Image courtesy of Matt Rourke/Associated Press

The agony and the ecstasy of Pete Carroll

A profile in grace

Five hundred and forty-one days ago the Seattle Seahawks and their fans lived a nightmare in slow motion. Losing Super Bowl XLIX on the 1-yard line, replay after replay showed the team’s fatal error as its fans experienced the five stages of grief in the blink of an eye. Five hundred and forty-one days ago the Seattle Seahawks broke a city.

Five hundred and forty-one days ago Pete Carroll squared his shoulders, set his jaw and took all the blame. Five hundred and forty-one days ago Pete Carroll taught us a lesson in grace.

There are plenty of Pete Carroll’s wild successes to celebrate, but it’s the way he handled his greatest failure that gives us the real measure of the man.

Today, five hundred and forty-one days after the pain started, Carroll agreed to stay by our bedside for at least another four years. But he isn’t coming back merely to hold our sickly hand as we thrash against yesterday’s agony. He’s sticking around to keep us looking forward as he guides the team back to the promised land.

Winning (Forever) by itself isn’t that interesting to Carroll anymore — it’s assumed. It’s table-stakes. What captures his interest and keeps his attention is the prospect of a new challenge. It’s what drove him out of Los Angeles’ warm embrace and into the misty arms of Seattle. It’s what emboldened him to bank on a too-short QB, a brash, unheralded CB and one-of-a-kind weirdo RB. Pete Carroll is a challenge-junkie.

For five hundred and forty-one days the battered psyche of his team and this city have been the challenge pushing Carroll forward. He’s trying to fix us.

There are a handful of moments in a person’s life that leave such an indelible mark that their importance defies description. These moments might be shared, but the way they are filtered, understood and valued is so personal that it’s hard to explain their gravity in a way someone else can appreciate.

As someone who cares a disproportionate amount about sports, Carroll’s interview on the Brock and Salk show on February 3, 2015 — two days after the Super Bowl XLIX loss — is one of those moments for me. I’ll try to explain why.

In the immediate aftermath of Super Bowl XLIX, Seahawks fans raged, wept and fractured. For days we struggled to wrap our heads and hearts around stolen glory. Angry and lost, we crashed into one another, lashing out in frustration against an outcome that was unfair and unjust. We were raw and bleeding. We hurt so much.

Against this backdrop, Carroll joined Brock and Salk for his weekly radio show just days after the brutal loss. His approach to the conversation remains the most remarkable instance of grace I’ve witnessed in sports. He didn’t show up trying to make himself understood, to plead for mercy or make excuses. He showed up to speak directly to the fans in the capacity of grief counselor. In a moment when he had the right to hurt more than anyone, he set his own pain aside and gave of himself in an attempt to make others feel better.

Some of the things he said:

  • “I’ve got a lot of people that I love so dearly that I’ve got to take care of. It’s not just the ones that are close to your family. It’s our players, our coaches and all our loving fans that are out there.”
  • “I woke up thinking this morning of all the people saying ‘Why did this happen to me?’ It’s a football game, but it’s way bigger than that. And I understand that so many people wanna know why and how and ‘give me some reasons.’ The whys are something we just have to process through, the how is about moving ahead, and the moment has already passed and what are we going to do about it, and how are we gonna grow from it and how are we gonna make sense of it?”
  • “My life has been equipped to deal with these moments, and that’s what I’ve been made to do. I need to help if I can. We’re here for you.”

These quotes only scratch the surface, to appreciate the weight of the experience you have to transport yourself to that moment emotionally and listen to the interview.

It was a brilliant display of emotional intelligence. Carroll’s earnest attentiveness and sensitivity to the emotional state of his fan-base struck a chord that I’ve never seen another coach strike, regardless of sport.

Five hundred and thirty-nine days ago I was floored by Pete Carroll. I already loved him as a coach — under his innovative leadership the team reached heights unparalleled in franchise history. But that day — the rawest of days — when he took to the radio to make millions of us feel better, I understood and appreciated Carroll in an entirely new way.

Five hundred and thirty-nine days ago, I took what I was feeling about Carroll and shared it with Danny O’Neil, my favorite Seattle sports writer — someone with a great sense of the human impact of sports. Here’s what I said:

I’ve listened really closely to Pete Carroll over the last 48 hours and am hard pressed to think of another person I admire more in all of sports. Name me another coach at any level of any sport who jumps on the radio two days after taking one of the worst beats in sports history and handles himself with such grace and emotional generosity toward those in his community so affected by one loss (including his own players and fellow coaches). His interview on Brock & Salk this morning was one of the most impressive displays of leadership I’ve ever seen.
It’s hard enough for the rest of us Seahawks fans to treat our coworkers, spouses or other innocent bystanders with one iota of generosity right now while we’re wrapped up in such a visceral, emotionally rocked stage, but here comes the figurehead for the entire organization who takes the whole thing on his shoulders and makes an exceedingly genuine effort to be a comfort to us all. Other coaches might take the blame there, but I’m not aware of another coach who displays the emotional sensitivity and consideration that Pete Carroll does.
I know this sounds over-the-top, but I don’t say it lightly: I’ve watched Pete Carroll through a lot of highs, this recent low and all sorts of situations in between, and I can’t help but hope my six-year-old grows up to be the type of man Pete Carroll is. Overflowing with passion for a job that he loves, sporting a near-permanent smile while sharing that passion freely with others, refreshingly comfortable in his own skin, possessing a philosophy that sees the best in people and serves as a rallying cry for others, and brave enough to call his own number when mistakes get made. What an amazing man.

I’ve had 539 days to think about these words. And as I sit today, 89 days away from bringing a new child into this world, I can’t help but double down on this sentiment.

I doubt Pete Carroll is perfect, but I absolutely believe that he wants to be. The man breathes life into the cheesy mantra “Win Forever” and somehow brings us cynics along with him. He exudes an emotional intelligence that can’t be faked. His eagerness to think differently, be bold and bet on the best case scenario aren’t phony. His zest for life can’t be bought in a store. He believes what he’s selling and actively works to build the world he wants to see (both on the football field and off of it).

Pete Carroll isn’t just a winner, he’s the rising tide.

I’m so excited that the first four years of Little Richard Sherman Richendrfer’s life (name still being negotiated) will be spent watching Coach Carroll hop, skip and grin his way up and down the sideline as he shows us all what it truly means to be forever young.

Little Richard Sherman Richendrfer, game-ready on 10/23

© Ross Richendrfer

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