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It probably wasn’t fair. That isn’t the point.

In Mine on July 13, 2015 at 12:39 am

It was late in the evening, perhaps even nighttime, and my mother asked me to come back into the kitchen.  I ignored her.  She said she needed to talk to me about something and I acted like I no longer spoke the language.  I did not want to hear it.  If memory serves, the first excuse I test-drove was needing to hurry downstairs to grab something.  It was a non-starter.  I panicked.  I was standing close to a half-bathroom, so I told my mother that I needed to use the restroom.

She called my needing-to-go bluff, and moments later I began pacing back and forth in the kitchen over the spot where I normally stood (and still stand when I visit my parents).  I was scared.  I was staring brutal news straight in the face.  She knew that fear was the reason for my being so difficult, so she wasn’t upset with me, but she had to tell me.

I never felt like that before then, I don’t think.  I have since, but I cannot remember a time before then that I was so scared of one thing that I invented ways to avoid it.  Unfortunately, since then, I can remember plenty of times that I avoided things.  Not all of the things I avoid are this heavy, of course, but I know that I am good at squirming, at fence-sitting, at hedging, and at keeping people (or unwanted news) at arm’s length due to fear of any negative side effects.

 

Will wasn’t very good at that.  He wanted to embrace everything.  He couldn’t avoid things.  He couldn’t sit on the fence about decisions.  There were not enough precious moments left to allow fear to steal any of them.  I never quite knew how he did this without thinking about the possibility of negative outcomes like embarrassment or, worse, failure.  I always chalked it up to us finding ourselves at different stages in life and then tried not to think any more about it.  (Yes, I realize that I just admitted to avoiding thinking about how someone refuses to avoid things.  There is an at-arm’s-length-inception joke hanging in close proximity if anyone wants to take a swing.)

The trouble is that I love thinking about things.  Often to my detriment, I love thinking through all of the possible outcomes.  Recently, Will got under my skin.  That is okay, as that is likely to happen when you embrace a person or thing.  I started to wonder how he was able to attack life without worrying about those pesky negative outcomes, and then I got upset with myself.

All this time, I chalked up Will’s ability to handle things to his disease.  And maybe that is part of it.  Actually, I am certain that is part of it.  But Will never let cancer define him.  Throughout his battle, he never faked invincibility or became unemotional.  He confronted everything.  He knew better than I ever could about fear, doubt, and uncertainty.  He stared those three daunting things in the face every single day.  So, it had to be a special quality within him, not a disease, that allowed him to do this so fearlessly.

Given my self-disgust after the revelation that I had whittled Will’s bravery down to, “Ah, he sort of had to, right?” I decided to think about what other qualities might have produced his willingness to face anything.

He attacked life (and, when necessary, attacked a disease) with heroic confidence.  He was sure he was better than you, and he was damn sure he was more powerful than a disease.  And it rubbed plenty of people, from doctors and nurses to parents and peers, the wrong way.  But not me, and not anyone else who saw him fight.

Fortunately, he saw leaving people perturbed in the wake of his confidence as a fair trade-off.  Upsetting a few people in exchange for working toward his goals while staring death in the face every day?  Sure.  He signed up for that deal long ago, and did not plan to renege.  Even if he had wanted to, he couldn’t.  He was wired to be certain of himself. And I could not love him more for it.  I only recently realized the utter importance of the confidence and assertiveness that was so naturally a part of him.

Further, I realized (again, recently) that you can be overflowing with confidence and still avoid arrogance.  I thought too much and agonized about the negative possibilities associated with confidence.  **What if I come across as arrogant? What if I am confident enough to put myself out there and the result is embarrassment in a professional setting? What if the result is embarrassment in a personal setting?  There are possible negative outcomes, so perhaps I should avoid that attribute entirely.  Perhaps I should fight it, even.  I should run away from myself because what if this positive thing snowballs into something slightly-less-positive for a second.**

Now, I am not staring death in the face every single day, so perhaps I didn’t always need the confidence as much as Will did.  I am staring weird, home-brewed hesitations in the face every single day, but those can add up and lead to my biggest fear: failing to reach my potential.  Will taught me (not on purpose, by the way) that one of the best ways to attack anything from a minor insecurity to a single day to life in general is simply to do it.  Have the confidence to go do it, not because confidence makes you less likely to fail, but because it makes you more able to stomach failure.

