Teachable Moments, Part 2

Bumped. Great thoughts from Bruinut. -BN Eds.

Well, no one threw up a "No, For Heaven's Sake, Please Not Again" sign when I threatened to make "Teachable Moments" a multi-part series, so I'm back at it. It's just that the topic fascinates me so. Warning, though: a lengthy post follows.

Teachable moments are unpredictable, much more like meteor strikes than train schedules. Teachable moments are, at one and the same time, as fragile as soap bubbles. and as potent as life-changing experiences can be.

Sports are full of teachable moments, not only in dealing with sports skills, but also in dealing with life. Of course, sports are not unique in this regard--teachable moments are everywhere, in classrooms, in living rooms, in dairy barns.

Sports, though, being topics in newspapers, in blogs, and around water coolers, often make the teachable moments of others available to us all. We read about what turned the light on for player X, transforming him or her from a pretty good player to a great one. We hear about the inspiration for player Y, enabling him or her to go from walk-on scout team player to emergency substitute, or even star, for a day. We learn of the profound life lesson absorbed by player Z, perhaps having nothing to do with sports, that gave him or her better footing for the journey called life.

This is one of the many reasons I love sports. The TMs of others become inspirations for us all.

In my first "Teachable Moments" post, I used two examples in which players on basketball teams were the primary recipients of teachable moments. In this post, I'm going to use two examples from recent NFL playoff games as examples where the fans are the TM beneficiaries. These examples have a special place in my heart in that they involve kids directly.

Teachable moments are especially poignant for children. Kids are ready and eager to learn, and their entire lives lie in front of them. When you bestow a helpful life lesson on a child, you give him or her a gift that lasts a lifetime.

Both examples in this post have to do with how players react to gut-wrenching defeat that they, themselves, helped bring about. In that no one skates through life without substantial disappointment, and without, on occasion, being the goat, learning how to handle oneself in these situations is a most valuable lesson for a person to learn, especially a child. In one case, it was a "civilian" dad who seized a teachable moment and did the teaching. In the other example, it was an NFL player.

Before getting into the examples, consider the agony and extraordinary difficulty of dealing with a gut-wrenching team defeat that you helped cause. You have worked, perhaps, the majority of your life, towards a big moment. You have overcome self-doubt; you have dealt with injury; you have built up your body and you have trained your mind. You have been on lousy teams, and you have wondered if your sport would ever be fun for you again. You have competed against other top-level athletes, and you have held your own and prevailed some of the time.

Then, one magical year, your team clicks. All players contribute. In different weeks, different players play key roles. Winning becomes a habit. Winning becomes expected.

As reward for your team's excellent play, a big game comes along. You are ready, as a team, and individually. It feels like all your work has been meant for this one game. The stakes are huge. The attention is intense. The stage is other-worldly feeling.

The game begins. Gradually, your jitters lessen, and you remember your skills and how you helped your team get here. You remember that you don't have to be better than you've ever been; you just have to do what you can, and what you've done ten thousand times before.

The game is winding down. The two teams have been in a barroom fight. It's the fifteenth round. There can be only one winner. Every play is crucial. You try to block out knowledge of the situation, for you know that said knowledge dilutes your focus on the next play.

Then, as life would have it, the next play is coming right at you. You stiffen your resolve. You focus like you know how. You lower your head. You make your play..., and then Boom! You blew it. You screwed up. You stand, stunned. The game was within reach, and you, quite isolated from your teammates, did exactly what you did not want to do. The seconds tick away. Your team loses.

How do you deal with that? How, in bloody hell, do you deal with that? It feels like life can never be normal again, let alone good. You think of the hundreds of thousands of fans of your team who now hate your guts. It seems that the hole that you're in is bottomless. You know that there is nothing that you or anyone can say or do to salvage the victory, or to rescue you from your misery. Where in the manual of life is the chapter that instructs you how to handle this?

Well, four people have recently and most eloquently helped author just such a chapter: a dad, a son, a receiver/returner, and a kicker.

