'I love the game just as much as anybody else. But at the same time, I also understand that life is more than football, too. People might get that misconstrued sometimes, too, that I don't care because I'm not die-hard football, eat, sleep and drink it all day and all night.
You shouldn't be that way, anyway. You need a certain type of balance in life and I know where to put football in its proper place. But my love for the game, I have it just like everybody else. If you don't, you're going to get yourself hurt out there.'
This is what former UNC / Carolina Panthers DE Julius Peppers had to say upon his arrival in Chicago. I quote it here because for such a young man (30 is old in football years, but a mere babe in life), Julius appears to have earned himself some advanced wisdom.
It's also sure to get him criticized.
Sports-talk-radio fans love the guy who "goes all-out on every play," or at least the media image of such a player. It's a narrative that matches a common story people tell themselves about their lives: That while they may lack this or that, they make the most of what they've got. They work hard. They don't complain. They "play the game the way it's supposed to be played."
Ask the average male sports fan what people would say about him if he were a professional athlete, and 90 percent would answer "They'd say I played with heart." And then they'll go back to lying around on the couch and complaining about the government.
Well, there are players who go all-out all the time, and yes, they can be inspiring. They also tend to be only moderately talented and to record short, violent careers.
When it comes to wide receivers, Chicago fans tend to love the punishment-absorbing Tom Waddle more than the gifted speedster WR Willie Gault, but it's worth remembering that Waddle played just six years, while Gault played 11 and racked up more than three times the yardage on about twice the number of receptions.
So why the disparity of fan emotion? Because we relate to Waddle as a metaphor for our struggles. Who can relate to Willie Gault?
Randy Moss is famously hated for his admission that he "takes plays off," but you know who else spoke (far more artfully) about taking plays off? Michael Jordan, recognized today as not only the greatest player in basketball history, but also the most competitive man alive.
Jordan played the game with such mastery that it allowed him strategic detachment. He could sense that there was an ebb and flow to a basketball game -- and a basketball season. The same is true of baseball, where performance is clearly based as much on one's ability to withstand the April-to-October mental grind as it is on physical effort. Bicycle road racing is an exercise in strategy, cooperation, insight and conservation of energy. No one suggests that anyone should sprint a marathon.
But Americans relate differently to football because it has become our modern metaphor for struggle and redemption. Unfortunately, it's a terrible narrative for modern life, which makes Peppers' comments even more rare and valuable.
The days when Americans could sacrifice for their employers and expect to be rewarded with loyalty, retirement and generous pensions are over. Yes, giving your all for a team feels great... but when the team views you only as a widget to be worn out and replaced, well... the good feeling fades. And there is nothing sadder to me than talking to older people who are bitter and emotionally wounded after years of sacrifice and commitment. They feel betrayed, but the truth is, they invested their hopes in a bad narrative. When that phony story produced its inevitable result, these people didn't take a look at themselves. They just went in search of another narrative to fix the blame for the failure of the first one.
I am naturally something of a grinder in my work and personal life, and there is nothing wrong with that. If you're a young person just starting your adult life, then yes, get out there and grind, grind, grind. Grinding is how we achieve mastery, and it's also how you prove your worth. But remember: If your only value at 35 is your ability to grind, then you're not going to have much of a career. Better start rehearsing that bitter, betrayed narrative for your 40s and 50s.
Our culture understood this once. John Henry was a proud grinder, and when the steam hammer came along, he worked himself straight to death rather than adapt to the change. I'm sure the railroad bosses were pleased with the outcome. The new reality is that every repetitive, mindless task can be done better and more cheaply by a machine. If whatever thankless task you're grinding on hasn't been replaced by a machine or an offshore worker yet, just understand that someone out there is working out the details to make it happen..
But isn't a strong worth ethic a good personal trait? Absolutely. The trick is simply to update its application to match our new economy and culture.
Smarter players -- and workers -- understand that the great ones approach each task with Michael Jordan's fierce strategic detachment. Wearing yourself out in the third quarter loses games. Diving for every meaningless loose ball puts you on injured reserve. A person with his nose to the grindstone has an alarmingly limited perspective on things.
So grown-ups out there, try this: Replace "total commitment" with personal integrity. Instead of overwhelming your next problem with brute force, try something intuitive and deft. Feeling down about the daily grind? Trust your emotions to guide you. Replace grinding with informed, practical creativity. Surprise the people around you. Seek happiness -- and spread it to others. Take a play off every now and again, just like a great athlete, and watch how your overall performance improves.
This means that the sports-talk-radio fans in your life will probably dislike you, and yes, there will be talk behind your back from time to time.
The good news is, when you're living true to your own story instead of acting out someone else's contrived narrative, it's kind of hard to hear the critics at your back. A balanced life is like that.