On Football, Incognito and What it Means to Be a Man



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He was the golden boy.


He had developed earlier than his peers, in middle school football games, he was a man against boys. In High School, when the senior quarterback suffered a season-ending injury, this freshman all-star (literally, all-star, varsity baseball, basketball and football in his freshman year) was called upon for the position.


And he dominated.


His agility seemed effortless as he drove down the field, his arm a cannon. He was on the nightly news, in the morning paper, gaped over when he walked down the hallways. So athletic he was that by his sophomore year, the head football coach at the University of Minnesota was taking him out to lunch, to dinners, to hang outs with some of the best players in college football.


And by all means, he deserved to be cocky. The team was carried on his shoulders. He was captain of the three major sports by tenth grade. Our school depended on him.


And yet, he was humble. He was kind, especially to those that wouldn’t see much playing time, if at all. He talked to me like a friend, he made me matter somehow. He was some kind of saint in our school.


There are several reasons for this, of course. Part of it being who he is, what his values are, how his parents raised him. But I think another part was the coach.


Many coaches cling tightly to their best players, ensuring that there head is right for game day, that they are watching tape of the other team, that they aren’t slacking off in the weight room or the classroom or even at home. Sometimes these coaches elevate their players to a place of impossible expectations. Some willfully, admittedly, look the other way when their protégés misbehave.


I knew one coach who stood before the team at a start of the season meeting and held out his palms sideways, a small space between them. He was talking about team ethics, about partying with booze and drugs and all other kinds of acting out. About what will not be tolerated on a team of believers. And then he said:


“If you’re one of my strongest, most athletic players, your leash is this big,” and he widened the space between his palms.


“If you aren’t…” his palms slowly drew in until they nearly touched.


My high school football coach is one the funniest people I have ever known. I ran into weight lifting class one day carrying a loose leaf piece of paper in which I wrote a report on some type of exercise, make-up work for a day I missed. He twisted his mouth to the side looking at it. He said:


“Moberg… Was someone attacking you while you wrote this?” and I died laughing because my handrwriting, did, does, and always will suck.


When it came to football, that coach looked at our star player, scholarship-given and NFl-bound, and then me, uncoordinated and unsure of myself, but happy to be part of the team, and not once did he show an ounce of favoritism. He talked to me, one who didn’t play that much, as if the team hung on my shoulders. As if my slowing down, my giving up, would take the rest of them down.


I was bullied once as a freshman by a senior in gym class after I froze in my boots as a volleyball hurtled down toward me and bounced off my chest.


“You’re so unathletic, why are you on my team?” the kid muttered.


Overhearing this senior, this star wide receiver on our team, coach stepped in. I was nervous he was going to make a big fuss over hit, yell at the kid and escalate the seriousness of the situation, as I was trying hard to play it off like no big deal. Our coach was funny, though, he furrowed his eyes at the guy and said:


“Moberg is the most athletic person in this room. Shut. It.” And then he patted me on the back and laughed.


He seemed to understand high school dynamics, he understood it so much that in that moment, he was able to stand up for me without making me a victim, without looking like a bird covering her young. A special tact refined by years of standing up for students.


And he made that star quarterback understand that his value was not in his arm, his speed, being the captain was not just about athletic ability. His value was in how he treated others, how he led others with grace and understanding, how he could be a friend to the freshman full of athletic insecurities, how he could be an example.


His leash, his standard, was short when it came to unkindness. His leash was long when it involved effort, both in the game and in the heart.


My discomfort with professional sports runs parallel to my discomfort with evangelicalism. I grew up reading Wild at Heart and it made me feel less like a man than anything ever had. I saw how cutting it can feel to be viewed as not good enough on a team or in your youth group. I knew that sports involved a sort of thick skin, but more importantly, an arm, quick legs, and a ruthlessness for those you were playing against, things I did not have. In church is was about courting girls, about providing one day for a family, about living into some mountain climbing adventure of a life, scraping your knees and not fussing about it, because you are a man. You have to be strong.


Unfortunately, I was a kind and sensitive boy with a poet’s heart, and that was established as unmanly, not tough enough.



I read about the NFL bully, Richie Incognito, the other day, a veteran of the Miami Dolphins who was tasked by coaches to “toughen up” their newest arrival, Jonathan Martin. Incognito, a man with a long history of hurting others, on and off the field, felt whatever leash his coaches had on him drop at his side and he ran wild. He terrorized the kid. Called and left racist messages (Martin is black), hazed him in the locker room, stalked him wherever he went. So much bullying that Martin would leave the team to escape it. (that’s manliness by the way, forgoing all the concerns about looking like a wimp by leaving, doing it anyways to get away from an abusive situation.)


The problem is certainly with Incognito and his heartless behavior, his own view of what it means to be a man. But, of course, it is also the fault of the coaches who knew of his reckless ways, who knew how horrible he was as a human being, who thought it best to sick him on a newbie and “toughen him up”, teach him a lesson or two on being strong, on breaking him in the hopes that he would harden into something unbreakable.


Why it is that this is called manliness, I will never know. I don’t understand why being a man has been reduced to how rough and ready-to-rumble you are, how your value is more in your ability to dominate another than love the other. I don’t know how we fix this culture of masculinity in the church or on the field or in the gym class, but I think it involves that high school football coach I had. I think it has to do with leaders like him rising up and declaring that you are not special for your arms and legs, you are special because you know are a decent human being. You are special because you make the world a better place. You are special because you can score a touchdown, inspire millions, and walk with a humility that seems so unfair when you’ve clearly earned the right for some show.


You are special because you imitate, incarnate, live out a life of grace.


I watched the news clip and my heart broke for Martin, but also for Incognito. For the guy that was told his worth was in his aggressiveness, his violence. And I said a prayer for the both of them, an ask for God to heal our rub-some-dirt-in values. I also lifted a prayer of thanksgiving, a deep heart gratitude for the coach that said I mattered, because I was a member of the team. Because I was a human being.


We need more men like that.