Locker rooms and Leadership

Locker rooms are very interesting places.  They are the private refuge of athletes.  Most of the time, locker rooms are filled with fun, laughter and camaraderie…a place where teams become a family.  Oh…locker rooms also have unmistakable smells…the remnants of sweaty jerseys, socks, and jocks that are in need of a good washing.

Nowadays, the locker rooms in major college athletics have become palatial digs filled with opulence, luxury, and more athletic shoes than you can imagine.  10, 15, sometimes as many as 20 pairs of shoes in a single locker.  If you haven’t seen a major college locker room lately…put it on your list…you will be amazed.

Locker rooms can also be places of celebration.  Getting to videotape in the locker room following Nebraska’s football national championships in 1994, 1995, and 1997 are some of the most thrilling and memorable moments of my life.

But locker rooms are most interesting right before an athletic event.  The room is thick with emotion, intensity, and nervousness.  Trips to the bathroom are frequent.  Smells of atomic balm and sweat permeate the air.  Many times there is an eerie quiet made even more intense with the occasional shout of encouragement by a nervous or psyched-up teammate.

All of these things are intensified even more in a football locker room.  The extreme physical nature of the game dictates such…as the athletes ready for a violent, painful, and dangerous encounter.

That brings me to my most memorable pre-game locker room experience.  The year was 1995.  Nebraska was playing at Michigan State in East Lansing.  The Huskers were the defending national champions and ranked number two in the country…but the Spartans and first-year head coach Nick Saban were a formidable and talented foe…especially playing on their home field in front of a sellout crowd of 74,000.

Legendary Nebraska Coach Bob Devaney was on the Michigan St. trip.  Coach Devaney was born and raised in Michigan, he coached high school football there and began his college coaching career as an assistant at Michigan St.

In 1995, Coach Devaney was 80 years old and unfortunately his memory and health were quickly fading because of dementia.  Amazingly, though, Coach Devaney’s infectious personality and long-term memory returned when in East Lansing that weekend.  He remembered ticket takers, secretaries, equipment managers…so many people he knew from more than 40 years in his past.

Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne asked Coach Devaney to speak to the Husker team in the locker room before the game…and he asked me to video tape what we all knew would likely be the final time for a legend to make a locker room speech.

The cramped Michigan St. visitor’s locker room was very warm with little ventilation on a 90 degree September afternoon.  Sweat was pouring off everyone’s face.  But Coach Devaney, in his coat and tie, had an impact on the players.  His words weren’t particularly powerful, but his presence was…Coach Devaney back in his element…in the locker room addressing a football team before a big game.

(click on the link below to see Coach Devaney’s final locker room talk)
Bob Devaney’s Final Locker Room Talk

As Coach Devaney moved to the side, Coach Osborne asked everyone to “take a knee” for the traditional pre-game silent prayer.  Coach Devaney was between myself and fellow HuskerVision staffer Rick Schwieger and he too started taking a knee.  But as he was kneeling, Coach fell to the left and thankfully Rick was there to catch him.  I put my camera down and we lowered Coach into a sitting position.  His face was bright red, his eyes were glazed, and he was breathing hard.

After the twenty seconds or so of silence, Coach Osborne said “amen” and then in typical fashion everyone left the locker room except the players.  I caught the attention of one of the student trainers and said “Coach Devaney needs help, grab one of the team doctors and get back in here with some cold towels.”

The last couple of minutes in the locker room are always a players only moment when the captains address the team in what is an emotion filled time.   Fiery speeches, shouts, screams, and the slapping of pads ensued…all the while with Coach Devaney on the floor leaning up against Rick.  I got his suit jacket off, loosened his tie, and tried unsuccessfully to get him to drink some water.

I couldn’t help but think fate had decreed that Coach Devaney was going to die at this very moment…in a football locker room…with the Husker team…at Michigan State.

The final captain to speak that day was defensive tackle Christian Peter…a 290 pound mass of muscle and intensity.  As he waved a Spartan bobble head doll, Christian said something like this…minus a few expletives.  “Men, today we are going to go out and show Michigan St. what Nebraska football is all about.  SMASH MOUTH FOOTBALL!!!!  That’s what we’re going to do…SMASH THEM!  Just like this stupid Spartan bobble head…we are going to SMASH THEM!”

And then Christian proceeded to do exactly that…he smashed the bobble head doll against his forehead!  Blood immediately began trickling down his forehead and his mission had been accomplished.  The team was in an absolute frenzy!

The players excitedly left the locker room ready to do battle.  Thankfully, a team doctor and trainer came back in and started attending to Coach Devaney.  I wondered silently if he would survive the day.

Once on the field, I quickly went to the Nebraska sideline to see what kind of shape Christian was in.  There was Dr. Pat Clare stitching up Christian’s forehead…and when the defense took the field…Christian was leading the way.

Nebraska dominated the game from the opening kickoff en-route to a 50-10 thrashing of the Spartans.  It still ranks as the most lop-sided home loss in Coach Nick Saban’s illustrious career.  (Coach Saban’s worst loss ever occurred in 1996 when Nebraska beat Michigan St. 55-14 in Lincoln…and that’s just some “good bull” for you Husker fans!)

Following the game, I heard a reporter ask Christian what happened to his forehead and he replied “oh, just a scratch I got in the game.”  Coach Devaney also recovered and was on the team plane for the ride home.

I asked Christian a couple of days later about the bobble head incident, if his plan all along was to smash the doll against his forehead and he told me, “Hell no…I’m not that crazy!  I was planning to throw the doll against a concrete wall but there were some players standing over there and I was afraid I’d hit them.  So I panicked and the next thing I knew blood was dripping in my eyes.  But it sure got the guys going, didn’t it!”

In my 30 plus years of working in the world of college athletics, Christian Peter was the best leader/motivator of teammates that I ever witnessed.  In practice, the weight room, and especially in games, he was always pushing not just himself but all of his teammates to give it their all.

Coach Devaney, who died at the age of 82, was also a tremendous leader.  Both he and Christian possessed an inner fire…a passion…that made those around them better…made others strive for excellence.

Christian Peter and Coach Devaney were far from perfect, the flaws in both men were easily detectable.  But flaws shouldn’t prevent people from rising to leadership roles.  In today’s world, there is so much scrutiny and criticism…it’s almost as if the news media and others demand that our leaders be perfect.

It takes passion to be a great leader…not perfection.

Medical/Personal Update: Some Sobering News

You’ve probably noticed that it’s been a while since my last, Last Train.  I’ve been busy, haven’t been in the mood to write, but mainly I’ve been waiting and hoping to be able to pass along some encouraging news on the medical front.

Unfortunately, my tumor marker numbers are continuing to rise which means the chemotherapy is not working as well as we hoped and my tumors are likely growing.  We’ll get a clearer picture when I have a CAT scan later this week.

Here’s a bi-monthly snapshot of my tumor marker numbers.
(the lower the number the better)

March 2014       564

May 2014           1,772

July 2014            188

Sep. 2014            24 (normal is 37 & below)

Nov. 2014            25

Jan. 2015             148

March 2015         407

On the good news side, I am still doing well physically and leading an active lifestyle both at work and play.  This Friday, we leave for six days of skiing at Vail, Colorado on our annual family ski trip.  And then in early April, I’m going to Florida for 90 holes of golf in three days with some Texas golf buddies.

So don’t feel too sorry for me just yet!  J

Next Stop: Just Keep Swimming!