Last Play

 

Memento mori.

-Latin phrase meaning, “Remember, you will die.”

Carpe diem.

-Latin phrase meaning, “Seize the day.”


To start my post, I’d like to thank everyone for surviving the last two weeks, so that I wasn’t tempted to write another eulogy-type piece this week. But I’ve been thinking about loss and finality. Per usual, my mind turned to athletics and the idea of the last play, the last repetition we take as athletes.

It’s incredible to watch players who play ever play as if it is their last. No matter how physically talented they are, they are overachievers. Unlike other players who throttle back at times, worry about their next breath, save their energy reserves, and occasional give up on winning the game, players who play every play as if it were their last almost always seem to find that extra gear.

They never seem to worry about their next breath, and yet it always comes. They never seem to spare an ounce of energy, and yet there’s always more when they need it. They never seem to surrender, and yet sometimes the other team gets the best of them. They always manage to play and practice with an intensity that suggests they believe this current play could be their last.

They play and practice with minimal regrets. They certainly may experience disappointment, but for the rest of their days, regret is minimal because they left nothing in the tank. They spent it all on the field or in the arena.

Looking back at films of my old teams, we played hard. We overachieved. We flew to the ball, yet we certainly weren’t perfect. Personally, I didn’t take many plays off, if any, but I definitely didn’t play every play as if it were my last. I should have. I would have been a better player if I did.

Then again, there was my senior season at Albion. Before then, I always assumed there would be other plays. I played pretty hard. I got after it. But looking back on it, I often had another gear to give, and I never realized it until I finally hit that higher gear in my senior season, the season I finally accepted the fact that any play could be my last. On any play, I could have suffered a season ending injury. Because I wasn’t moving on to another level of football, a play ending my season would also have ended my career.

So in my senior year at Albion, 7 years into varsity football, I finally began to understand that any play could be my last. It changed how I played. I unleashed a new intensity in drills. I enjoyed every moment of every rep. I did more than enjoy the pain, I embraced and savored it. Every rep was a love affair with football. Every sprint was a celebration of speed. I’d finally begun to play every play as if it were my last. It was the most enjoyable season of my playing days, and it was probably my best. I still miss it. I dream of it. My heart breaks that I can’t play another last play.

That’s the thing about sports and life. We never really know what we had until it ends (or nears an end). Part of the beauty in life is getting lost in those moments before the last play is over.

Sports are just part of a bigger life. Someday, the last play, last rep, last day, last breath will come for each of us. This is the essence of the Latin phrase memento mori. Remember, you will die. When the last play arrives, if you have done things right often enough and given a great effort, you will leave minimal regrets.

But to do so, you may need to seize each moment as it arrives. Makes plays in the moment you have. This is the essence of the Latin phrase carpe diem. Seize the opportunity. Seize the day. It is the antidote to regret.

May we all play every play as if it’s our last.

Best wishes.

-JW


Other favorite quotes on last play:

“Even in camp, every play’s a big play. With the Steelers you learn to play every play like it’s your last.”

-Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers

“Now, you guys all understand what last play means? Last play. You play every play as if it was the last play you will ever play. And if we don’t play with emotion, if we don’t play the last play on every play, it will be. There won’t be a next week. Every play tonight, you play….you think about what that means. You think about what it means to be on your last play! This is my last play of football ever! My last play! How do I want it to be? How do I want to be remembered? My last play! Every play.”

-Coach Ed Burke, Torrey Pines High School, San Diego, CA

Filling Need with Deed

I strive to write clearly, but with the topics I write about, I am sure I fail sometimes. One ridiculously simple point that isn’t always clear: The title of my blog, makingtheplay.com. What does it mean to make plays? What is a play anyway? Hopefully this post will clear that up a bit.

I don’t feel the need to define play strictly. I believe you know the plays of your life when you encounter them. Sometimes they are explicit, such as picking off a pass in football or picking up a check in a restaurant. Other times they are less clear, such as openly honoring someone’s right to disagree or silently changing your experience of a situation by having an epiphany about it.