I used to worry that making strides toward increased self-confidence would make my warmth, compassion, or curiosity (qualities I often like about myself) disappear.  I reali– er, am starting to realize, that confidence in who I am strengthens the positive effects of those qualities while also shielding me from slipping into a pattern of arrogance that I so fear.

 

Will developed a sort of bravado that left people, famous or otherwise, with the feeling that they had just met someone special.  The reason they had this feeling is the same reason that he is still under my skin 6 years later:  He was assertive enough that he left an impression, so it is no surprise that people felt something.  He invited everything and everyone in because he knew he could handle it, and inviting people in is the best way to ensure that they feel something.  He even invited fear and doubt into his life… just long enough to teach them a good lesson.

That feeling he caused, which stems directly from his heightened self-confidence, made it especially sad when he passed away.  It made it seem unfair.  Someone so full of potential, so warm, so in-control.  Sure, maybe it was unfair, I do not know.  Asking him to fight like hell every day was probably just as unfair, but that is another topic for another time.  The fairness of him passing at such a young age is not the point anymore.  The point, to me, is what has been or will be learned from his life.

The way Will lived ignited my learning process (more of a wrestling match, really) about the value of self-confidence and assertiveness.  The most important condition in his life wasn’t his health or his time remaining.  It wasn’t a need to rush through things.  It wasn’t a decision to go numb because of what might happen.  The most important condition, the one that made him so heroic to me, was his hubris.

It took me a long time to realize that, and it will take me longer-still to fully embrace my own hubris and wear the label as a badge of honor.  It will take me a while not to care about those left in my wake, but I now see the value of that approach.  I will still squirm and I will still keep people at arm’s length, because I am not as inherently confident as Will was.  I am finding it, though, and when I do…

 

I’m squirming as I prepare to post this.  I am wondering which parts sound stupid and if I should just keep it to myself.  I am also wondering if it is about time I stop worrying about looking stupid and just… look stupid.  I have a lot of lost time to make up for, after all, and I’m confident that I’ll bounce back.  **Does that sound too corny?**

2014’s Most Important Comparative Adjective

In Tennessee Volunteers on August 7, 2014 at 7:56 pm

Above all else, Tennessee fans want the team to be better.  Better than 2013.  They want senior QB Justin Worley cooler, calmer, and more consistent.  They want his arm stronger, and his receivers’ routes smoother.  They don’t care if the offensive line is younger, or the defensive line is smaller.

On a positive note, through the first few practices, one word seems to describe Team118: faster.  That is certainly a welcome change.  However, in my opinion, there is a word more important than faster or deeper.  There is one word that makes those team labels possible.

That word is smarter.  Butch Jones places just as much, perhaps more, emphasis on mental conditioning as he does physical conditioning.  While commenting on the team’s strength improvements, he reiterates, “This is a thinking man’s game.  You can’t let the mind tie the feet up.”  Translated: It does not matter that we are in great shape if we do not win the mental game. The famed legacy class is popular for three reasons: recognizable names, standout talent, and proper rearing as football players.  The head coach’s emphasis on film study and winning all mental aspects of the game blends perfectly with the pedigree of Team118 members, young and old.  Feedback from players themselves and from coaches on the smarts of the 2014 Volunteers and the collective football IQ of the 2014 recruiting class has been exclusively positive.  The emergence of this feedback lines up with all of the hype and hope Tennessee fans have for the 2014 recruiting class.  Instincts and mental discipline, two things that lead to playing with speed and confidence, are fixed commodities on the 2014 Volunteers.

