On the first Saturday of September, two nice guys failed to achieve what they wanted on the football field. One of them I had recently met, and the other I hope to meet someday. Both are really nice guys, but on this day they seemed to epitomize the old saw, “Nice guys finish last.”
The phrase is said to have originated in the game of baseball and is attributed to Leo Durocher (1905-91). A scrappy shortstop from Massachusetts, Durocher broke into the majors with the New York Yankees in the mid-1920s and helped them win a World Series in ’28. He appeared in 102 games that season, hitting .270 with no home runs. Babe Ruth called him “the All-American out.” He bounced checks trying to cover his expensive tastes in clothes and women, demanded a pay raise and was soon sold to Cincinnati and later traded to St. Louis, where he helped the Cardinals win the Series in 1934. Durocher eventually wound up with the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he was named player-manager in 1939. Known for being fiery and confrontational on the field, earning him the nickname “Leo the Lip,” Durocher was even more so in the dugout. But he was successful, managing the Dodgers to the National League pennant in 1941, the team’s first in 21 years. They lost a playoff to the Cardinals in ’46 and the following season Durocher was suspended by the league for associating with gamblers. In the middle of the ’48 season he was traded to the crosstown New York Giants and led them to pennants ’51 and ’54. The latter year ended with Durocher’s only World Series title as a manager when the Giants swept the heavily-favored Cleveland Indians. A year later he was gone from the Giants, worked as a TV commentator and then coach for the Dodgers before managing the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, retiring for good after the 1973 season.
The famous quote, or actually non-quote, was from Durocher’s stint as manager in Brooklyn. During the 1946 season, the Dodgers were fighting for the pennant while the Giants were having a terrible season. Before a game between the two rivals, Durocher was talking to reporters and mentioned several Giants players, including future Hall of Famer Mel Ott, saying, “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place.” The Giants would go on to finish last in the eight-team National League. A subsequent headline had it this way: “‘Nice Guys’ Wind Up in Last Place, Scoffs Lippy.” Durocher wrote his autobiography in 1975 and titled it Nice Guys Finish Last, recounting the 1946 conversation with reporters in a way that supported the made-up quote.
Was Durocher right? Of course, he was referring to athletic competition, where it often seems that only the most fierce and dedicated competitors gain the championship, especially on the professional level. But what about everyday life? In business, in the arts, in the family, do nice guys always finish last?
Plenty of nice guys finish first.
One of Durocher’s teammates is perhaps the best example to contradict the Lip’s belief. Babe Ruth (1895-1948) played in 22 major league seasons and was regarded as the best player of his era, one of the original six inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Many baseball fans today still consider him the best of all time, and his records back that up: 714 home runs, a .342 career batting average, 2,213 runs batted in. When he broke into the big leagues with the Boston Red Sox in 1914, Ruth was a pitcher, and a good one: his career record was 94-46 with an earned run average of 2.28. He played on seven World Series champions, hit the first home run in All-Star Game history (1933), and packed ballparks all over the country and abroad when he went overseas with all-star teams for barnstorming tours. He made far more money than any of his contemporaries, endorsed products, appeared in movies, and even half a century after his death was still one of the most recognizable athletes in American history. And what’s more, Ruth was a genuinely nice guy. He was well-liked by his teammates and the press, and the public adored him. Tales of Ruth visiting sick children in hospitals are legendary. While some aspects of his personal life may be questionable–he was a party animal and ladies’ man, at least before his second marriage–nobody ever considered him to be anything short of a fine fellow to be around.
In Ruth’s day, it was commonplace for the media to ignore the peccadilloes of star athletes, except for the most egregious that made their way onto police blotters. Even then, many cops and prosecutors were willing to look the other way. Some things couldn’t be covered up, though. For every Babe Ruth there was a Ty Cobb, whose irascible and combative nature often overshadowed his considerable exploits on the field. For every Joe DiMaggio, whose immense talent and personal elegance helped the post-Ruth Yankees to nine World Series titles, there was a Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters in baseball history who was more often in the news for his feuding with reporters and disdain for the fans.
