January 18, 2013

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

With apologies to Vince Lombardi, there is more to life—and football—than winning

Sean GallagherLegendary football coach Vince Lombardi once famously said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

With all due respect to the man whose status in the pantheon of football greats is so large that the trophy for the Super Bowl winner bears his name, I beg to disagree.

And I would venture to say that many fans of the Indianapolis Colts and the University of Notre Dame football team would join me in disagreeing.

On two consecutive days earlier this month, the dreams of glory of these two fan bases disappeared in a puff of smoke. The Colts lost 24-9 in a playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens on Jan. 6 in Baltimore. The next day, the University of Alabama blew out Notre Dame 42-14 in the Bowl Championship Series national championship game in Miami.

But in the seasons that led up to those crushing losses, the teams, their coaching staffs and fans were reminded in a dramatic and heartfelt way that the ultimate purpose of athletics, and of football in particular, is to mold in a positive way the characters of the athletes, and to help them work together for the common good and not for individual glory.

The Colts were a ragtag team led by a rookie quarterback and head coach that was pieced together during last year’s offseason. Yet they came together and won 11 games and made the playoffs when most experts predicted them to be an NFL cellar dweller.

But this terrific season for the Colts was driven by something far more important. The team came together and achieved far beyond their perceived potential because of their care and concern for their head coach, Chuck Pagano, who was diagnosed in September with leukemia.

With cries of “Chuckstrong” by the team and their fans, the team fought and won for Pagano, who carried a heavy cross during his cancer treatments.

And in the process, the team and their coach renewed hope for many people suffering from various forms of cancer, and inspired scores of other people to support cancer research.

In South Bend, senior linebacker Manti Te’o was the leader of Notre Dame’s team. Since coming to the school from his native Hawaii four years ago, Te’o had endured some disappointing seasons. Indeed, Notre Dame football had been in the doldrums for more than a decade before they went undefeated during the 2012 regular season.

Leader though he was, Te’o was led to hope and consolation by his teammates and the Notre Dame community during the season when, within a few hours, his grandmother died, then his girlfriend died of leukemia on Sept. 11. He went on to play one of the best games of his life shortly after that tragic day.

Then he handed on the gift he received. In early October, Te’o learned of Bridget Smith, a 12-year-old girl that was a Notre Dame fan in the final stages of her battle with cancer. Unbeknownst to anyone but her parents, Te’o wrote a letter to Bridget that arrived on the day she died.

In a Yahoo Sports article, Louise Smith, Bridget’s mother, was quoted as saying that the letter was “a bright spot on the saddest day of our lives.”

“It’s so encouraging to have someone in that position know there’s something more important than football, more important than athletics,” Louise Smith said.

Te’o ended the season with more than 100 tackles, seven interceptions and nearly became the first exclusively defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. But the highest award he may have received is knowing that he has reached out to share the consolation that he received from his teammates and many others.

To a man, the members of the Colts and Notre Dame football teams are disappointed that their seasons came to an end with a loss on the field. And I suspect that various sports commentators will now use these losses to crow that the Colts and Fighting Irish teams were paper tigers all along.

Such a viewpoint, however, is based on a rather narrow definition of success. Our faith, on the other hand, offers a broader view.

To be sure, God calls us to use the gifts he has given us as well as we can. He wants us to strive for excellence.

On the other hand, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta reminds us that God ultimately calls us to be faithful, not successful.

Indeed, according to the ways of the world, Christ himself and the martyrs past and present could all be deemed colossal failures according to the standards of the world. They all sought to proclaim the peace of the kingdom of God, and yet were crushed by men who wielded worldly power.

Seen through the eyes of faith, however, Christ and the martyrs were victors in the great moral struggle set before them. The world wanted them to compromise and adopt its measure of success, and they never gave in.

In making this comparison, I am in no way saying that the Colts and Fighting Irish football squads are martyrs. What I do contend, however, is that our faith can lead us to a broader view of success while still encouraging us to excel.

The Colts and Fighting Irish did excel to a high degree, even if they lost in the end.

But their effort to overcome adversity with strength and compassion are unmistakable reminders that the “moral victories” that are sometimes looked down upon by sports commentators can really be the best victories of all.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter for The Criterion.)

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