Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Sports, Desire and Life

Last night, I witnessed an incredible display on Monday Night Football. For those of you who don't typically follow football, here's a synopsis: Brett Favre lost his father to a heart attack the night before the game in Oakland. Brett decided to play after all, dedicating the game to his father, his first coach. Favre then performed unfathomably well, making perfect throws fifty yards out into double coverage, ignoring a fractured thumb on his throwing hand, amassing 300 yards and four touchdowns in the first half for a literally perfect rating and a Packers rout. It was incredible to watch, for just one half, this man play at a superhuman level, in the midst of all his pain.

It reminded me of a story I had seen some time ago about a high-school basketball player, whose grandfather passed away at the age of 62. The boy decided that as a tribute, he would go and score 62 points in the next game. Now, in high school, a team has to be good to score 60 points; while the player was talented, he had never before scored more than 25 in a game. But he would not be denied, making shot after shot, until he scored the last two on a layup while being fouled. With 62 points in hand, the game long won, but only a few points away from the state record, he purposefully flung his free throw twenty feet to the left, and then exited the game. He wasn't there for a record, but to honor his grandfather.

Nice stories, you may say, but so what? A sports contest doesn't really count for anything, after all. Well, the reason I found these important is because I think these are no flukes, but simply what a person can do when it's not just a game to him or her. Both athletes had something larger than their own egos and salaries to play for. It seems ridiculous to claim that most players don't want to win as much, but it's so true. Why do analysts talk so much about motivation, why can a team struggling make the playoffs destroy one who has already clinched, why do we see so many Cinderella stories of players who work their way past their more talented competitors? Because it's possible to desire victory more than your opponent does, and because that desire is as powerful as any raw talent.

This carries over into war as well as sports. A good commander makes his soldiers believe that they stand for something more important than their own lives; he makes them ready to die for the cause. If an army of 10,000 fought as hard as the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, they would have been an irresistible force in ancient Greece.

We are capable of so much more than we actually achieve; we just do not will it, because our own happiness is not enough of a justification to dig deep. Reminds me of what I said before about (mythological or Hollywood) heroes versus saints. Heroes give us the comfortable fiction that we would act like them if endowed with their gifts. We could save the world like Superman/Wonder Woman, if we had those superpowers. Saints, however, hurt our egos by doing incredible things with no more raw intelligence, stamina, or charisma than you or I have, but with the desire to do what we are reticent to do. Saint Francis was not the smartest, strongest, most handsome, or the best leader. But he made sacrifices that I would be afraid to contemplate, and he changed the world.

Shoot, don't misinterpret me. Brett Favre is not a saint (as much as I, born in Green Bay, cheer for him), but last night he showed something that the saints illustrate in a different way: the unimaginable potential of a human being, fully alive.

P.S. Merry Christmas to you and your families. Or, if you prefer, Happy Decemberween. But in all seriousness, everyone I know is in my prayers tonight.

No comments: