Throughout my career in the NFL, every year at the start of training camp I would get handed a playbook the size of the yellow pages. I was expected to study it and know every single play, backwards and forwards. Each play was strategically designed, and more than anything else, the team’s success depended on how well we executed those plays.
At times, a player will come up short in his execution, but as long as he wins his share of the battles, all is well. The worst thing, though, is getting the play wrong because you failed to study well. Besides messing up on national television – talk about embarrassing! – your teammates and coaches would all watch the videotape together the next day – in slow motion. Pro Football Hall-of-Famer and legendary Coach Forrest Gregg, who coached me in Green Bay, once told the team: "If I open up your playbook and don't find ketchup, mustard and coffee stains all over it, you didn't study well enough."
In Judaism, we have several "playbooks" to help achieve our spiritual objectives. One of my favorites is the Haggadah – the playbook for the Passover Seder. We have a lot to accomplish on this special night and we've got to make the most of it.
Like a playbook, the Haggadah is full of specifics: drink the wine, wash your hands, dip a vegetable in saltwater, break the middle matzah, ask questions, etc. Each of these strategies is designed to achieve the objective – enhanced Jewish identity, and a deepened sense of freedom.
In the Haggadah, Rabban Gamliel identifies the Pesach lamb, matzah and bitter herbs (marror) as the three essential aspects of the Seder experience.
For me, matzah has a very special meaning. As an offensive lineman, I had to constantly build my body bigger and stronger, to wage those battles in the gridiron trenches. During those years I ate with an animalistic, gorge mentality – consuming huge quantities like a dozen egg whites in order to keep up with the 10,000 calories I was burning every day.
Today, when I sit down at the Seder table, the act of eating is totally different. This eating is a refined, elevated act. I recite the blessing, and introspect on the deeper meaning of matzah as both the bread of affliction and the symbol of our redemption.
After the hip injury I thought my career was over.
Marror, the bitter herbs, teaches another important lesson. To achieve our goals in life, there is often bitter pain involved. In 1988 I missed the entire season with a hip injury. The Packers pretty much wrote me off and I thought my career was over. I was depressed. After seeing a number of orthopedic specialists, I finally found one who correctly diagnosed my problem. He performed surgery, structured a rehab program – and three months later I had no more pain in my hip. It was a miracle.
At that point I became intensely focused on building myself up, and I got into in the best shape of my life. I was lifting weights and pushing my friend’s pickup truck up and down the street. I returned to Green Bay and throughout training camp I became stronger and stronger. Things completely turned around. I started every game that year and it was my best season as a pro. So when I see that marror on the Seder table – and recall the bitter oppression that the Jews faced in Egypt – I know that though things sometimes look horrible, there is a turnaround waiting and it will work out for the best. The pain eventually pays off.
The last symbol the Haggadah emphasizes is Pesach – the Pascal lamb. The lamb was worshipped as the god of the Egyptians. So the Jews took that very symbol of enslavement, tied it to the bedpost, slaughtered it, ate it, and smeared its blood on the doorpost. It was clear which “God” was in charge.
I got an insider’s look at the way athletes are worshipped.
In the world of professional sports, I got an insider’s look at the way athletes are worshipped. It’s good for kids to aspire to something and have a role model, but a famous athlete is not necessarily the kind of human being you want to become. Many times these guys appear one way for the media hype and endorsements, but are plagued by personal problems like drugs, anger, overweight. I think our role models need to be community leaders, teachers, rabbis, parents.
Even better, aspire to become your own hero. Everyone has their own role to play. The quarterback may get the headlines, but the offensive lineman is just as crucial to the win. In 1992 when I played on the world champion Dallas Cowboys, every teammate got the same Super Bowl Ring. Take pride in the team. Find your own unique contribution. We all have a Super Bowl ring waiting to be earned. What’s yours?
Moving the Chains
Coming out of the huddle to the line of scrimmage, we didn't focus on crossing the goal line; we focused on making progress and "moving the chains." How often do we see the referee holding up his fingers, motioning that you need just one more inch for a first down?
The Hebrew name for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means boundaries or limitations. Passover is the best opportunity of the year to break out of our own personal limitations, symbolized by the slavery of ancient Egypt. At the Seder, we can gain more yardage toward our ultimate freedom than at other time of the year. We just have to keep moving those chains down the field – inch by inch, yard by yard, and mitzvah by mitzvah – away from the "Egypt" keeping us down.
The secret of success is right there in the Haggadah. But it’s more than just X's and O's on a chalkboard. Great players – and great people – don't just read the playbook. They study it and understand the depth behind it.
Here’s wishing you a happy, kosher, and meaningful Passover.
Adapted from an article in American Jewish Spirit Magazine - ajspirit.com
Parts of this article appeared in a different version in American Jewish Spirit Magazine, Spring 2011.