The importance of a play varies from person to person, and it varies from moment to moment for each individual. I like to think they all have unlimited potential. No play is too big or too small to be worthy of your effort.

Every moment of our lives, opportunities to make plays are available. We make some. We miss some. We move on in the present moment with new plays available for the making.

This past week, three playmakers in my family died. I wrote about my Uncle Jake last week (you can read that article by clicking to the link here It’s Been Fun). This week I want to write about Ron Block and my Aunt Susan Klaus Hoffman. You may or may not know them, but both made plays that were important to me. By discussing them, I hope to shed light on what it means to make a play.

Truth be told, Ron Block wasn’t part of my family. Not by blood at least. But I loved him, and he treated me like family. His entire family treated mine with kindness, so he and the Blocks are family to me.

As a single parent, my mom did her best, and her best was incredible. But she was human (although I think many would consider my mom Saint Kate with the love she has for the world), and after playing the roles of mother, father, and breadwinner, she didn’t always have time left to figure out how to take care of what she wanted for me. That’s where Ron and the Block family often stepped in.

My childhood memories are filled with times I spent with the Blocks. They drove me to countless games and events. As I write this, I have visions from their back of their minivan flooding my head (to be clear, there was a new minivan every year, and I hope more than a few of you are laughing your butts off at the thought of one of Dee’s new minivans parked next to Ron’s old S-10, both immaculately cleaned by Ron’s compulsive hand). Ron was typically at the wheel, unless of course we had been to the beach where Ron had imbibed plenty of fun (and more than a few Black Labels), in which case Dee drove back home. Anyone who knows Ron will have plenty of memories of Ron smiling and laughing as if the point of life was simply to smile and laugh, which very well might be the point of life. The man could celebrate, and he never needed much of a reason.

Once when Ron and I were celebrating at a graduation party, we had a conversation about my personality. I was a pretty serious kid at times (okay, that’s the understatement of the year, quit laughing people), and Ron noted that as I entered my early 20s, I was starting to loosen up a bit and have a little fun. I like to think I’m still on that path, and I like to think I learned some of it from him.

One particular memory of Ron has been popping up in my mind for years. One year Ryan and I had to make Pinewood Derby cars for Cub Scouts. Ron knew mom and I couldn’t handle it on our own. He was good with tools and had a workshop in his basement. So he took Ryan and I, and we designed, drilled, weighted, cut, and finished our cars in the workshop. Unlike so many parents today, Ron didn’t interfere with my design, weighting, or aerodynamics. He let me create and build my own car. He simply made sure I was safe with the tools. It was the perfect level of guidance.

I am pretty sure the design of the car was mediocre and finished with mediocre results, but today the process means much more to me than any result ever could. Ron thought about me and cared enough to step up and make a play. In my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful things life has to offer: Someone sees a need and fills it with deed. It’s like a dovetail joint that brings together the spiritual with the physical, the intangible with the tangible. It’s common, yet when it’s experienced with great awareness, it seems miraculous. It’s the essence of making a play.

When Ron made plays for me, Dee, Rhondi, Ryan, and Darren should get credit for their assists (and they made their own plays for me too). They shared their husband and father with me, and that’s worth more than a small mention. Sometimes we can’t make plays without assists from others.

That’s where my Aunt Sue comes in. She certainly made her own plays in life, but she also made assists by allowing my Uncle Hank to be another father figure in my life. She and my cousins, Kyle and Tim, shared selflessly and included me in their lives in so many ways.

Aunt Sue also shared her family of origin with me. I have great memories of spending time with her brothers, sisters, and parents, Harold and Ruth Klaus. One of my earliest memories is of her marriage to my uncle at their family farm in Harbor Beach. Another is smelt dipping with Uncle, Harold, and her brother Tim. We fished for hours, then used scissors to gut the fish for what seemed like hours more, then fried and ate them. Talk about filling a need with a deed. It was a perfect adventure for a young boy.