Today, with a press that is much more adversarial with athletes than it was in days of yore, not to mention social media that is everywhere, we hear all the time about off-the-field problems, both at the professional and collegiate levels. There are few greater heroes in American sports today than the quarterback of the Super Bowl champions, and yet the reigning champ, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, has been dogged since the game by allegations that he ordered some of the footballs used in the AFC Championship Game to be under-inflated, which supposedly gave him an advantage that enabled the Patriots to crush the Indianapolis Colts. The NFL investigated and suspended Brady for the first four games of the upcoming season, but just last week a judge threw out the suspension and Brady will be starting when the Patriots open the 2015 regular season this coming Thursday night. Brady’s NFL career began in 2000 and until now has been virtually unblemished in terms of his public image. The Super Bowl title was his fourth, he’s made millions in salary and endorsements and is married to a Brazilian model, Gisele Bundchen. Yet no matter how much longer he plays and how many more Super Bowls he and the Patriots win, Brady’s legacy will always include “Deflategate.”
Yesterday, two nice guys went down.
The first piece of disappointing football news yesterday was out of Philadelphia. NFL teams had to pare their rosters down to 53 players as they prepared to start the new season, and the Eagles declined to keep Tim Tebow on board as a backup quarterback. Tebow first gained fame in college at the University of Florida, where he played on two national championship teams and won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore in 2007. Although his passing form left a lot to be desired, Tebow was celebrated for his competitiveness and also for his strong Christian faith, which he often cited. The son of missionaries, Tebow wasn’t shy about saying that his faith in God helped carry him through tough times, on the field and off, and he wasn’t afraid to stand up to the popular culture, which often shows disdain for Christians. Prior to his senior season he requested Playboy magazine remove his name from its pre-season All-American squad.
Tebow did everything a quarterback possibly could during his college days, and then some. In his last game, the 2010 Sugar Bowl, he completed 31 of 35 passes for 482 yards and three touchdowns in Florida’s win over Cincinnati. For his career he threw 88 touchdown passes and only 15 interceptions. He was also a more than effective runner, gaining nearly 3,000 yards during his four seasons and scoring a conference-record 57 touchdowns. The Denver Broncos drafted him in the first round (25th overall) in 2010 and Tebow began his first pro season on the bench, not at all unusual for even the most heralded college quarterbacks. By the last month of the season he was the starter, but the Broncos missed the playoffs.
In 2011, Tebow again began the season on the sidelines, behind veteran journeyman Kyle Orton, but with the team struggling to a 1-3 start, Coach John Fox pulled Orton at halftime of a game against San Diego. Tebow couldn’t rally the Broncos to victory that day, but he did the following week against the Dolphins in Miami. A blowout loss at home to Detroit dropped the team to 2-5, but then Tebow led the way in a six-game winning streak, with two of the victories coming in overtime. “Tebowmania” was sweeping the NFL. Reality returned with three straight losses to close out an 8-8 regular season, but the Broncos backed into the playoffs as AFC West champions. Could Tebow’s magic work in the pressure cooker of the playoffs? Yes and no. In the first round, at home against Pittsburgh, Tebow threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas on the first play from scrimmage in overtime, giving the Broncos a 29-23 victory. Tebow completed 10 of 21 passes in the game for 316 yards, and it was noted that the yardage, and his 31.6 yards per completion, corresponded with his favorite Bible verse, John 3:16. Not only that, the TV rating for the game peaked at, you guessed it, 31.6. After throwing the winning pass, Tebow knelt in prayer on the field, striking a pose that had become known as “Tebowing.”
The following week, in the conference semifinals against Brady and the Patriots on the road, Tebow struggled as the Broncos were crushed, 45-10. Despite his success as the starter, Tebow’s completion percentage was the lowest in the NFL. In the off-season the Broncos signed one of the best quarterbacks of all-time, Peyton Manning, who had been released by the Colts after missing the entire season due to a neck injury, and Tebow was traded to the New York Jets. The 2012 season was a disaster for Tebow, who played sparingly and battled through rib injuries. The Jets released him after the season. Signed by the Patriots as a free agent, Tebow failed to make the team in training camp, and he spent the 2013 and ’14 seasons as a TV commentator on college broadcasts.