Discussion of “football IQ,” like almost everything else regarding Tennessee’s 2014 season, seems to begin and end with the 2014 recruiting class.  Former Tennessee and NFL stars passed on their athletic genes and their appreciation for guaranteeing that the mind allows the feet to flow freely.  If Tennessee is going to be successful, championship habits and mental discipline must become second-nature.  Football IQ, a term that sounds all-natural, actually comes from hard work and strict mental discipline.  It is earned in the film room, and those recruits who I will affectionately label “film-rats” have an advantage.  Football nerd and all-too-obvious film-rat Dillon Bates credits his father for being the stone on which he sharpens his football IQ.  Bill shows Dillon the value of studying football 24/7/365, learning every day about different assignments, and knowing not only one’s job on a play, but why that job is important.

Elliott Berry, in a July “legacy” media session, shyly and begrudgingly admits to carrying around notebooks of offensive and defensive plays since he was a child.  He explains that he always loved watching football and began to imagine different things on paper.  Thank goodness, a film rat was born.  Elliott has been thinking in terms of Xs and Os for as long as he can remember, and when asked what he needs to do to be ready for camp and the season, Elliott, without hesitation, replied, “Make sure I know exactly what to do on every play.”  Elliott and Evan should give plenty of credit to their natural athleticism for putting them in the position to be on an SEC roster.  Impacting the SEC as freshmen, however, will stem direction from being smarter than those with similar skillsets.  If a football player, no matter the talent level, has to slow down and think about what he is doing, he cannot reach his full potential.  He can’t be as hard to block, he can’t close as quickly he should, and he can’t recognize a route tree and make an interception.  Every team’s shifts, cadences, and formations should incite an almost unnerving, deja vu reaction in the minds of Tennessee’s defensive players.

Championing the mental game is not lost on non-legacy recruits.  Jalen Hurd, in an early-fall media session, explained that the mental game is the biggest difference while trying to adjust from high school to college football.  He realized this shortcoming soon after enrolling in January and immediately hit the books.  He knew the label of “good runner” was not quite good enough to be successful at the college level.  Spring practice afforded Jalen the real-time reps needed to mentally prepare for the 2014 season.  He got into the playbook, ran through schemes, and critiqued Madden football pass-protection philosophies as his friends played in the dorm, because he knows good isn’t good enough.  And he isn’t alone.  Ethan Wolf, another physically-imposing freshman at an offensive skill position, recalls his realization of the mental game’s importance.  “You have to know where to line up,” Ethan said.  “It is a very fast game, and you have to know what to do when seeing different defenses,” He continued.  Jalen and Ethan were wide-eyed with enthusiasm about how much progress was made from January 1 to July 31.  They made the most of their apartment subleases, one might say.  Twelve feet, eight inches, and 467 pounds of film rat.

There is a welcome outbreak, a cordially-invited epidemic, of obsessive preparation for the 2014 season.  Dillon Bates saw his brothers play college football at Arkansas State and Northwestern, and his Dad give all he had for Tennessee.  Vic Wharton saw his Uncle, Brandon, put in the work to be a successful SEC basketball player.  Todd Kelly, Jr. learned about Tennessee football and camp preparation from his namesake.  The Berry twins know about the star potential on the horizon after seeing their older brother become a living Tennessee legend.  Jalen Hurd and Ethan Wolf are young, physical specimens who came in and immediately benefited from realizing the importance of the mental game.  All of this energy, whether it stems from Vic Wharton, Butch Jones, or the plurality of newcomers on the roster, makes the 2014 Volunteers smarter, and, before long, more instinctual than versions in the recent past.

Coaches are taking notice, too.  The atmosphere in position-group meetings seems vastly different.  In my opinion, one of the reasons for harsh evaluation from Butch Jones so far in fall camp is that he knows these young players can handle the mental grind.  He knows they will respond, because they know they have to respond.  They have the physical gifts necessary to flourish, and he knows the team is ready to be held to a higher standard.  Coach Thigpen is excited when he mentions Dillon Bates’ tendency to show up in every meeting with a long list of questions.  Coach Mahoney acknowledges the mental advantage of being an early enrollee, explaining Blair and Thomas’ benefitting from experience in the offense.  This head start will allow us to play at the proper pace in game one.  Coach Martinez excitedly discussed the “extremely high football IQ” on the 2014 Tennessee Volunteers.  Perhaps due to the pedigree and enthusiasm of 32 newcomers, the team is displaying championship habits.  More than the usual number of recruits were encouraged, by their families and by Tennessee’s coaching staff, to think in terms of finding immediate success on the football field.  Fortunately, that field will be Shields-Watkins.

