Vince Lombardi, Zane Beadles, and building a football team through the power of love

I love the history of football. In its beginnings a brutal sport nearly banned at many colleges, it took over 30 years to reach a level of maturity and acceptance by the American public in the 1950s and 1960s. The growth in the sport since then has in many ways reflected the positives in the evolution of American culture.

Football has increasingly outgrown its often brutal and unquestionably racist roots, beginning with the entry of players of color in the 1940s. It has seen the iron fist of Vince Lombardi, demanding in Green Bay that he not have a single member of his teams that bore racist, cultural or religious prejudice. Lombardi was an icon in many ways that most casual fans of the sport will never hear or read of.

Bill Walsh once had a player’s locker packed in the box delivered to his front door for simply implying that the details of his contract were based in racial discrimination by Walsh. Walsh was right - the player was playing a race card that in this case did not exist.

Many of the early rule changes the NFL put together were intended to help grow the game as an industry. Increased scoring puts more fans in the seats, and the rules began to favor that outcome. Over time, though, more and more of the rule changes began to be made with the intention of protecting the health of the players. It is a process that is ongoing and it is far from finished, but it’s a start. This hasn’t exactly been met with joy by the players themselves - it is only in our modern world that we have begun to understand the price that many of these ‘millionaires’ - most of whom are bankrupt within just a few years of leaving the game - are paying and will pay because we honestly didn’t understand the physical outcomes of what these men do for their own living and for our entertainment. They are mostly young, see themselves as immortal, and often have no idea of the long term issues. That’s beginning to change as well.

In addition to these changes, which simply accept that the players are people rather than chattel, and that their health and wellbeing matter, now we’re apparently seeing the NFL using common, proven, effective team building exercises that don’t take place in the franchise’s home facility. This article was the first I’ve read on a team using modern business models and techniques to improve the overall communication, understanding, and connection among the players. It’s a move that’s long overdue - but to me it’s a satisfying one to finally see. As someone who studied Tom Peters's In Search Of Excellence writings and research, recognizing that the Broncos are willing to invest in their players on this level is a sea change in how the team relates to the players, and in how the players relate to each other.

Said Eric Decker:

It was a good application where we would climb ropes one day, and we got to know one another's stories another day. It got real personal as far as getting to know one another's stories. Talking about leadership and getting feedback and learning how to communicate — sometimes in this sport, you feel like all you're doing is what you're told, showing up on time, and sometimes communication gets lost.

And from guard Zane Beadles:

Foremost it's about getting to know each other a little better and you go through experiences together. But at the same time, it gives you good tools on everything from how you treat people, how you interact with your family, all the way to helping you with leadership skills. Listening to people. Putting your ego aside. Everybody's different, but it helped me grow as a person and as a man as well.

I found it ironic that Zane Beadles spoke these words, because there may perhaps be no single place on the football field where communication is more important than on the offensive line. These men need to communicate instantaneously with each other, have perfect communication with the quarterback, and have an innate and automatic communication as the play is running in order to have maximum effectiveness. For them to learn these kinds of skills they have to trust each other in new ways and to understand each other on a deeper level than they ever have before. It’s just one piece of the puzzle, but I cannot see any way this could hurt the chances for the Broncos of extending their 2012 season into the playoffs.

The image of Chris Harris roped to Orlando Franklin and negotiating a difficult obstacle that requires balance, trust, cooperation and, yes, communication, is a remarkable one. The fact that they were also roped to punter Britton Colquitt makes the image even more interesting. I like that it also demonstrates the importance for every player on the field to be in full communication with each other. Even punters, it seems, really are football players. If you doubt it, ask any team that lacks a good one.

The evolution of this event is interesting within itself. According to the DP article, it was Zane Beadles who initially brought the idea to Denver's director of player development, Jerry Butler. Beadles majored in mechanical engineering at the University of Utah, and made the Dean’s list, and the Athletic Director’s academic honor roll (three times) during his career there. He’s an extraordinarily intelligent human being. He also went through similar teambuilding exercises while he was in college, something that I’d like to applaud the program at Utah for.

