We understand greatness when we see it. This weekend’s Hall of Fame game provides us the opportunity to celebrate the return of football by celebrating some of those who made the game great. For me, personally, the bittersweet, year-too-late induction of Ken Stabler, one of the first great players it was my pleasure to watch, brings a sense of justice and closure, tempered by the fact that he never got to receive the honor personally.
But what does it take to achieve greatness? Well, there are plenty of self-help books ready to assist you on your journey. There are somewhat fewer that will tell you, more accurately, that it’s okay if you aren’t great... or, more precisely, that you should worry about being great at being you and let your particular place in the pantheon of the world’s elite be decided later. And, in its own way, this humility really is the herald and hallmark of greatness: caring more about what you do than what others think about it.
But that flies in the face of what we hear and intuitively think about obtaining greatness. We hear about fire and a burning desire to be THE BEST. We hear about a competitive nature and we see every day, from rappers to presidential candidates a braggadocio and self-aggrandizement that is easy to confuse with a desire to be great. But we all know that big talk does not mean big actions and nowhere is this more evident than with desire. Extravagant and flamboyant gestures are easy, extravagant and flamboyant words are easier. But what’s hard is living that desire, day in and day out for years at a time. The true hallmark of greatness is not the huge moment, but the million little ones. Those daily chances to make the conscious choice to do just a little bit better, just a little bit more, lining up and reinforcing each other over time. Which is the true picture of great love? The beautiful couple on the red carpet, all smiles and snuggles? Or the elderly pair, he blind, she arthritic, still managing to work to get through their late days, together?
And the way this plays out is that the great person ends up encouraged... which is to say that they are inspired to courage. Courage isn’t merely overcoming fear— the word comes from the Latin "Cor", meaning "heart." So courage means "strength of heart", and we talk of people being "encouraged" or "discouraged" to do things. Courage is required for greatness because to be great requires risk and failure. It requires humiliation and the risk of disgrace. These days it requires having your worst moments put on the internet and used to mock you mercilessly... thrown in your face specifically to discourage you.
And let’s be real here. We all talk a good game. We all say we don’t care what anyone thinks. We all look at those who we think don’t have the mental fortitude to hold up to that kind of public scrutiny and shout "weak! choker! he doesn’t care enough!" Because we are envious hypocrites who lie to ourselves, saying "if I had that kind of talent, I wouldn’t let anything keep me from [insert description of greatness here]" without ever having put ourselves out there. We say it from safety and comfort and that is why our opinions are meaningless.
So what does greatness look like? It looks like this:
After a poor practice this week, Dez Bryant went back out and, in the words of Mike Fisher, attacked the juggs machine. I don’t mean he took reps. He advanced on it. He pushed the limits of what he could do. While people watched and filmed him, he didn’t just practice, he failed. Every time he got in a rhythm, he moved closer. Twelve yards. Ten yards. Seven yards. The .gif above is Dez standing five yards away from a fully revved juggs machine capable of sending a football 50-60 yards down field. Fisher estimated the ball would be moving around 60 miles per hour. Energy-wise, that’s the equivalent of a 100 mph fastball. Momentum-wise, it’s the equivalent of 180 mph from a baseball. He missed the first six in a row, and it made Bleacher Report’s twitter feed. "Dez dropped it" they declared.
Now I’m not about to say that Dez did not care what they wrote. Dez clearly cares what others think of him. I’m not about to say that Dez is humble. He’s loud and proud and as outspoken and brazen as any wide receiver in the game. But where it’s important to greatness he is. He absolutely cares what people think and say. But he cares more about getting it right, and is willing to push the boundaries of his own abilities to make sure that he is at his maximum capability, regardless of who might be watching.
And that is no guarantee of greatness, but that is what it takes to be great.