Joe Theismann IS a guy who knows about success, especially athletic accomplishments. He is, however, equally familiar with failure.
Of course, if you ask Theismann, he'll emphatically deny that.
"I've never had a failure in my life," said the former Redskins quarterback at a conference for the National Alliance for Youth Sports Friday. "I have had educational opportunities that didn't go my way."
My question, as I listened to Theismann, was whether the lessons learned in sports diminish with success.
It seems sometimes that the more success athletes have, the farther they get from the reasons they were drawn to sports in the first place. It's not hard to find players in youth leagues and high school games who participate for altruistic reasons. In college athletics, there are exceptions, but for the most part, it's still possible to find players who get up early for practices and stay up late to study because they love the games they play and the lessons those experiences offer.
But once you see athletes being compensated with thousands and even millions of dollars for playing games, well, it gets a bit tougher to find those who are still participating for the love of the game or their teammates or because they are still learning the lessons of sports that will help them be harder-working, tenacious, team-oriented human beings outside the gym.
And if that's the case, what are these athletes learning?
One look at the headlines would indicate that they're learning to get ahead by cheating. They're learning that money can buy friends, favors and a lot of other things your mother might not want to know about. They seem to be learning that even the law will treat them differently because, after all, they are so special.
So I listened to a very charismatic and energetic Theismann talk about the lessons of winning a Super Bowl, losing a Super Bowl, earning the league's MVP award, and of course, having his leg broken on national television.
It was Nov. 18, 1985, and the Redskins were playing the Giants on Monday Night Football. "I had to be the single-most egotistical maniac on the planet," he said. The Redskins were suffering through a dismal year and went into the game 4-4. He said he had a heart-to-heart with himself where he convinced himself that "Joey was back." He said he felt it was up to him, and him alone, to lead the Redskins to victory.
He left the locker room by jumping up and hitting the Redskins logo hanging above the door, but this time he said something.
"Normally, I didn't say anything," he said. "This time I said, 'Tonight your life is going to change, Joe."'
He said the accident occurred as he was trying to twist away from Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor.
"I heard what sounded like two muffled gunshots," he said. "It was the sound of both the bones in my lower leg breaking."
He lay on the field for what seemed like an eternity, and then, as they hauled him off, "55,000 people stood up and gave this selfish man a standing ovation."
Theismann lowered his voice and said that is when he learned one of the most valuable lessons of his life.
"You cannot and will not be a success in life if you think you do it by yourself," he said. "When I got hurt, I got more introspective. I asked myself, 'Why do people think you're cocky?' And then I asked myself, 'Why do I think I can do anything?"'
He said that's when he learned to appreciate his teammates and friends more, but also how important it was to believe in himself.
"Be an excited student," he said. "If you're going to do something, do it with enthusiasm ... Life equals energy. You want to change where you are, change the amount of energy you put into it ... But if you don't believe in yourself, who will?"
The difference was in how much he recognized those around him, how much he appreciated them. That's when he talked about former Redskins running back John Riggins.
"I wear a Super Bowl ring because of that man," he said. Then in 1992, the Redskins planned to honor both men at halftime. Theismann had been retired seven years, and Riggins had been retired six years.
"I stood at the 50-yard line like a broken-down old football player," he said. Riggins was nowhere to be found. After a couple of minutes, the crowd started to murmur.
Then, out of the Redskins tunnel, Riggins came rumbling in full football uniform, which thrilled the screaming fans. Theismann asked him why he did it, and Riggins said, "I had to hear it one more time."
Find out what motivates you and what motivates those around you, he said. People need compliments, pats on the back. They need kindness and acknowledgment. He encouraged the audience to give this praise freely and to cherish it when you're the recipient.For me, the most important thing Theismann offered in his hourlong address was confirmation that sports continue to teach you lessons long after you've mastered the skills of a game.