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If you’re a serious football fan, you know the name Walter Payton. He gained yards, he scored touchdowns, he had nicknames like “Sweetness” and his image adorned posters from coast to coast.
Any newspaper story or television report about a Chicago Bears game from the mid 70s through most of the 80s included plenty of information about how Payton played, how many yards he gained, how many times he crossed the goal line.
Those same stories and broadcasts rarely mentioned guys named Jay Hilgenberg or Keith Van Horne. Those two men spent much of their careers blocking on the offensive line for Payton, allowing him to become arguably the greatest running back in his era of the NFL. Their pictures weren’t in the paper every Monday morning, nor were they stalked by reporters seeking quotes and comments. Payton got the glory, but the offensive linemen did much of the work.
Guys like Hilgenberg or Van Horne didn’t complain. They understood the nature of a team sport like football. For the team to be successful, some guys have to lay it on the line, while other guys get to cross the line. The guys who carry, throw or catch the balls are the ones who get the headlines. Those who have to get down in the three-point stance, wage a personal war against another large opponent or two on each play, often do their job anonymously.
I’m reminded of this fact of sports life when I hear comments about why some players get mentioned in the paper each week, and some don’t. I’ve even taken occasional phone calls from upset parents about this, and I try to be empathetic when I explain the nature of the game. I hope they understand that I don’t personally have anything against their child — but when describing action on the field or the court that decides the outcome of the game, some players have more visible roles than others. It’s not that they’re more important to the success of the team, simply that the roles are different.
Of course, within the locker room, the really good teams and good coaches make sure that those who toil in the dirt and out of the limelight are properly recognized. Ultimately, the respect earned from coaches and teammates should mean much more to a young athlete than anything else. It’s not an easy thing to accept, but it is a valuable life lesson for young people to learn. Sometimes true character is revealed not by how you handle glory and fame, but how you handle not getting the glory and fame you might very well deserve.
It’s a life lesson that will serve young athletes long after they leave school. Many will enter the work force on the bottom rungs of the ladder, and much of what they accomplish will lead in others taking the glory. Others will serve their community and neighbors in ways that often go unnoticed and unappreciated, but their service is no less important.
We live in an society where a realty television star with seemingly no significant talent or accomplishment can rake up millions, while a 25-year-old military veteran with several tours of duty in a combat zone struggles to feed and provide for his family. It’s not really fair, but each individual must learn to gauge their own self-worth not by what others say about them, but by a clear conscience that they’re doing the best for their team, for their community or for their country.