When it comes to athletics, especially team sports, it’s hard to disagree that the sport of football brings about the highest degree of emotion in players, coaches, and fans. To be a truly successful football team, physical and mental toughness, accountability, and unity are standard requirements that surpass that of other sports.
Beginning early on in a youngster’s playing days, football, more than any other sport, has a way of being somewhat of a testing ground to reveal a young man’s willingness and ability to work with teammates in a way that not only brings about their best performance but also positively impacts their teammates and coaches.
With all of the aforementioned great things about football comes the least-desired aspect that is way more challenging than a tough loss in overtime. Injuries.
Unfortunately, injuries are a common occurrence in football, as they can be in any sport. The type of injuries seen in football tends to run the gamut from minor ‘bumps and bruises’ to those extreme enough that they can adversely affect a player’s life from there on. Fortunately, the later is the exception rather than rule although any injury to an athlete that causes limitation in performance or takes the player off the field for extended periods of time brings with it mental, emotional, and physical pain. I firmly believe that, at the collegiate and professional level, the physical pain pales in comparison to what is going on inside the athlete’s psyche.
When an athlete who has invested years of his life (no matter how relatively young he may be at the time) and spent countless hours of off-field training, film study, meetings, and on-field practice and competition, to have that, brought to an abrupt halt, if not a total end, it is an intimidating reality. This is especially true when you add in the longer term personal goals, aspirations, and dreams of a young athlete. There is no warning and no direct preparation to handle this as the proverbial rug is yanked out from under you.
Just the physical challenge of going through hour upon hour of lonely, humbling rehabilitation is significant. However, it’s the emotional confrontation an athlete faces that tests character to an extremely high level. Thoughts of “what if I don’t make it back?”, “what if I’m not as fast?”, “what if my teammates lose confidence in me?”, “what if I don’t fulfill my dreams?”, “what if?”, “what if?”, WHAT IF?”, …
With all due respect to the people who face challenges every day that are much more serious than those related to a sport and an athletic career, when a competitive athlete has the medium they use to express themselves and “make something of themselves”, taken away from them, their life seems to flash before them. Another reality that hits home quickly is that you find out who your true friends are. People who were only interested in you when you were on the field are quickly exposed.
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, many times the better the competitor you are the more significant your positive impact on your team even when you are not able to hit the field.
When an athlete is not able to get on the field and contribute to the team in the way they are accustomed, much is revealed about the type of teammate, and person, they have been up to that point. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, many times the better the competitor you are the more significant your positive impact on your team even when you are not able to hit the field. One of the best examples I have personally witnessed in my career happened in the last week.
On Saturday September 8, an athlete I have worked with since he was in high school, Jalston “Nudie” Fowler, who plays for one of the top college football programs in the country, was injured late in the game on what could be called a “freak occurrence”. Though knee injuries are commonplace in football, manner this injury occurred is rare. It’s beyond the scope of this article to get into the exact diagnosis but suffice to say that it’s not one of those you want to watch more than once (if at all). The immense physical pain alone from this type of injury would make most men cry but the pain seen on Nudie’s face was the deeper discomfort coming from his realization that his season was probably over.
Jalston is one of the most humble young men I’ve ever known and he’d certainly not ask that I write an article or shine light on him in any manner. However, what happened immediately following the injury reveals much about the teammate and human being this young man is to not only his teammates, coaches, family, and close friends but also his coaches’ families, fans of the program, opposing players and coaches, and simply people who may have had the opportunity to meet him on occasion.
In my nearing 30 years of work as a fitness professional and strength coach to athletes from many different sports, I’ve never observed the show of concern and love for an athlete as I have for Nudie. This was not about people “feeling sorry” for him but an honoring of the way the young man influences the circle around him.
Leaders lead 24/7
I say this not so much to give Nudie the attention and appreciation he deserves but to make it clear to other athletes that what you do, how you do it, and who you become in doing it all influence those around you one way or the other. You are either impacting others’ lives for the better or you aren’t. There’s no in-between. Leaders lead 24/7, and the fact that the soft-spoken Nudie sets such a strong example to his teammates, coaches, and all of those who know him means that even when he is not on the field he is a positive, constructive force that is beyond his powerful 250lb frame.
I confidently expect Nudie to make a full recovery and bounce back better than he was simply due to the character, and more importantly the faith, that resides within him. Though his knee was injured and he’s removed from being ‘on the field’ to contribute to his team’s performance this season, his determination, will, and leadership were only “shaken up” a bit.
True leaders lead not just by their performance but simply by their presence. Genuine leaders don’t just get up after being knocked down and try to get back to status quo. They look fear in the eye, capture any thought of defeat, and replace it with a resolve to move forward in expectation of a better product than before the roadblock. They realize their mission is more than about themselves, and are fueled by the ‘inner knowing’ that they are simply taking another unchartered step, and claiming new ground, in leading others to overcome any challenge they may face.
The constructive influence Nudie will continue to have on the overall program will go a long way in positively impacting his success in rehabilitation and return as a better version of one of the best, albeit underrated, football players in the country. You’ve heard the term “player’s coach”. Nudie exemplifies “coach’s player”. There are many athletes I’ve worked with that I’d be proud to call my own son. There is not one that I am more proud of than Jalston “Nudie” Fowler.