When her brother Tim was a teen, he and Uncle Hank put up a basketball hoop that provided hundreds of hours of fun for me, and I’ll never forget fishing on Sanford Lake with her sisters Jackie and Linda. These were times they used their skills to make plays my mom couldn’t make. That is not a knock on my mom. It’s a nod to their thoughtful efforts to make the plays my mom simply couldn’t. It was filling a need with a deed.

Given all the memories of my aunt from my youth, perhaps it’s a bit ironic that one of my lasting memories of her will be her late-life battle with MS. Truth be told, it wasn’t necessarily the battle that impressed me; It was the grace with which she accepted her disease.

Early on in the course of the disease, she fought through pain and debilitated motion to continue making plays in life. She constantly sought to make contributions to her communities. When she wasn’t teaching a class of her own, she was working as an assistant, tutor, or volunteer. She was always active making plays in her community through the schools, churches, and other organizations. She lived to make plays that helped enrich others.

I am sure she had moments of frustration, but she rarely showed it when I was around. On the contrary, she often seemed to be at peace with her frailty. It was as if she understood: This is my path. It’s the only one I can travel, and I recognize that I am the one who must travel it.

It often seemed as if her greatest strength, her grace, was revealed through her greatest weakness, the weakness that eventually took her life. With her grace, my aunt displayed one of the key principles of what makingtheplay.com is all about. The situations of our lives do not dictate our experiences of them. They do not control us. We have creative power to construct our own experience and meaning of life. We rise above situations when we understand that our experience of life resides in our own awareness. Ultimately, perhaps life becomes what we can make of it. No situation is too big or too small. Every play has unlimited potential, and you may never truly understand the value another person attributes to your play.

Our biological frailty has taken two great ones this week, Ron Block and Sue Hoffman. Even though they are gone from the world, their spirit will surely live on in those who knew them. For me, I hope to remember them by making plays like they made for me. I hope to be able to see needs and fill them with deeds. I hope to understand life is what I make of it. And as I progress toward my own inevitable frailty, I hope to show grace and acceptance of what I can no longer influence.

If you’ve read this far, I thank you. Ron and Sue were certainly worthy of your time. Whether you know them or not, I have a humble ask. Make a play. Fill a need with a deed. Place Ron or Sue or someone else you know in mind, someone who made plays for you and has now passed. Grab your favorite beverage, and give a toast to them and the plays they made.

Prost. Cheers to Ron, Sue, and you and yours. May you make plays until the day you can’t, and when you pass, may your plays live on in the memories of your loved ones.

It’s Been Fun

Human resilience amazes me.

After a long battle with various ailments and pain, my Great-Uncle Jake died Sunday. We buried him Thursday. He was 87 years old. He was a fine man. A damn fine man.

To me, Jake always looked like Johnny Cash if Johnny Cash were a farmer. He was a big, strong guy. He had a great sense of humor and was quick with a smile and an unforgettable laugh.

If the world around us had ever sunk into chaos, Jake’s farm would have been a good place to be. Jake was self-reliant. He could grow things. He could fix things. He could hunt. When he wasn’t working on the farm “making hay while the sun shined” -as his eldest grandson Steve eulogized – he was working a second job in a saw mill or spending time with his family. He had an unstoppable work ethic and generous heart.

Jake walked a path in life that is hard for me to imagine. When he was 11, he and my grandmother (who was then 16) ran the family farm when their father died (he was trampled by horses) and their other brothers were off fighting World War II or running their own farms.

When he was 29, Jake (and my Great Aunt Mary Lou) lost a daughter. She lived 4 days. When he was 48, he lost his oldest son. Young Jake was 21 when he was cut in half by a drunk driver who plowed into the back of his semi as he attended to it on the side of the road. He left behind a wife and a 9 month old son (Steve, Uncle’s eulogizer, now a 39 year old PhD geneticist with a wife and 2 children of his own).

When I sat down for the funeral and read his obituary printed in the program, I’d forgotten about the young daughter, Marilyn. But I remember when Jakie died. I was 5, but I still remember my mom and grandmother and their seemingly unstoppable tears. It was the 3rd death of a 20-something male in my family in a 5 year span. I was only 7 weeks old when my father died, so it was my first memorable experience of despair.