It’s a thinking man’s (and a thinking fan’s) game, and I think we are going to like what we see.

Pre-camp Presser: Excitement is Allowed

In Tennessee Volunteers on August 1, 2014 at 5:27 pm

“You have the Floor”

The USA Today/Coaches’ Poll’s release today does not change the difficult task facing the 2014 Tennessee Volunteers, but it certainly helps clarify the battle that will be the 2014 every season.

The Slate

vs. Utah State

vs. Arkansas State

@ #3

@ #12

vs. Unranked

vs. Chattanooga

@ #19

vs. #2

@ #9

vs. Kentucky

vs. Missouri

@ Vanderbilt

After looking at that, one wonders what Butch Jones thought about as he took the podium.  He grinned the entire time.

He is a man dedicated to each step in each plan.  He is paralyzed by thoughts of missing steps and missing opportunities.  He’s playing chess, not checkers, and subscribes to Lester Freamon’s mantra: “All the pieces matter.”  Each player’s approach, mentally and physically, matters.  “Everyone must meet their full potential in our football program,” Butch orders.  In case he isn’t clear on that point, he follows with a promise to challenge every player to meet that goal.  He calmly discusses the omnipresence of this challenge, but not so calmly that it isn’t taken to heart.

I remember Butch Jones introducing himself to the players for the first time.  I remember feeling angry when he said, “I told my championship football team that there is only one place (for which) I would leave, and that’s for the University of Tennessee.”  It sounded too similar to Lane Kiffin’s lame excuse for treating Tennessee like a pest.  It sounded like he was brown-nosing.  Babying us.  It sounded like we had been fishing for compliments and finally gotten a bite.  *Seriously, you’re beautiful.  Don’t let anyone tell you any different.*  Unprovoked praise and excitement was unnatural.  It made me squirm.

Butch Jones is too self-aware to fool himself into thinking he is who Tennessee fans expected to see addressing the team.  Perhaps that is why it sounded disingenuous: he couldn’t believe it, either.

Tennessee fans wanted a splash.  We didn’t want to have questions about the hire.  We wanted to be the belle of the talk-radio ball.  In his introductory presser, Butch Jones asked for patience from the fan base and promised to work hard.  I am certain some fans wrote him off immediately.   At the time, we did not care about intertwining plans and puzzle pieces.  *He is creating built-in excuses.  He is intentionally setting the bar low.*  Tennessee football never crawled.  It never moved inch-by-inch.  It wasn’t a baby who needed held.  We wanted results.  And we were through with the labor pains.

I remember being bothered by his cliche.  “Anything in life worth doing is supposed to be hard.”  *Coach Speak – Sell by 11/2008.*  Nobody cared if he said the right things. I don’t know if we even cared what his voice sounded like.  We knew how to over-analyze press conferences after losses, and, at the time, this was yet another in a long line of losses.  The bad boy who promised it wasn’t a fling had broken our hearts, the nice boy whose family endeared him to our parents had broken our hearts, and we had sworn off men.  Looking back now, Butch Jones was basically pleading for a chance.  He saw right through our promise to write off Tennessee football altogether. And he had a plan.

Despite Butch’s constant recognition of each step’s importance, did he let his mind wander beyond the opening of camp on Friday?  Was he thinking about Justin Worley, Joshua Dobbs, or Chuckie Keeton’s respective read-option mastery, or who will play nickel when Utah State stretches Tennessee’s defense into a sub formation?  I believe he was thinking about what this press conference means.  *How can I use this press conference to improve tomorrow’s practice?  How can I use this press conference, this move of a pawn, to give us a better chance at the King’s crown?*  I believe he was smugly soaking in the realization that we care about the plan now.

