Friday, January 22, 2010

How the NFL Pertains, Part III

In 1997, his first season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kordell Stewart led the team all the way to the AFC Championship game, the last stop before the Superbowl. In 2001, he was named the Steelers' MVP. The team had changed head coaches during the fours years since Kordell Stewart had been signed, but he continued on with his wild, spontaneous style of play. Instinct compelled him to pass or run the ball for touchdowns, but sometimes his radical efforts blew back on him, resulting in interceptions or fumbles. He was becoming a controversial quarterback: fans loved him when he scored and hated him when he didn't.

After the Steelers narrowly missed making it to the 2001 Superbowl, the coaching staff decided it was time to take a closer look at Kordell Stewart. He was talented, and they knew that, but too unpredictable. There was no guarantee he could take them to the top. If he could be trained to play like a more classic quarterback, they reasoned, then he should only get better. But that's where they were wrong.
Some people should never be taught in words what they already know in their body. At the moment that knowledge is defined from the outside and handed back to them in a rule book, a disconnect can happen, and sometimes it is irreversible.

I can't say that Kordell Stewart didn't understand -- internally, in words -- how he played the game of football; I don't know that. But I can talk about what I saw with my own eyes and what I sensed as I watched him play during the next season, after the coaches tried to reshape him. I doubt they ever told him, first, that they completely understood his natural way of playing; I'm not sure they did understand it. I know they told him, though, how NFL quarterbacks are expected to play. In the end, they analyzed and redirected Kordell Stewart in terms of what they needed him to be, not what he was, to make him into a different quarterback. One thing they did was tell him to stay in the pocket, from where he could either throw the ball or hand it off to a running back. The net effect of that was to sideline a huge part of Kordell Stewart -- the instinct that told him, "Run the the ball to the end zone now! Go!" It was against his nature to be contained; it was counter-intuitive and bewildering. You could see that as he struggled to play within the new guidelines that had been given to him. Sometimes I cringed, seeing so plainly on his face his desire to bust out of the pocket and watching his awkward efforts to just stay put.

It's hard to say this simply.
Some people freely and un-self-consciously use the abilities they have until people around them begin to comment on those abilities. It hasn't necessarily occurred to the person, one way or the other, to view themselves through a frame of talent or no talent, but when people start talking about their talent, suddenly the perspective shifts. It's in that moment that they can be separated from what they've known all along and find it nearly impossible to get back to what they were before someone told them what they were. I think that's why some people can actually ride horses better before they begin to take lessons. They may not ride correctly, in terms of form and communication, but they can stay on a horse and even ride kindly. Part of working with an instructor, then, is to retain and improve what you already do fairly well naturally and eliminate everything you do incorrectly. In the best case, that's what happens. In the worst case, you worry that you never knew how to ride at all, even when you just went out and did it, and you become lost in trying make what you are being taught fit with what your body has known.

The day Kordell Stewart learned that he wasn't to play from instinct any more was the day he began to choke. He could not make the transition from gut-level play to mind-level play, which is essentially what the coaches had asked him to do. As a result, his confidence crumbled before the eyes of thousands of Steelers fans. During the third game of the 2002 season, he was benched, and he was cut by the team when the season ended. Over the next few years, he drifted from one team to another, but he was never the same. When the Chicago Bears signed him, it was Slash that they wanted, but the Steelers' attempt to reshape him away from his instinct separated him from Slash and he never found his way back.

I said in the first part of this series that I thought of Kordell Stewart the first time that I realized I was intimidated by Scout, and it's true. I had no fear of Scout when I got her. I fell off her just six weeks later, sliding off her during a bareback ride when she suddenly stepped sideways. I landed standing beside her and laughed then, charmed at being reminded that yes, we do fall off our horses, especially when we are daydreaming, and that doesn't change just because 25 years have gone by since we last owned one. I'd fallen so many times when I was younger, riding my crazy first horse, and just accepted it as part of the package. I always got back on, immediately if I was able. I think I fell off Scout twice more before I began working with a trainer. I didn't hire a trainer because of fear, not at all. I didn't feel this fear then. I rode Scout a lot the first six months I had her, both saddled and bareback. I just realized that I was rusty as a rider and I wanted a solid refresher course. I also knew that Scout needed help. She was very heavy on the forehand, poorly balanced, and anxious at the canter. Ridden from the face, as many joust horses are, she was green to everything else. I didn't have the skills to retrain her, so it was time to take us into training.

It was during a session with my first (bad) instructor that fear entered the equation. I was cantering Scout to the left on a 30-meter circle, hard work because of her tendency to fall in. It went well enough. "Now stop and change directions," said the instructor. "Then pick up the canter again." My instinct said, "No, let's call it good for today." I didn't listen. I heard the voice of my instinct loud and clear, but my mind overruled it, saying, "You have to get back in the swing of taking lessons. Do what she says." We picked up the canter, and Scout panicked, speeding up and then lurching as we curved into the circle. She went one way and I went the other, landing hard, face down. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the broken reins dragging behind Scout; I remember being terrified that she'd step on them and take a savage jerk on her mouth.

There is a (darkly, jaundiced) funny irony about that moment, too. Just weeks earlier, my (dumb) instructor had taken an ugly, ugly fall off Scout. I was right there, I could see it coming, and I warned her that Scout was getting tense, building toward an explosion. She didn't listen to me, and ended up with badly bruised ribs and a critically wounded ego. I had an instinct about my horse, even an instinct about riding, but I abandoned it when I picked up the canter to the right, heading unwittingly toward what would become such a big problem.

Was it a scary fall? Yes. Was it a major fall? No. But it was a fall that happened because I separated myself from my instinct. In that instant, things changed, and I have yet to find my way back to how I was with Scout before that fall. It's hard to explain how I felt. I'd known my horse longer than the instructor had, and I knew her well. Nevertheless, I let myself do something that I knew wasn't going to go well. I just remember now that when I got to my feet and went to Scout, the connection between us was broken. I hadn't known there was a connection before that -- I just had her, rode her, groomed her, didn't think about it -- but I saw it immediately in its absence. Suddenly, she was something that could hurt me, and I was something that could hurt her. Everything was different. I was outside of myself, displaced as a rider, displaced as Scout's person. Once my head got involved, my body checked out, taking with it the confidence and skill I had freely and un-self-consciously used all those years go. In that way, I think of Kordell Stewart and remember him.


Anonymous said...

This post moved me deeply. Your honest description of how you lost your connection with Scout and your confidence touched a raw nerve. I have a similar story that I have yet to put into words. I ended up parting with the horse in question and it took me years to be able to trust my own instinct again.

I love your blog!

Red Hot Ruby said...

I, too, enjoyed this series very much and on a couple of different levels.

As a coach sometimes it worries me how much influence I can have on a young persons' perception of self. It is so easy to forget that,sometimes in trying to attain my goal of getting a kid to fit into the mold of what the team needs, I completely disregard what the individual needs in order to be successful. It makes me sad to say that I have probably stifled the natural ability of more than one athlete.

On another level, I currently have a horse that has me unable to perform at my best due to fear. He has bucked me off five times. I finally stuck the last time and we finished that ride with some success but I cannot talk myself into getting back on again. Which makes no sense, being as I got back on the five other times and when I finally stick, I'm done.

"Once my head got involved, my body checked out, taking with it the confidence and skill I had freely and un-self-consciously used all those years go."

That is exactly how I feel.

I just found your blog and am enjoying catching up on past blogs. Very thoughtful and introspectice. . .Keep it up!