But this isn’t about despair. It’s about resilience.

Our moods ebb and flow, and with the changes, our thoughts change as well. We go from up, optimistic, open, full of possibility, to down, pessimistic, closed, and devoid of hope. We then feel our thoughts. When we lack awareness, we blame the world for how we think and feel. When we are fully aware, we understand that we project our thoughts and feelings onto the world independent of the circumstances of the world. As John Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Our experience of the world is what we can make of it. Most of us understand this at times. We have some say in how we experience life.

Yet certain situations seem to have a gravity to them, an inescapable force that sucks us down into it. The death of child is one of those. Uncle Jake lost two of his children.

To me, the most incredible part of the grieving process is our human resilience. While it is completely normal to grieve, it’s also completely normal to move on from it. Yes, when the loss is in mind again, the pain returns. Yet we always move on at times, often long stretches at a time, demonstrating that forces such as gravity do not exist in thoughts and feelings even though it seems as if they do. It’s in our nature to overcome what seems like emotional gravity. We have resilience. We nurture our own emotional crops.

My uncle understood this. You see, farming wasn’t just his occupation. It was his life. He used the dirt of this world as a fertile medium for growing the life he desired.

Once, when Steve asked why he became a farmer, he responded, “You get to be your own boss.” Despite all the lack of control farmers have over weather, disease, and soil, he still viewed himself as his own boss of his experience. He was a farmer. He was his own boss, the man with influence over the crops he cultivated. He did the best he could with what he had.

He understood this to the very end. At his funeral, Uncle’s pastor described his last rites and meal in the hospital before going home to hospice care. He asked Uncle, “Is there anything you want to tell Mary Lou.”

“It’s been fun,” Uncle said.

It’s been fun. Imagine that. After 87 years, under any life circumstances, could you have a better testimony about life? This was from someone who was forced into being the man of the farm at 11, lost two of his children, farmed for a living (and sometimes a starving), breathed saw dust in the mill all winter long, and fought the pain of those physical occupations for decades.

It’s been fun. What a damn fine man my uncle was to be able to see that. And yet, if we are being honest, he was completely ordinary and normal. He is a testament to finding the miraculous in the common.

For his last act of resilience, his sons Bill and Mike have taken on their father’s sense of humor. At the funeral, they laughed the laugh they inherited from him as they delivered a nod to the cycle of life only a farmer can truly appreciate, “He still has one more spring planting to do.”

As the procession left the funeral home parking lot to go plant Uncle in the cemetery soil, we drove past a last reminder of his life here on Earth, a life spent working the earth. Mike had driven his father’s old tractor to the funeral home and parked it in the lot near the road. It was the first thing I saw when I pulled up. It was one of the coolest and most fitting tributes I’ve ever seen at a funeral.

It was a fine tribute to a fine man. A common man yet a miraculous man. A man who used his life to point in the direction of our incredible resilience and capacity to enjoy life.

I have no answers folks. I won’t pretend to understand how the spiritual works here on Earth or beyond. I won’t tell you what to think, and I am fine with whatever you believe. But today I like to believe that Uncle drove his tractor to heaven, hopped out on two good knees, and firmly shook God’s hand. And I like to believe that God grasped my uncle’s big, powerful farmer hand in his own and gave it a worthy shake, the type of firm, respectful shake I practiced with Jake when Mom and Grandma tried to teach a father-less boy how men shake hands. And I like to believe God greeted Jacob Hoffman with the message I would speak to him if I had one more chance to tell him what I thought about his time in Earth’s dirt.

“You cultivated a damn fine life, Jake. Glad you enjoyed it.”

Painter, Paint, and Canvas

Please consider an analogy. Like all analogies, it is imperfect. I can see other meanings, combinations, and possibilities within this analogy. Perhaps your own disagreements or combinations of the parts will be informative to you. In any case, I’d like you to consider this analogy:

 Life is like a painter creating a picture on a canvas.

The more you blame or give credit to the outside world for creating your experience of life, the more you become the canvas. You are simply a passive canvas built for the purpose of telling others’ stories. The outside world is both paint and painter.

