like Wally Pipp, Shaw never started another game for the Colts, and was ultimately traded to the New York Giants. In the meantime, Unitas shattered most of the NFL's passing records on his way to a Hall of Fame career, including one that still stands today - throwing at least one touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games.
    Fast-forward to the year 2000 and the New England Patriots. Unsung Tom Brady, the NFL's 199th draft pick the year before, was the backup to every coach's dream quarterback, Drew Bledsoe. But, again, a fateful change in circumstances entered the picture.
    On September 23, 2001, Bledsoe, like George Shaw nearly a half-century earlier, was knocked out of a game with the New York Jets with a serious injury. In came Brady and - Presto! - five months later, at age 24, he became the youngest quarterback in history to win a Super Bowl.
    The truth be known, these kinds of things happen every day all around the globe. It's as easy to witness in business as it is in sports, where markets are constantly changing, commercial fads come and go, or the person above you gets transferred or leaves the company for another job.
    I was fortunate to have recognized this phenomenon early in my career. And even more fortunate to recognize that you have to be prepared to move quickly and take advantage of changing circumstances when they occur, because they can change again very rapidly.
    Young people need to be taught that the world doesn't stand still, that circumstances constantly change. And that when they do change, they have to be ready to take advantage of the new landscape that confronts them.

    4. A purpose-driven life

    I alluded earlier to that shrinking minority of the population that stubbornly clings to the heretical belief that there is more to life than sports. Apparently Tom Brady, one of the biggest sports stars on the planet, is part of that shrinking minority.
    Near the end of the interview, Brady mused to Croft, "Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there's something greater out there for me? ... There's got to be more than this."
    Blasphemy! A professional football player who doesn't see life and football as synonymous! The NFL Players' Association should serve him up on a platter to the lecherous owners for being guilty of an anathema to the sport. How can you trust a guy who not only doesn't flaunt tattoos or earrings but also refuses to swear his total allegiance to the game of football?
    The legendary Viktor Frankl, survivor of three years in Nazi concentration camps and a world-renowned psychiatrist, framed Brady's reflection in a bit more depth when he posed the question that if man were to succeed in ridding the world of all disease, poverty, pestilence, famine, and war ... what, then, would be the purpose of his existence?
    More to the point, Frankl said, "What man needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling of some goal worthy of him." In other words, man's purpose is not to achieve goals, but to constantly strive toward them.
    For years, I have contended that the main reason so many Hollywood types talk and act as though they have tapioca between their ears is that they have acquired such enormous amounts of money and fame without having had to engage in what most of us think of as real work. This leads to a mushy mixture of guilt-driven ideology, narcissism, and an overindulgence in sex, drugs, and alcohol.
    In other words, they appear to have no interest in a serious search for meaning, and certainly no interest in a serious search for truth. I believe Frankl summed it up perfectly clear back in the 1950s when he referred to meaninglessness as "the mass neurosis of our time" and correctly predicted a dramatic increase in the problem.
    So, now you have my take on modern-day sports heretic Tom Brady. But I've left the best for last. Near the end of the "60 Minutes" interview, Croft asked Brady, "If you could be anyplace in the world doing anything you want, where would you be?"
    To which Brady replied, "Probably in Scotland, playing golf with my mom and dad." He went on to say that the happiest times of his life have been with his parents. You've got to love a kid who volunteers that kind of sentiment on national television.
    If you have children, Tom Brady's parents have set the bar pretty high for you. If any of your kids say, at the age of 28 - and in public, no less - that they would rather be with you than anyone else, you can go directly to the head of the class. It clearly means that you've done something very right through all those painful adolescent and teenage years.