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Voyageur's Best Sports of 2004

Obstacles or opportunities

Obstacles or... OPPORTUNITIES
Vikings and Packers lose
by Dennis Meyer  | February 24, 2004

Recently, I have been ruing the fact that the football season has come to a close. In my last column, I focused on the way the season ended for the Vikings: last play of the game, the opponent facing impossible odds (4th and 27), and my Vikings lose. In one’s wildest imagination who could have possibly foreseen the “beloved” Packers losing in much the same way even before that column went to press?

I suggested that just such a circumstance could very well be the impetus that could propel the Vikings into a championship season next year. I will be very interested to see how the Vikings and the Packers respond to the way their seasons ended. Was the disappointing end of the season just another obstacle or... is it an opportunity?

I spoke of a state championship high school football team of which I was fortunate to be a part in the 1980’s. That team had an amazing statistic of having six touchdown drives that were each 99 yards long. That one statistic tells much about a football team.

First of all, coaches at any level will say that one of the most important factors in determining the winner of a game is field position. Where a team starts each offensive possession on the field helps to dictate how many points they will be able to score.

Though the football field is level, coaches see it as if the 50 yard line were a high hill, with each goal line at the same lower height. From one’s own end zone to the 50 yard line is going uphill and from the 50 yard line to the opponent’s goal line is going down hill.

The premise is that the further a team starts from the opponent’s goal line the harder they have to work and the less likely it is that they will score. This is why a good punter is so important. This also helps to explain why 99 yard drives are so very rare, and why six in a season might indicate a championship team.

There is another telling side to that statistic. Six times the opponent was stopped at our goal line. Championship teams do that.

As a coach, the last place you want to see the opponent is “knocking at the doorstep”, i.e., inside your own 10-yard line, but you also understand that in that place champions are made. This is the place of overcoming, the crucible of character development. It is the place of opportunity.

As coaches, a major part of our practice time was spent in teaching players how to react to what the opponent might do on a particular play. An equally important part of the coaching was in teaching players how to respond to particular situations. This was particularly important when facing sudden changes (fumbles, penalties, pass interceptions) or when the opponent was deep in our territory. We taught our players that these situations were all “opportunities”.

We taught that a situation that appeared as if it could be a bad circumstance for us could actually be the best possible situation for us. If we responded in the correct manner difficult situations could be used for our advantage. This was manifested in the state semi-final game in 1984.

We were playing an undefeated team from the northwestern suburbs of the Cities. We had lost three games early in the season, but we were playing very well by the end. With less than three minutes left in the first half we were leading 7-0, but they had the ball, first and goal, on our 4-yard line. On fourth down they were at our one. We stopped them on fourth down. There we faced a situation with which we were not unfamiliar – 99 yards to a touchdown. Three plays later we scored. We were able to get the ball back one more time before half and scored again. We eventually won that game 34-8. What appeared to be a perilous position for us was used as an opportunity to turn a close game, a potential loss, into a decisive victory.

I have been reminded of this game often in the past weeks. Now that the Vikings are done I can turn my undivided attention to the Timberwolves. In them I have seen this same attitude demonstrated often.

Most professional basketball is boring to me. It is difficult to relate to a Tracy McGrady or an Allen Iverson. I see no point in one person taking 30 shots to score 25 points. The players around them seem to stagnate and get worse as the game goes on.

But the Wolves are different. They have possibly the best player in the world in Kevin Garnett. I believe he is because he makes all those that play with him better. When they get in difficult situations, like being down 18 points in the third quarter, they seem to look upon that circumstance as an opportunity. They have had lots of opportunities already this year and in most cases they have turned them into victories. They respond in a championship manner, and a championship may be on the way.

Such is life. None of us will go through this life without facing similar circumstances where everything seems to be against us. The outcome will be dependent upon how we respond to the circumstances. Will they be opportunities where we turn defeat into victory, or just another loss? Coaches are big on cliches, and one that helps to answer this question is an old coaching standard: failing to prepare is most certainly preparing to fail. Life is filled with opportunities, far more than we might imagine. It is our job to recognize them when they come.

This article first appeared in the February 24, 2004 issue of the Voyageur Press.