The more you believe that you are free to create your experience of the world with what you can think, feel, and do, the more you become the painter. The outside world of canvas and paint are simply the tools available for creating the life you desire.

The more you believe you are a soul possessing a body being used for a higher purpose, the more you become the paint. The canvas is the world around you. The painter is a higher power.

With everything you think, feel, and do, you are moving toward one version of this analogy. It’s not for me to say which one is best for you to pursue. But I wonder, which one fits best for your typical experience of the world? Which one do you use the most? Which one do you believe in the most? What are the implications?

*Many thanks to Alan Maciag for the picture of his portrait. He is a wonderful Michigan-based artist. You can find his work at alanmaciag.com.

Freedom on the River of Life

Life has what seem like ups and downs. The more we notice that these ups and downs correspond with an existing mood, which is intimately connecting to our thoughts and the possibilities or limits we have in mind, the more we realize we create our experience of life from our own thoughts. Most people find freedom in this realization. It’s what I call understanding our mind over matter existence.

Another thing that seems to create freedom is the understanding that the river of life is going to flow whether we want it to or not. Sometimes the current is gentle and manageable, our intentions and actions result in desired outcomes, and we seem to be in control. Other times, the river is raging and exerts its influence upon us in more obvious ways, some we perceive as good and others we perceive as bad. In any case, make no mistake. Whether the current seems to be working for us or against, we can’t own, manipulate, or control the current.

I have found that when people try to own, manipulate, or fight the current, they become exhausted and feel helpless. As they battle against it, trying to stay in place or desperately fighting to move in a direction against the current’s flow, they seem to lose their independence. And oddly enough, in losing their independence, they lose their connection to the grand order of life.

Others seems to acknowledge the current of life and flow with it more harmoniously. Perhaps they do not necessarily learn to enjoy the feeling of giving into the current’s force, but they seem to learn how to connect to it and embrace it for what it is. They learn how to dance with it no matter how bullish its behavior. They come to see the current as an essential element of their journey, and as they connect to it, they gain freedom.

Unchained from Luck

I recently sought the thoughts of a lifelong friend. This friend had fallen on hard times at one point in high school. He was caught stealing. He spent a week in an inpatient psychiatric facility. A year later, he was caught drunk in school. He was constantly getting into fights.

He changed all that. It didn’t happen in an instant. It took time. But within a few short years he was in graduate school working to become a doctor.

I wanted his thoughts on his change so I might be able to apply them with other people people I know. So I asked him, “What were the keys to your turnaround?” Here is his response (names have been changed):

Man really hard question. I guess I would first thing I would say is if he has any negative influences he needs to get rid of them. Easier said than done sometimes. I guess if I were talking to him I would ask him what he wants out of life and what his goals are. Large and small. Every decision you make has consequences positive and negative. It’s ok to make mistakes, sometimes that’s when you learn the most, just need to make sure you actually learn from them. For me I just wanted more out of life than what I grew up with….. I’m not sure when I realized it exactly, but I realized as I looked around that there is no free lunch, and I had to work for what I wanted. Frank was a good influence on me. Always treated me well and believed in me for some reason. And Jane was a good influence. I wish I had some magic for you. Tell him there is no luck, luck is where opportunity meets preparation. Actually I am lucky as hell 🙂

What I love about his response is the acknowledgement of both the inner and outer aspects of this change process. The outside exists and plays a role, but the internal is what really makes the outside world appear as it does. Immediately after stating there is no luck, he quickly switches when he understands luck is in the eye of the beholder.

Luck is a funny thing. There is an order to the world. Whether one believes this order is built by the hand of God or just the laws of physics (clear, simple laws we may not even understand yet) doesn’t really matter in some ways. No matter what we believe, everything happens for a particular reason, and each reason is made up of countless factors that come together at a single moment in time.