Example One: Kyle Williams

Under Jim Harbaugh's leadership, the 49ers had, somehow, improbably, magically turned their season around. The previous year, they had finished with a record of 6-10. This year, they finished the regular season 13-3 and were being discussed, without snickering, as being among the league's best.

A team that had not known how to win suddenly could do little wrong. They finished the season strong, earning themselves a bye in the first round of playoffs, and earning themselves a home game in the next round. Moreover, by defeating the defending champion New Orleans Saints, they had earned a home game against the New York Giants in a game that would decide the NFC representative for the Super Bowl. From a disorganized, undisciplined team to the Super Bowl? It was all so improbable, and all so real.

One of many improvements made by the 49ers over 2010 was in their special teams, both in executing returns of kickoffs and punts, and in defending them. Unlike last year's 49ers, the 2011 49ers were explosive, consistently giving them good field position, and liable to break off a return at any time. The presence of speed burners Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams, along with improved blocking and team discipline, made them explosive. In one game against the Seattle Seahawks, Ginn had returned two punts for touchdowns in the 4th quarter, sealing an important 49er win, and cementing in the minds of players that, indeed, they WERE this good.

Only, heading into the NFC Championship game, Ginn was injured and would not be able to play. They would miss him, not only as a returner, but as a reliable receiver. Fortunately, though, they had Kyle Williams as backup. Williams was nearly as explosive as Ginn. They would be all right.

As the game unfolded, Williams was doing fine, giving the 49ers decent or good field position on returns. And, it wasn't his fault that Alex Smith overthrew him when he was wide open on a go route. Williams was doing fine, that is, until the third quarter when he made the mistake of getting too close to a bouncing punt. The ball, almost imperceptably, grazed Williams' knee, and was pounced on by an alert Giants player. Replays showed that, indeed, the ball had touched Williams. The turnover led to an easy Giants touchdown, seven give-away points. Unfourtunately for him, Williams wasn't done being generous to his opponents.

One of the seedier, crueler sides of NFL football is the utter ruthlessness. All is fair in love, war, and football, apparently. The 49ers, themselves, practiced relentless violence. The previous week, Donte Whitner knocked Saints running back, Pierre Thomas, out of the game and caused a fumble with a violent, but technically legal, hit near the 49ers goal line. The play not only saved a probable Saints touchdown, but led to 49er points of their own. Although the hit was helmet-to-helmet, under the intricate by-laws of the NFL, which attempt to strike an elusive balance between physical toughness and brutal thuggery, the hit was considered legal.

But, the Giants, like many teams, raised the ante on such ruthlessness, specifically targeting players with a history of concussions. They knew that Kyle Williams had suffered concussions previously, and they knew that concussion sufferers were prone to further concussions. Further still, they knew that, if they could take Williams out of the game, the 49ers would be down to their third, much less explosive, option on kickoff and punt returns. So, they made a point of clobbering Williams with hard, violent hits, maybe not hoping for a concussion, per se, but hoping for miscues, such as fumbles, that arise from having your head knocked silly.

Tied, the game went into overtime. The Giants won the coin toss, and elected to receive the ball first. As they had been all game, the 49ers defense was effective, forcing the Giants to punt for a twelfth time. The ball came to Williams, who started forward. The Giants hit him hard, and forced a fumble. The Giants now had the ball in the 49ers' red zone, and making an easy field goal to win the game was a mere formality. Williams, to many fans, had single-handedly gift-wrapped 10 points for the Giants and had cost his team the game.

Without delay, the hate-tweets poured in.

"you should jump off the golden gate bridge for that one"
"hope you find a nice long rope and something sturdy to hang urself with"
One tweet asked San Francisco Coach Jim Harbaugh to "please give @KyleWilliams_10 the game ball. And make sure it explodes when he gets in his car."
"I hope you, youre wife, kids and family die, you deserve it"

One young fan who was particularly distraught was 7-year old Owen Shure.