That explains the smile.  He knows we want to go back to the introductory meetings and listen more closely.  We were suspicious on his first day, eager to interject and interrogate.  *You aren’t Jon Gruden.  You could be anybody.*  That day, we scooped up our pride like a child beginning construction of a sloppy sandcastle and we challenged the man at the podium.  We couldn’t be fooled again.

On July 31, 2014, we were content to sit back and listen.  And he bit his tongue yesterday, as he should have, but he’s waiting for the right time to say, “I told you so.”

 

Mack Crowder and Marquez North (35:45)

Curt Maggitt and Jordan Williams (52:35)

The Quarterbacks (1:09:25)

 

Excitement is Required: Marquez North

Butch jumps head-first into the fine details of a player’s game.  The things our untrained eyes don’t notice when the offense cannot move the ball.  “Every player has a toolbox. What type of release techniques do you have? What type of ball skills do you have?”  I always thought of a toolbox in terms of 40-yard-dash times and vertical leaping ability.  Butch, on the other hand, thinks in terms of technical skills at the wide receiver position.

Even as he praises Marquez for being better than the sum of the parts in his toolbox, he reiterates the importance of finely-tuned details.  “Blocking. Maintaining blocks. Getting in and out of cuts.”  He promises to force everyone in the program to meet their full potential, and he follows through 30 minutes later, explaining all the ways our best returning player can improve his game.  This is not criticism without follow-through.  As we know, any “coach” can do that.  This is criticism with a plan already in place to annihilate shortcomings.

At the 30:20 mark of the presser, Butch Jones let the cat out of the bag: Marquez North switched positions and had success as a freshman in the SEC.  Quez, in the words of his coach, “Was quite simply a high-school running back.”  I am open and overzealous with my great expectations for Marquez North.  I think he is better than Amari Cooper, and that alone would make him one of the best receivers in the country.  His commendable freshman campaign came without much polish at the wide receiver position.  He played a somewhat new position, and, through displaying a knack for uncomfortable, seemingly impossible catches, he has many believing that he will be an uncomfortable, seemingly impossible assignment.

Excitement is Allowed: The Defensive Line

Jordan Williams tried to snatch the criticism before it slid out of his mouth, but it was too late.  “Last year, we had a lot of size, and I feel like they were more focused on themselves.  Just holding their own gap.”  It sounds bad at first, but Williams wasn’t calling anybody selfish.

Unathletic and stagnant?  That’s a different story.  As we have seen, even if someone has extra beef to take up space, it takes athleticism and quickness to garner attention from the offensive line.  I took the initial comment and his follow-up clarification to mean that last year’s defensive line, while it may have looked good getting off the bus, thought it could get by on space-eating alone.  The defensive line will look vastly different from a year ago, and I think that will be for the best.

The defensive tackle position is not a strength, but I don’t think we are losing as much impact and talent as “replacing both starting DTs” leads one to believe.  The defensive end position boasts two pass-rush specialists that are a threat to sack the quarterback all game long.  It is scary to enter a season replacing the entire defensive line, but I am confident they can produce more than the 2013 version.

In Closing…

I go back to Butch Jones’ promise when he met the team: “It’s going to be hard.”  That sentence describes fall camp.  It’s going to be hard on the 15 seniors thrust into leadership roles, and harder on the 32 newcomers thrust into position battles.  It’s going to be hard on the coaching staff when they make the first depth chart, and harder on the players who fall short.  It’s going to be hard on the fans who need to know right now who will take the first snap at QB, DT, or CB2.  It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be worth it.

I didn’t write the names on the schedule because it’s the usual suspects.  It’s not Auburn, it’s Ole Miss.  It’s not Oregon, it’s Oklahoma.  Most of all, it is what it is.  It’s a power schedule for a team whose head coach knows that the crown is the target in 2015 and beyond.  That same coach who, through sheer force of personality, has put Tennessee in the proverbial drivers’ seats of high school seniors all across the country.  The nationwide, standing-room-only show that is Tennessee’s reappearance from the shadows and into the top-5s of those playing under Friday night lights has been nothing short of amazing.  But there is plenty of time to talk about that.  Right now, ALL we care about is a day 1 practice report.  We don’t want to jump the gun.  Remember: baby steps. **Yeah, right**

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