Fantasy Football

17/02/2017 at 17:17 Leave a comment

“Fantasy Football”

 

Parashat Beshallach

Neil F. Blumofe

11 February 2017

 

To mix it up a bit – here is a sports sermon – I figure that I would offer one, once in a while.
This morning, I’m going to speak about last week’s Super Bowl game.  For those of you who saw it, at first it was not much of a contest, with the Atlanta Falcons dominating the game through the first 45 minutes or so.  However the last quarter belonged to the New England Patriots and specifically to their quarterback, Tom Brady, who almost preternaturally, marched his team up and down the playing field to ultimately come from behind and win the game in overtime.

 

I am not the biggest fan of football – I grew up cheering for the Chicago Bears – rejoicing in their extraordinary 1985 championship season – and then later on, became a New Orleans Saints fan, enjoying their Super Bowl victory in 2010 – however, in the last couple of years, I’ve seen a few more games and while it was thrilling to have watched my youngest play football on his middle school A team – and really, it was grosse naches to see him, the rabbi’s son, successfully navigate a version of Texas football culture — it pained me each time a game was delayed as one young man after another experienced an injury over the course of a season – and it was eerie to be one of the parents cheering as our team made a vicious tackle, or made a big play, at the expense of the other team.

 

For Hanukkah last year we gave my son the movie, Concussion, starring Will Smith – and he rolled his eyes, and watched it in adolescent silence without me – however, a few months ago, we both watched the ESPN show “The ’85 Bears,” which took me for a nostalgic ride until we got to the chilling scene where the famed quarterback Jim McMahon was interviewed – and he could barely speak in sentences that were not laced with pain.  The thrill of victory – the agony of defeat.  For both of us, it was a sobering reminder of the damage that playing football does – and it tempered my adoring childhood images of the confident, electrifying young men who sacrificed their bodies to their athletic pursuits.  And after a few years of negotiations in our family, coupled with the recent announcement from sports legend Bo Jackson, that neither he nor his children would have played football had he known then what he knows now, my son has retired from football – looking to enter into high school next year strengthening and continuing to develop skillsets for different sports and activities.

 

However, Tom Brady did me no favors last Sunday night.  His is a quintessential success story.  In high school, Brady was a backup quarterback on a winless team – and eventually he made his way onto the Patriots as a sixth-round draft pick, becoming the greatest quarterback in NFL history.  This quote from the owner of the Patriots, Robert Kraft, is illustrative:

 

I still have the image of Tom Brady coming down the old Foxboro stadium steps with that pizza box under his arm – a skinny beanpole – and when he introduced himself to me and said, “Hi, Mr. Kraft,” he was about to say who he was – but I said, “I know who you are – you’re Tom Brady.  You’re our sixth-round draft choice.  And he looked me in the eye and said, “I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.”  “It looks like he could be right.”

 

As we study the Torah portion Beshallach this week, I look to explore this idea of self-confidence.  In college, at the University of Michigan, Brady was a backup quarterback for two years – and for most of his undergraduate days, he had an intense struggle to get some playing time.  It is written that during college, Brady hired a sports psychologist to help him cope with frustration and anxiety – and he met with a member of the athletic staff every week to build Brady’s confidence – and during his senior year, he led his team to multiple 4th-quarter comebacks, earning him the nickname – “The Comeback Kid.”

 

What gives a person grace under pressure – to keep calm and carry on, even though there is chaos and distraction all around?  When is it confidence and swagger – and when is it haughtiness, bordering on contempt?  To use a Jewish example – the great pitcher Sandy Koufax was once asked by a reporter – what his favorite pitch was to throw when he had the bases loaded behind him – Koufax’s answer?  “My boy, I don’t recall every having to pitch with the bases loaded.”