"Owen inherited his love of the 49ers from his dad, Michael Shure, a political contributor to The Young Turks on Current TV. Michael is my friend and Owen, I should point out, is my godson. Sundays during the season, Owen races around the house in his Frank Gore jersey, cheering every Patrick Willis tackle ("P-Willie" to Owen) and referring to Alex Smith as "Alex." He's not just the quarterback. He's a friend.

So Sunday, as the Niners lost in memorably disheartening fashion, Owen became inconsolable. He was crying, saying of Kyle Williams, with the distinct sobs of a seven-year-old between each word, 'But... why... did he... have to... fumble?'"

What do you tell a child whose seven-year old heart has just been crushed? How do you persuade him that life will go on and, indeed, be better again? With one question, Owen's dad found a way.

"Trying to get his son to stop crying, Michael asked him, "If you feel this way, how sad do you think Kyle Williams is?"

Owen paused a second, then asked his dad, "Can I write him a letter to make him feel better?" And from that, an old-fashioned letter -- the ultimate anti-Twitter, the un-social media -- was born."


Dear Mr. Williams:
We just watched the Playoff game. I feel really bad for you but I wanted to tell you that you had a great season. you sould be very proud, so I wanted to say thank you.

I am your #1 FAN!

Owen Shure
Los Angeles, CA

p.s. your awsome

In one fell swoop, Owen's dad helped a broken youngster begin healing his own hurt, helped him see life through another's eyes, and inspired his son to reach out to Kyle Williams. Armed with this new perspective, young Owen took it on himself to help the sufferer who, just minutes ago, had been the cause of his misery.

Interlude: Owen Shure, a real-life Charlie Brown

One of my favorite Peanuts cartoon strips begins with Linus in front of a TV set, watching a football game. He raises his arms in exultation and shouts "FANTASTIC!" Eager to share his excitement, he runs outside and finds Charlie Brown. Linus says "Charlie Brown, I just saw the most unbelievable football game ever played... What a comeback! The home team was behind 6-0 with only 3 seconds to play... They had the ball on their own 1-yard line..."

Charlie listens.

Linus continues, "The quarterback took the ball, faded back behind his own goal posts and threw a perfect pass to the left end, who whirled away from four guys and ran all the way for a touchdown! The fans went wild! You should have seen them!"

Charlie stands there, taking all this in.

Linus goes on, "People were jumping up and down, and when they kicked the extra point, thousands of people ran onto the field laughing and screaming! The fans and the players were so happy they were rolling on the ground and hugging each other and everything!" Linus clasps his hands together, hugging himself in happiness, and says, "It was fantastic!"

Having heard about this incredible comeback, Charlie Brown remains stoic and, apparently, unmoved. Finally, he turns to Linus and says, "How did the other team feel?"

Example Two: Billy Cundiff

The frenzy in the closing minutes of the Ravens-Patriots playoff game was building to a crescendo. Behind, 23-20, Baltimore was driving, and was well into range of their reliable field goal kicker, Billy Cundiff. At this range, Ravens fans were hoping for a touchdown and likely win, but even more, praying for no turnover. At the very least, they would go into overtime with a good shot to win.

In many similar situations, when an opponent's kicker can win or tie the game, opposing coaches often call a time out, so as to "ice" the kicker--that is, make him think about the heavy pressure that he was about to bear for his team. Make it, and no one will criticize you. But, miss it, and look out, because a sh*t storm will surely follow.

But, Bill Belichick did not call time out. When asked later why not, Belichick said he could see that the Ravens seemed rushed, and he didn't want to give them time to gather themselves. In short, he wanted to exploit the Ravens' confusion.

Some say that Belichick, himself, was behind the confusion. The scoreboard read third down, when it was really fourth. Practicing for the moment on the sidelines, Cundiff, may have been operating on a clock some 45 seconds behind the real clock, thinking that the Ravens would run one more play before he was called to action. When informed that, contrary to the scoreboard, his time was NOW, Cundiff rushed onto the field--fourth down, with the play clock ticking down toward zero.