The corporate world has known about the effectiveness of these exercises for a long time. To see it brought to professional football is extremely encouraging - there’s an increasing view of these players as people - real individuals who have struggled, bled, and at times wept to get where they are. In a culture where emotional vulnerability is usually used as a bludgeon, they were placed in a circumstance where they had a chance to find out things about themselves and each other rarely experienced in the NFL.

To institute that idea, Zane, who graduated 36th out of 696 students despite a very challenging major and his additional hours of training in football, brought it to Butler, a former player himself who bought into the idea, took it to the front office, and scheduled the event. The players involved included  Kevin Vickerson, Lance Ball, Joel Dreessen, Harris, Decker, Colquitt, and the entire starting offensive line of Ryan Clady, J.D. Walton, Chris Kuper, Franklin, and Beadles himself. What I really like about this group is that it includes Vickerson, a defensive player, as well as a wide variety of offensive weapons. They were not there to become weapons that weekend. They were there to understand each other and to bond as people, with a chance to bring that enhanced connection back into the locker room.

The players talked about the humbling reality of listening to each other's stories, finding out the background, the trials, and the tribulations that each player went through on his way to the NFL. They got to know each other as men, but also as simply people. They got to understand each other in a way that few players really ever seem to. I can’t imagine a scenario in which this does not improve the team. I hope that it becomes a more common approach to building an organization that is stronger through the power of love.

Love? We don’t talk about love much, in our culture (where it’s usually dealt with only in a romantic sense). Love isn’t a term you usually associate with large men slamming into each other at high speeds. But if you listened to Vince Lombardi, one of the best coaches of all time, he repeatedly talked about how love was the key ingredient in his teams that won Super Bowls. He also talked about the luck that happened each year, about the strange bounces that went in his favor, the calls that went his way and permitted his teams to make it to the Big Dance. But more than anything, he talked about love.

I know that’s not the image that most people carry regarding Vince Lombardi. They think about the famous misquote,”Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” They come away from short biographies of Lombardi thinking about his brilliance at coaching, his incredible understanding of the game of football, the Green Bay Power Sweep and his tremendous success over the decades, but they don’t come away thinking about love.

But Lombardi did. He believed in love. He lived by it. He wouldn’t have a single man on this team who bore in his heart a prejudice against another people, and he made that clear to everyone who played or coached under him. He believed that it was an offense against every other man on the team and against the power of love itself. Lombardi knew and taught that love was the binding force that rose one team up above another. He knew that in the closing minutes of the 4th quarter, when you’re too tired to rise back up off the turf, and too sore to move, that love was the power that would not let you fail the men next to you. You would raise up one more time and beat the man across from you, exhaustion be damned, out of love for the man you stand next to. And Lombardi and his teams won, over and over, with that belief.

By itself, the Broadmoor exercise is just one episode. I think it’s a great start, even if it is only a beginning. At the same time, every instance that increases the power of unity within the offense, or the defense or the special teams, is one more block in the foundation of a successful franchise. I hope to see more of these events in the future. I’d like to see them extended, in groups of about the same size, to every player on the final roster. I am hopeful that they will understand each other better, know each other as people in a way that they do not now, and grow together as a unit. The power of cohesion is a remarkable thing. It can overcome adversity and it is my experience that a cohesive unit of men can defeat a larger force of individuals. Every time.

Zane Beadles deserves a lot of credit for this. So does Jerry Butler. At the same time, every man who opened himself, exposed himself emotionally, and had the courage to share the kinds of things that you don’t usually expect from professional football players, who are trained from a young age to endure without speaking, deserves that same credit. Congratulations to each of them, and to the Broncos organization for recognizing the value of this experience in providing it for these players. I hope that is the first step in a process that grows and continues to improve the unity, the strength, and yes, the love that this franchise, like every other, is dependent on when the chips are down and the road is hard. Those moments will come in every season, especially those that run deep into the playoffs.

The more I see of this team and of this organization and of the changes that have taken place over the last year, the more I have a growing sense that these are people who have the chance to do something that Broncos fans have waited for for a long time. We have spent our time in the desert.

It is a remarkable thing to see this organization laying a strong foundation in the oasis they call Dove Valley. let’s hope they build on it and show us that the changes that they have made are not simply cosmetic, but a true course correction that will provide success for the team and can help create a new experience for fans who’ve waited for this for a long time:

A winning season.

Doc

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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