But he didn’t give up on his dream of playing again in the NFL. Tebow continued training, working hard on his throwing motion, and was signed by the Eagles in April 2015. The Eagles had just acquired Sam Bradford from the Rams and installed him as their starting quarterback; Bradford, from Oklahoma, had beaten out Tebow for the Heisman Trophy in 2009. Tebow played in all four of the Eagles’ pre-season games and was in the running for the third-string job behind Bradford and Mark Sanchez, who had been the Jets’ starter during Tebow’s one season in New York. He worked hard in training camp and was popular with the Eagles’ notoriously-critical fans, but his performance on the field was erratic. When the Eagles announced their final roster cuts yesterday, Tebow was out of a job.
A few hours after reading the news of Tebow being cut, I settled in to watch the Wisconsin Badgers open their college football season against third-ranked Alabama. Readers of this blog know that I’m an ardent Badger fan from way back. The quarterback of this year’s team is Joel Stave (pronounced STAH-vay), who played his high school ball in the Milwaukee suburbs and is now in his senior season. Like the rest of the seniors, Stave has been through not just one but two coaching changes in his time on campus, with Bret Bielema leaving abruptly for Arkansas following UW’s victory in the 2012 Big Ten championship game, and two years later his successor, Gary Anderson, bolted for Oregon State after watching helplessly as his team was crushed, 59-0, by Ohio State in the 2014 game. Stave had ended the 2013 season as the starter but began the ’14 campaign behind Tanner McEvoy, a Tebow-like runner whom Anderson had christened as the starter. As McEvoy struggled in the first few games, Stave’s confidence cratered and he was unable to complete a pass, even in practice. But he hung in there, turned things around in practice and was back in the lineup after a loss at Northwestern dropped the Badgers to 3-2. With Stave at the controls, Wisconsin won its next seven games to capture the West Division title. Then came the blowout loss to Ohio State, followed a few days later by Anderson’s announcement that he was leaving Madison (news that was welcomed by most fans, including yours truly). It was a time of crisis for the team, with a game against powerhouse Auburn looming in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. The program desperately needed to find a leader, and two stepped forward: former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez took over as coach for the bowl game, and Stave led the way on the field. In the game, Stave quarterbacked the Badgers to a comeback victory, 34-31 in overtime, Wisconsin’s first bowl victory in five years.
Alvarez hired Wisconsin native Paul Chryst as the new head coach just before the bowl game, a move almost universally hailed by all of us in Badger Nation. A former UW quarterback himself, Chryst had served as Bielema’s offensive coordinator, directing an offense that generated over 44 points per game in the 2011 season, when Stave redshirted and future Seattle Seahawks star Russell Wilson had the best season of any Badger quarterback ever. Chryst had spent the past three seasons as head coach at the University of Pittsburgh, and his first Badger team was ranked 20th in the nation heading into the opener with Alabama.
Playing behind an untested offensive line that featured three new starters, Stave and the Badgers were unable to run the ball against the Crimson Tide’s vaunted defense, so he went to the air. Trailing 14-7 late in the first half, the Badgers took advantage of a short punt and Stave moved them into position for a field goal. Wisconsin would get the ball at the start of the second half, and we all assumed Stave would be dealing with only a four-point deficit. Things were looking up, but then the kick by Rafael Gaglianone banged off the right upright as time expired. In the second half, the Tide blunted UW’s opening drive and went on to a 35-17 victory. Stave finished the game with 228 yards passing and two touchdowns.
Almost exactly a month earlier, Stave had been a surprise guest at our church. The grandmother of a teammate lives nearby, and Stave and several teammates had come up for the weekend. One of the grandmother’s neighbors is a member of our church and a lifelong Badger fan, and she invited Stave to services. Imagine our surprise when she introduced the handsome, strapping young man sitting next to her. After the service Stave stuck around for our fellowship hour and chatted with just about everyone. And of course there were pictures to be taken.
