Teamwork: The Impossible Mission and Worth the Blood, Sweat and Tears

I was on the verge of my very first touchdown. Seventh grade pony football. I was lined up as a tight end, lanky and thin, but tall enough to make up with leverage what I lacked in the seat of my pants. Our most sophisticated pass play was the pop pass, what fans know now as the quick slant. On the snap, I took a 45° inside angle, and three steps into my route, the quarterback popped the ball into my belly with a quick snap throw. Since most pony football teams at that age didn’t pass much, we could surprise defenses and almost always get 3–4 yards. Now and then, I could break it for maybe 10.

This particular game, we were 30 yards from a touchdown. It was fourth down and we needed about 5 yards to keep the drive going. The coach shuttled the guards to messenger in each play. On cue, the next-guard-up sprinted into the huddle from the sideline, and quietly panted to the quarterback, “Pop pass.” Everyone in the huddle heard him, and everybody knew who’d be receiving it. The QB announced the play anyway, along with the snap count, while looking at me. “Pop pass. On two! Ready? BREAK!”

“Hut! Hut!” Ball snapped, I darted to the inside slant. The throw was perfect. The catch was easy. It turned out we caught the defense by surprise since they were expecting run. So I had only one level to beat. Once I shook the first and only would-be tackler, there was nothing but daylight. By the time I hit the 15-yard line, I was getting kiddy about my first-ever score.

You probably know how this story ends.

Caught from behind, I fumbled the ball at the 10. The defense recovered. We still won, which helped the sting. But I’m sure I didn’t hide my disappointment very well after the game.

So two weeks later, when we blocked a punt near the other team’s goal line, I went bat-sh*t crazy with joy when the ball happened to bounce into my arms in the end zone after the block. I scored! I scored! I guess it’s better to be lucky than good. My touchdown celebration lasted all the way to the sidelines after the play.

My father, the professional football coach, wasn’t impressed with my antics. I didn’t intend a touchdown dance, but I’m sure that’s exactly what it looked like. On the drive home, he said, “Good win. . . as for your touchdown, next time, act like you’ve been there before.”

It was another two weeks later when I took a short down-and-out from our own 20 up-field along the sideline to the house. I kept my eyes locked in focus on sprinting five yards at a time, then another five, then another, while holding the ball in both arms as if my life depended on it. Whether I was too winded to celebrate or I held some echo from my father’s words, I waited for the official to reach me in the end zone. I politely handed him the ball as my teammates caught up to pat me on the back. I walked to the sideline, grateful I wasn’t on the extra-point or kick off teams. I was tired.

My father wasn’t at that game. I wondered afterward what he would have said if he had been there. But the subject never came up. And it never came up during the next three years I played whenever I scored — which, admittedly, wasn’t that often anyway.

In hindsight, my father and I didn’t need to address the subject again because he was right. I liked the feeling of scoring without fanfare. I loved making good plays; don’t get me wrong. But what I loved most was marshaling the energy, will and focus to do it again. Making another good play — whatever the play called for — was more fun than in-game celebrations.

It’s no surprise then that I’m not a big fan of NFL touchdown celebrations. I’m old school that way, I guess. I’m okay that the League has allowed for more creativity with group celebrations. That principal somewhat respects the team aspect of every score. At least that’s what I want to think.

Teamwork needs all the good examples it can get these days. And it needs more celebration, to boot. Effective teamwork is massively difficult to achieve and nearly impossible to sustain for long. This current NFL story line bears that out. But teamwork’s value is greater than ever now. So, to honor the kind of celebrations that real teamwork can achieve, even if only for one game, have a look at these locker rooms and team-wide celebrations worth celebrating.