Waldman kicks off the RSP Writers Project with one of several play choices that he’ll share throughout the spring and summer.
The first time I saw this poem, “Don’t Quit,” I was 14. A girl I had a crush on had it on stationery she used to write me notes. We went out a few times, but she was an avid churchgoer and I wasn’t. We remained friendly as my crush died a long, slow, tortuous teenage death.
I cut the three-inch rectangle where the poem was printed on the stationery and kept it folded in my wallet. I originally held onto the poem to hold onto the feelings I had for the girl. But teenage crushes come and go. Sooner than I realized, the motivation for keeping the poem became the poem and not the girl.
Until I lost it while snorkeling in the Caribbean Sea, I kept this poem in my wallet for 16 years. I read this poem hundreds of times between the ages of 14-30. It was an affirmation of persistence and determination throughout my youth.
Although I never memorized its words, their power resonated within me as an important lesson for my life: Our existence, no matter the length, isn’t a sprint. Competition is more about challenging yourself than it is another. And failure is giving up, not falling down.
Music and athletics were the first areas I learned these lessons. Soccer was the one organized sport I could play in high school that didn’t interfere with my musical pursuits. Our coach emphasized physical conditioning above all else.
One of our initial warmups was a one-mile run. Our best player was our left winger, Marcus Ford. He was a skilled dribbler and he was fast. I played halfback and fullback. I didn’t have a great handle, but I was a physical player with stamina.
Early on in practices, Marcus always finished the mile run before anyone else. In a sprint, I knew Marcus would always beat me. But I decided I had a shot at beating him in the mile.
Every day, I would make it my goal to beat him in our opening run. I never told anyone; it was my own personal goal. As the days passed, I went from finishing in the middle of the pack to the highest third, the highest quarter, and within a couple of weeks, I was within striking distance of Marcus as we finished each mile.
Within five weeks, Marcus and I were racing each other to the finish every day with a final sprint. At some point during that time, I stopped focusing on beating Marcus and focused inward.
How fast could I move? Did I cover more ground with longer strides or shorter strides? What was my breathing like? Did I need to move my arms more? Could I push past the burn in my chest, stomach, and legs?
It became more commonplace for me to win the mile. While I was in better shape because of the effort I put into every workout, I don’t think I won because I was faster than Marcus. I won because I was more willing to put my all into the exercise and push through the pain.
A one-mile warm-up wasn’t that important to him. Yeah, when I first challenged him, he responded and beat me. But day after day, I continued challenging him and at some point, he didn’t want it like I did. His goal was warming up, my goal was winning the mile.
Even when he wanted to beat me and lost, he wasn’t always prepared to respond to my all-out effort with his all-out effort. It’s why I don’t have to wish I knew what it felt like to be tight end Ben Watson on the play he chased down Champ Bailey.
A 12-time NFL Pro Bowl cornerback and future Hall of Famer, fans used to say that two-thirds of the earth were covered by water and the remaining third by Bailey. Watson was a 200 meter and 400 meter standout in high school, but no match for Bailey in a straight-up race.
But football isn’t racing. On this play from shotgun at the Denver 5-yard line in the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoffs between the Patriots and Broncos, New England was down 10-6 and driving at the end of the third quarter when Tom Brady, flushed right by a blitz inside left tackle, delivered an off-balance lollipop to the right flat of the end zone.
Bailey read Brady, undercut Troy Brown, high-pointed the ball a yard-deep in the endzone, and streaked up the sideline with a convoy of teammates. Watson began the play outside the left tackle as a pass blocker. When Bailey stole the ball, Watson began his pursuit at the opposite flat of the Broncos’ 9.
Bailey appeared destined to score the moment he exited the Denver endzone. Nothing changed as Bailey crossed midfield and outpaced a desperation dive from RB Kevin Faulk. As he reached the Patriots’ 20, Brady and Brown were the only guys within visible range of Bailey and his two escorts and they were trailing too far to pose a threat.
From the moment that Bailey intercepted the pass until he reached the Patriots’ 5, Watson’s improbable pursuit took shape. Listening to him recount the event, I could easily relate it to chasing down my teammate.
“I’m running for a long time. That’s what I’m thinking…when you’re running full speed with a helmet on, this is all you see,” says Watson as he forms two C’s with his hands, holds them around his eyes, and shakes them up and down to create a visual of the small window of vision that one sees from within a football helmet during a full sprint. “Everything is just bobbling. The helmet’s bouncing.”
“I remember looking up in the stands and seeing all the Denver fans going crazy. I saw Kevin Faulk try to get him. I run into the ref. There was a point where it turned into a challenge for me: Let’s see how fast I can run…if I can get this guy. I was surprised by the time I got to him because I thought his boys would have tried to pick me off, but they were tired, too. So they just let me run past. Looking at pictures of it, I don’t even think he saw me.”
With the endzone camera showing nothing but the green grass of Mile High Stadium between Bailey at the 20 and the pylon, Waston’s startling appearance as Bailey reaches the 5 was like watching a brakeless Peterbilt rolling out of control down a hill of Loveland Pass, then fly off a cliff, land within feet of the cornerback, and hammer Bailey at the 1.
Considering where Watson began his chase of Bailey, the Patriots tight end might as well have been on Loveland Pass. Bailey covered 100 yards on the play, but Watson’s starting point forced the tight end to cover the width of the field, running over 130 yards to prevent Bailey from scoring.
The force of Watson’s collision knocks the ball from Bailey’s grasp and what seems destined to become a pick-six for the first 99 yards of the play, ends as a 100-yard journey a yard shy of the endzone and transforms a potentially career-defining play by one former Georgia Bulldog into an iconic display of effort authored by another.
“My college coach used to tell me stuff like that doesn’t take a whole bunch of talent. It’s just effort,” says Watson.
As someone who founded a scouting publication 12 years ago while deep in debt, in a dead-end career with no professional experience as a scout, and many of my peers looking at me like I was at best, misguided, the emotional release that Watson had to experience colliding into Bailey and preventing the corner from scoring when the prospects of doing so seemed uncertain at best, is something I can already relate to.
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