But that’s not what really matters to us in making our way in life. The actual reason and the countless factors that compose it matter very little to us as individuals. What matters is the meaning we attribute to it. When we understand that this meaning is a product of our personal thoughts, we gain some measure of freedom. What we are gaining freedom from is the tendency to blame our luck – or lack thereof – on anything outside of ourselves. The outside plays a role, but luck only happens internally. Luck is a completely personal fabrication. We are completely free to fabricate this luck at any given moment. We may not be capable of doing so (because sometimes our thoughts get stuck momentarily), but we are free to do so if we can. This truth is what sets us free.

That’s What Teams Do

I know a family who has fallen on some hard times. A lot has happen lately. They are the type of family who wouldn’t give most of life’s issues a second thought, wouldn’t consider them problems, just stuff we all have to deal with from time to time. But this is a little different. They’re hard times have been health related, ongoing, and one after another.

This is the thing about this family: They have given so much to others over the years. They’ve enriched us through their deeds, heart, and presence. Those of us who know them and are part their team, their tribe if you will, decided to give back a bit, a small token not nearly commensurate with what they have given others, but enough to make a difference, enough to pick them up just a bit.

In the attached video (click here for video), you can see this unfold. One of my favorite parts of the video is when Coach Mark Bernas says, “We pick each other up. That’s what teams do.”

Isn’t that so true? Isn’t that what teams do? Real teams, the type that make a difference, pick each other up no matter what is at stake. If it matters to one, it matters to all. The scoreboards and trophies are such a small part of what real teams do. The real work is in picking up the people, the individuals and families, who come together to create the team. This is what teamwork is about. This is family is about. This is what community is about. This is what being a connecting, spiritual human is about.

There is strength in numbers, and when we need to be strong, we need to feed our strength, not our weakness. This is why the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” When we are weak, we must fight the urge to feed our weakness for that is when we need to feed our strength the most. We feed our strength by coming together and picking each other up.

If you know someone who needs to be picked up, please do it. It doesn’t matter if they are part of your perceived team or not. Blur the lines that divide teams into separate units. Understand that we all stand on the same sideline in life and make a play to pick up a new teammate in need. Feed our strength. It’s what teams do.

Feed Your Belief

One of the most consistent myths athletes (and any of us) believe is that our performance in the moment is dictated by our thinking in the moment.

 This is an easy myth to confront. To prove this idea false, try this simple experiment:

Grab a seat and stay seated while you imagine a scenario. Vividly imagine yourself standing and walking out the nearest door/exit. See your motions in your mind (from your own eyes/perspective). Imagine how it feels to move your muscles. Imagine the sensations you feel as you walk and open the door or pass through the exit. When finished, read the rest of this post.

 Were you able to imagine walking out the door while you stayed seated? Of course you were. Your thoughts were conducting one action while your belief, a special type of thought, was insisting you perform a different action (in this case, the belief was that you would stay seated).

In my work, I’ve found two major reasons for buying into the myth that momentary thoughts dictate action. First, we tell athletes that’s the case. Second, we act according to our thoughts because we believe we must act according to our thoughts.

It’s not the thoughts that matter. It’s the belief. Performance comes from belief. If we believe thoughts will dictate action, they will tend to. If we believe with a deep understanding that momentary thoughts can vary while a deeper trust in our actions reigns supreme, then we can take action based on trust without wasting a second worrying about the normal variations we experience in momentary thoughts, such as those thoughts that encourage confidence or doubt.

 As I noted above, beliefs are special types of thoughts. While weak momentary thoughts are subject to swaying with the breezes of our moods – the instances of optimism/pessimism, can do/can’t do, possibility/impossibility – beliefs are hardy and withstand fluctuations in mood. Think about some of your deepest beliefs, such as the world being round. Is that belief subject to your mood? Or will you always endorse the idea that the world is round no matter how low your mood?

The same type of deep trusting belief is possible for performance. You simply have to feed that belief. As you move through life, you can verify this again and again through consistent performance that defies doubt and dips in your mood.

Trust in your ability. Practice to improve. Believe in yourself. Believe in your mind over matter existence that transcends momentary thoughts. This is the path to breakthrough performance and making the play under any conditions, including those of your own momentary thoughts.