Monday, January 6, 2014

A Football Life: Lessons for Fathers

The NFL Network features a documentary series entitled, A Football Life. Developed by NFL Films, it highlights not just leadership skills and athletic ability but the real life situation of the NFL stars. Each episode gives the audience a glimpse behind the public image of these football heroes; a glimpse that the public was not privy to in the past. If truth be told, many coaches and football players that have long been admired by football fans had real human shortcomings like the rest of us; some worse than others.

Take for instance, Vince Lombardi and Walter Payton. These are two men I always looked up to. As for Lombardi, he was the coach of the Green Bay Packers from 1959 to 1967. He achieved something no other NFL coaches achieved: three consecutive NFL championships. His work ethic was unparalleled. He once said, “The quality of a person's life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.” He was committed to excellence as a NFL coach and it paid off. For this reason Lombardi, for decades, has been deemed a football “god” to those who love the game.
Walter Payton, former running back for the Chicago Bears (1975-1987), merited for himself a glorious public image as well; and justly so. What he did on the football field amazed even those spectators who weren’t big fans of the game. Moreover, he was an all-time rusher for several years. Payton’s work ethic, like Lombardi, was superb. When it came to the game of football, he never took the easy way out. He once said, “Never die easy. Why run out of bounds and die easy? Make that linebacker pay. It carries into all facets of your life. It's okay to lose, to die, but don't die without trying, without giving it your best.”
I grew up admiring the leadership skills of Vince Lombardi and the athletic ability of Walter Payton. As a leader and coach, Vince Lombardi had a way of getting the very best out of his players. And if he had to be tough on them, he would let them know at the end of the day how good they could become. Payton was no less rigorous as a running back. Having submitted himself to a demanding training regiment, he was able to break the NFL record for the most rushing yards in one game while he had the flu. But after watching A Football Life, featuring both of these men respectively, my admiration was put into context.
Men have the amazing ability to compartmentalize. Like a Navy Seal, he can zero in on a given mission while deliberately blocking out danger, pain and even his environment. This no doubt, is one man’s greatest strengths; but it is also his greatest weakness. The problem is that there is a great divide running through his very being which separates two worlds from within. On one hand, he is a husband and a father- this the domestic world of his family. On the other hand, he is constantly seeking to impress his personality upon the outside world through his work. He wants to make a difference. In fact, his identity is virtually inseparable from his work or his career. But if these two worlds from within are not reconciled, chances are his family life will suffer neglect in the pursuit of professional excellence.
Like many men, Lombardi and Payton excelled in their profession. But they struggled in their respective family obligations. There was a great tension between their two inner worlds . Lombardi, for one, was so consumed with his NFL coaching career that his marriage and fatherly responsibilities were compromised. Lombardi’s wife, Marie, turned to alcohol in his absence. And Vince Jr. had claimed that even though his father was physically present, he was not there mentally. As for Walter Payton, throughout much of his marriage he struggled with marital fidelity. Indeed, he struggled to be faithful in what mattered most. And after his last game on January 11, 1988, the remaining eleven years of his life were spent trying to fill a void in his heart that football temporarily had filled during his twelve years in the NFL.
Fair or unfair, the documentary, A Football Life, gave the impression that once Vince Lombardi’s and Walter Payton’s career ended, both men were depressed and at a loss. They seemed to have put all of their eggs in one basket. But when that basket was gone, they didn’t know what to do with their eggs. Again, man can so identify himself with his work that when his work is suspended or when it ends, he suffers decline. In worst case scenarios, a man will kill others or himself over a job, whereas women rarely, if at all, are known to do this.
Yet, the Gospel teaches us that real success- the one that carries over into eternity –is all dependent upon how we love God and family. A man can be successful and even admired by millions for his success, but it doesn’t count for much on his deathbed if he wasn’t first a successful husband and father. Without this most fundamental of successes, man is failure in life. I think Payton learned this lesson when he died of a liver disease. After all, it was his wife Connie and his two children that took care of him in his last days. I believe it was then that he learned the true value of what a family is.
In sum, the prophet Malachi foretold that the coming of the Messiah would make men better fathers. In other words, the Christ will come to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers…” (Malachi 3:24) When the angel Gabriel appeared to St. Zachariah in the Temple, he repeated the prophet Malachi’s words. And in doing so, he pointed to a time when God would pour out the Holy Spirit upon men, giving them natural hearts and making them fathers again. With this outpouring, men would better withstand being consumed by his work at the expense of his family.
Knowing the Christian standard by which God is the first priority, family is the second and work is the third is one thing; but living it is another. Even with Christian men, this God-given priority is a challenge to live up to. After all, Vince Lombardi attended daily Mass. However, with a constant turning towards Christ in prayer and daily examination of conscience, this Christian standard is attainable.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own and
 not necessarily reflective of any organization I works for.