By Andy Weddington
Sunday, 02 October 2011
"Sometimes the best gain is to lose." George Herbert
Yesterday afternoon I tuned into the football game, aired on CBS, played between the U. S. Naval Academy and the visiting U. S. Air Force Academy. Never did I imagine spending time writing a Commentary about those few hours. But I am. Not about the game, per se, rather an observation about leadership.
The game was high-scoring. Exciting. And though the midshipmen spotted the cadets a sizeable early lead, they dominated the field eventually knotting the score with 19 seconds to play in regulation. And when the game clock showed 00:00 the score was 28 - 28.
The midshipmen, led by seniors quarterback Kriss Proctor and fullback Alexander Teich, scored first in overtime. A momentary lapse of judgement by Proctor after the play resulted in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. And that lapse of judgement--that lapse of leadership--turned the ordinarily routine point after touchdown into a 35 yard try. It was blocked--34 - 28.
A few minutes later, the cadets scored a touchdown, kicked the routine extra-point, and won 35 - 34.
I saw the replay of what Midshipman Proctor did. After scoring on a one yard keeper he, after getting on his feet, got in the face of a defender and said something. The back judge witnessed the impromptu "meeting" and flagged it.
Appropriate call or not depends upon the prism through which viewing. But from my living room seat and with no heat-of-the-moment emotion clouding thinking it looked like the right call. The head referee (Big 12 crew) confirmed the incident during post-game comment to a reporter.
I have no idea why Midshipman Proctor confronted the defender nor what he said. Most likely there was something going on the entire game and opportunity presented itself. Maybe the official had been telling players throughout the game to knock off the chatter and taunting. I don't know. It doesn't matter. The team's leader had every opportunity to simply leave the field. To lead the way. He should have. He did not.
After the game the midshipmen's head coach, Ken Niumatalogo was quoted, “To make that call, man, that’s just a huge, huge penalty...it just changes the whole complexion of the deal. I hope those guys can sleep well tonight.” And, “It’s too critical of a part of a game to make a call like that...our guys are battling....both teams are fighting hard...they’re battling hard, and for someone to make a call like that, it hurts.”
Of course it was a huge penalty. Of course it changed the complexion of the game. Of course both teams were playing hard. Of course it hurts, Coach. But, the referee made the call. Regardless at what point in the game, would the official have been correct to ignore the violation he witnessed? He did not make the rules--he's on the field to enforce them--he's on the field to maintain order (ironically, amongst men being held to a higher standard of personal conduct and honor).
As it is, players from both teams, including Proctor and Teich, will soon be wearing gold bars of ensigns and second lieutenants. They will be leading sailors, airmen, and Marines--in challenging, dangerous training, and combat. And training them, too. But nothing will have more impact on the men and women they lead than by setting of example. Their young charges will be watching every move--on and off duty.
These future leaders were not born. Our service academies are in the business of making leaders--forging them through rigorous academics, field training, athletics, leadership billets, and competitions in classrooms and on fields; including football fields.
During their development those aspiring to earn a commission are expected to make mistakes. Many mistakes. And in all arenas. But learning from their mistakes, some more costly than others, is what molds them. Mistakes in classrooms, in laboratories, on intramural fields, and even on intercollegiate courts and fields is expected. And acceptable. They are preparing, and being prepared, for sobering duties of which they can only imagine.
A football field is just that--a field where a game is played. A violent game, minor injuries are normal. Serious injuries infrequent. Deaths rare. The outcome decided by points. Mistakes acceptable.
But the battlefield is different. It's not a game field. And the outcome is decided in minor and horrific injuries and death. Senseless lapses of judgement have no place on the battlefield. Mistakes not acceptable.
And that's the point.
Midshipman Proctor made a mistake, a senseless but acceptable one, on a football field. For a brief moment he failed to lead. He hurt his team. He'll remember his lapse for the rest of his life. It's already shaping him--for the good. It will shape his character and decision-making and leadership while in uniform and for however many years he may choose to serve. And that will be to the great benefit of those young men and women he'll be entrusted to lead.
Navy's star quarterback learned an invaluable leadership lesson yesterday afternoon. And so did every single man on that team. And the opposing team. And every single student--at both academies. Whether they realize it or not.
Any leader worth his salt will accept a Saturday afternoon football game one point loss stemming from a player's lapse of leadership when understanding that lesson just may one day save lives--whether during unforgiving training or on a battlefield.
Maybe not on the scoreboard but Coach Niumatalogo and his team won--they're winners with a lot of football still to play. And with a stronger quarterback--a better leader--at the helm. I'll be tuning in.
And Coach, I bet the officials slept well last night--the right call made.
I have many friends who graduated from the Naval Academy and brothers who graduated from the Coast Guard Academy and Air Force Academy. I wonder how they see it?
Midshipman Proctor hails from Big Bear, California. I can see the mountain, snow-capped half the year, from my backyard. By car, the quaint community is less than an hour's drive. I've been there a few times--to paint and write and relax.