 

What lessons can we learn as we see an athlete inspire his team to take calculated chances, to step up their game – as we see Moses between the sea and the pursuing Egyptian army, with little time left on the clock and no timeouts, make an appeal to God to intervene and provide some direction?  Responding, God deflects Moses and redirects him to lead the people in a version of a hurry up offense – daber el b’nei Yisrael v’yisa’u – speak to the children of Israel and let them journey forth.  In other words – get back into the game – trust yourself, and you will not wade directionless in the water – instead, you will walk confidently between the split sea on dry ground – v’yavo’u v’nei Yisrael b’toch hayam bayabasha.

 

A famous midrash has Nachshon ben Aminadav walk headlong into the raging sea until the water was just beneath his nose – it was only at that moment that the sea parted, and enabled everyone to go through safely on dry ground.  His action was not desperation – he was not banking on an official time out — rather he was calm, cool, and collected – doing what he had to do to change the balance of the situation and inspire others to step up.  How do we handle pressure and develop mental toughness?  So much of what we do is a mind game – how we react to the world around us, to the people around us – we can easily get sucked into someone else’s drama and lose our footing – how do we keep our surety and our balance?  What would Tom Brady do?  What would Nachshon ben Aminadav do?  What do we do?

 

Our experts would tell us to dwell on the moment and not worry so much about the outcome.  We should be mindful of what is right in front of us – and be aware that as our mind races, there is nothing we can do about its harrowing flights – we are to readjust our expectations to do what is next, each time.  Also, if we can’t move past the pressure that we are feeling, then we are to adapt it into our outlook.  We are to drop into hard work – and not rely on miracles to bring us victory.  We should adjust our focus – not wondering how we can win, rather to concentrate on how we can offer a solid, consistent approach to each of our encounters.  To me, this response and strategy is similar to how I approach taking care of a mourner, who is the depths of pain.  We can use this technique in the rest of our lives, as well.

 

I realize that we don’t have to emulate Tom Brady as a quarterback as we develop our own skills – in all that we do, we can separate our identity from any results that we achieve – both positive and negative.  This is so important — in no cases, should we let the results of our actions define us – it’s so seductive to get a boost from something good that we do – and to crave this kind of recognition, and have it compound our self-worth.  However to resist that urge gives us a chance to routinely show up to offer the best of who we are without having to compare our efforts, day after day, and sink so very low when we inevitably make a mistake – and are called out for our less than stellar performance.

 

In addition, we should know what we can and what we can’t control – and we should realize what stories we tell ourselves daily that can affect our mindset.  What would we hear if we recorded that inner voice that constantly critiqued our decisions every day?  Oftentimes, we are our own worst critics.  And, if we make minor adjustments to what we are doing – small changes that can boost our performance, we receive a powerful lesson from our Torah portion and from thinking about the most recent Super Bowl game – we do what we must do to serve the greatest need of the present circumstances.

 

I actually don’t think Tom Brady is so extraordinary.  With discipline and awareness, we too can deepen our mental toughness and resilience.  As we fantasize about our life – about the dreams that we have and the honors and accolades that we think we deserve, we can actually achieve our goals by taking one small step at a time.  We know that we are not alone – we know that we are not perfect – we know that others are willing to help us – and that our failures are not a referendum on our character.  We can actually lose a battle, while winning the war, as we capitalize on what is important in each moment, and live to try another day – without giving up hope and by honing our physical efforts and our mental abilities, each day.  Rather than thinking we must improve the things that give us the greatest challenge, we can concentrate on upgrading they things in which we excel – magnifying our signature strengths.

 

Life often reveals that we are going to be perennially losing late in the 4th quarter.  In response, we can shrug and say that’s how God made me – always a victim, always behind the eight ball, so to speak, to mix my sports analogies – always succumbing to the pressure.  Or, we can bring our skillsets to bear to always push back against defeat, using our grit, knowing that many times, by our efforts, and by joining our efforts to others, all of us inspiring each other, if not winning the actual game, winning itself will fairly often, actually go our way – and regardless of the specific game, our life will be successful.

 

Shabbat Shalom

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