Did Belichick "order" the scoreboard operator to be late on changing downs? Did the scoreboard operator hesitate on his own? Was it an honest mistake?

We'll never know for sure, but one known fact is that the Ravens had a time out of their own that they could have used. And, they didn't use it. Without benefit of a time out to find his spot, line up the kick, and secure his footing, Cundiff had all of about 7 seconds to do all of his pre-kick setup. Still a makeable kick, "easy" by NFL standards, but possible shenanigans aside, his own team did him no favors.

Cundiff, though, being a veteran kicker, had rehearsed and practiced such moments many times before, both in his head and on the field. The great majority of times in these situations, Cundiff was successful. Not this time, though. He pulled the kick left. Even though he missed by only a few feet, the kick was wide from the time it left his foot.

Patriots and their fans celebrated. Ravens and their fans stood stunned, barely comprehending the sudden conclusion, slack-jawed at the idea that their season was abruptly over. The most stunned, and lonliest, Raven of all, of course, was Cundiff. Dejected in a way that few of us can fully appreciate, he walked slowly off the field.

Within seconds, the Ravens kicker was given a new middle name. Now known as Billy Goat Cundiff, his hate-mail and hate-tweets were every bit as intense as Kyle Williams'.

"You dumb ass! They lost, you stupid bastard! Oh, my God, yo. You stupid bastard."
(screaming at TV) "You f*cking piece of sh*t! Get the f*ck out of my house right now!"
"His mom, man. His mom is going to be facing a lot of questions about her son. He missed an EASY field goal. It was EASY!"

Little girls were crying. Big girls were dropping f-bombs like drunken sailors. Grown men, in Ravens jerseys, were doing both, sobbing and swearing.

Cundiff had several excuses to choose from. The scoreboard malfunction. The failure of his coaches to call a time out. The hurry-up, breathless fourth down was the antithesis of John Wooden's advice to "be quick, but don't hurry."

Cundiff used none of them. Instead, he stood up, against all this animosity, against all this second-guessing, against all this hatred, and spoke like a disappointed, but grounded adult. Who and what was he thinking of when he stood under the hot lights, trying to answer questions that had no satisfactory answers? Was he thinking of others' failures? Was he thinking of the injustice of being singled out? Was he feeling sorry for himself? No, he was thinking of his kids.

And Billy Cundiff gave me yet another reason to brag about kickers by virtue of the way he dealt with his misfortune.

He handled it all with grace and dignity and never once questioned fate, the weather, the field, the snap, the hold, the lights, the pre-game meal, his socks being too tight or the ball not being inflated with the right pressure.

Cundiff simply told the truth — "I’ve made that kick a thousand times. I just didn’t make this one."

And then he delved into the reality of the situation, touching on the critical nature of his response by reminding anyone who has children of what the most important aspect of his post-game reaction would be.

"I need to make sure my children learn from this," Cundiff said afterwards. "They look to me to teach them things. I’ll use this as a teaching moment for them. You have to bounce back from adversity. There’s no sense in letting it bring you down, because you can’t change what happened. I just have to make sure they know what’s really important is to get back out there, work harder, and make sure the next time an opportunity comes along like that, I give it my best and make the kick."

In a subsequent interview, Cundiff said:

When a game ends like that, do you take it personally?

BC: When you're at this level, and if you're going to be a professional and it's your job, I think you have to take it personally. I get paid to make field goals. We'll move on from this. It's one of those things that will strengthen me in the end. Throughout my career, I've had challenging situations and I'm still standing here today, so it's something that will be tough for a little while. But, I've got two kids; there are some lessons I need to teach them. First and foremost is to stand up and face the music and move on.

I think John Wooden would have been proud of them all: Kyle Williams, Owen Shure, Michael Shure, and Billy Cundiff.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.

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