Everyone agreed that Joel Stave was just the kind of young man we want to have representing our state’s largest university. Is he the best quarterback in the college game today? Almost certainly not. Will he be drafted into the NFL next year? Perhaps. Besides Wilson, the Badgers have sent a few quarterbacks into the big time in recent years. UW offensive linemen have made the biggest impact in the pros since the start of the Alvarez era in 1989, but there have also been standout defensive players, like J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, and a slew of running backs, including Melvin Gordon, runner-up in last year’s Heisman balloting and a rookie this year with the San Diego Chargers. If Stave has a good senior season, the NFL will take notice. Quarterbacks are a relatively rare commodity in pro football and teams are always on the lookout for a good one.
Whither the nice guys?
Tim Tebow’s football career is likely over. It’s possible another team will pick him up, either right away or sometime during the season as injuries start to send quarterbacks to the sidelines. He could return to the TV studio; a network might be willing to put him on the air even with the possibility of losing him mid-season if an NFL team calls. Whether he stays in the studio or gets another shot on the field, Tebow won’t be going hungry anytime soon; his first NFL contract with Denver guaranteed him nearly $9 million. He’s been involved in charitable work since his days at Florida, and last year he partnered with CURE International to open a children’s orthopedic hospital in the Philippines, where Tebow was born. The Tim Tebow Foundation has many other projects, including Orphan Care, which provides grants to families who adopt special-needs children. Tebow is single, although he’s been linked–almost certainly without basis in fact–to famous young (and pious) women like Jana Duggar of the large TV reality show family, and Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones. He told People magazine, “I’m looking for a girl who wants to make a difference in the lives of others.”
Joel Stave may never play in the NFL, even to the extent Tebow has, but something tells me he will be successful in life off the field. He plays piano and guitar, was a member of the National Honor Society in high school and is majoring in civil engineering. No “general studies” stuff for this guy. Stave and his older brother Bryan, who graduated UW in 2013, have collaborated on a just-released album, featuring covers and original songs. The brothers have posted a video of one of their songs, “Everything Has Changed.” Joel is the one on the bongos, singing backup vocal. Here it is: “Everything Has Changed”
There is more to life than winning football games. Tim Tebow generated many a thrill for Broncos fans back in 2011, but his foundation will bring hope and healing to children for years to come, long after his football exploits have faded from memory. Joel Stave has a lot of football to play this season for the Badgers, who should contend for the division title if the offensive lines comes together, and I have every confidence Paul Chryst and his staff will make that happen. And something tells me his post-football career, whether it starts next year or sometime down the road after the NFL, will be productive.
Being from Wisconsin and playing quarterback, Stave undoubtedly heard much as he grew up about the most legendary quarterback in state history: Bart Starr. A native of Alabama who was the 200th pick in the 1956 NFL draft (Brady was the 199th pick in the draft 44 years later), Starr led the Green Bay Packers to five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowl titles. After retiring as a player he was head coach of the Packers for several years, then led a group that sought to bring an expansion team to Phoenix. Outmaneuvered by Bill Bidwill, who moved the St. Louis Cardinals to the desert in 1987, Starr moved back to Alabama. Now 81, Starr’s recent health problems have brought him back to the attention of Wisconsin football fans, as he fights to get healthy enough to attend the Thanksgiving night game in Green Bay, when Brett Favre’s number will be officially retired. ESPN Magazine recently published a piece about Starr that really resonated with me, and with everyone who reads it. If you want to find out about courage, about honor, about devotion, you will read it, too: “Inside Bart Starr’s drive…”
Ultimately, a man’s life will not be measured by how well he played football, or any other game. It will be measured by how many people he helped, by his good works, by how he treated his family and his neighbors. Someday, Starr and Tebow and Stave will stand before God, and I have a feeling He won’t care how many football games they won.