The following is an excerpt from "FOX & Friends" co-host Brian Kilmeade's new book, "The Games Do Count, America's Best and Brightest on the Power of Sports." Former Congressman from Oklahoma and ordained minister J.C. Watts discusses how the game of football influenced his life. A very young Mr. Watts can be found in the first row on the far right of the photograph attached to this story.
In rural America, sports was our form of entertainment. During football season, after school, we’d go to the church grounds and choose up teams. During basketball season, we’d go to somebody’s house and play basketball. In the spring, we’d go to the field and play softball. In the summer we played Little League. And, as kids, we all had dreams of someday making it to the big arena, but of course few of us made it.
“WE’RE GOING TO MOVE WATTS TO QUARTERBACK.”
I didn’t start playing football until I was in eighth grade. I had dreams of going to USC and being the next Ricky Bell or Anthony Davis. I played fullback and then, when we went to the “I” formation my freshman year, I played tailback. At the time, we had one quarterback who could throw but couldn’t run, and we had another one who could run but couldn’t throw. The coach knew I had some ability, so halfway into the season he said, “We’re going to move Watts to quarterback.” I practiced at quarterback for a day, and then we played the number one team in the conference two days later. We were down 22 to 0 before halftime. We came back and scored three touchdowns and ended up being down 22 to 20 at halftime. We lost 36 to 20, but I wound up playing quarterback the rest of my career, including at the University of Oklahoma.
There was a time in my neighborhood that the thing to do was just finish high school, get your car, and get a job that you’d hold for the rest of your life. Nobody in my neighborhood wore a coat and tie to work. My dad, for instance, didn’t wear a coat and tie unless it was Sunday and he was going to church. But there was something inside of me that wanted more than just to finish high school, get a car and get a job. But I really didn’t know what I needed to do to change that.
“I HAD NEVER SEEN ANYBODY ON TV THAT I KNEW PERSONALLY.”
When I was in the seventh grade, there was an experience that totally reordered my world. It was 1971 and Oklahoma and Nebraska, numbers 1 and 2 in the country, were playing what was being called the Game of the Decade. I watched it on Thanksgiving Day, in the front room of my home in Oklahoma. I saw Lucias Selman, a guy I knew personally—he’d actually sat in my front room—and I had never seen anybody on TV that I knew personally. That birthed a dream that I really could do something besides finishing high school, getting a job, and getting a car.
My high school football coach said to me my sophomore year, after he’d moved me to quarterback, “Watts, if you keep your grades up, and you keep your name clean, you’ve got a chance to do what Leroy Selman’s doing.”
I was not a great student and I know I could have done a whole lot better academically, but I did as well as I did because I knew that in order for me to play on Friday nights I had to perform in the classroom during the rest of the week. And I had enough pride so that I would have been embarrassed if I would ever have been ineligible. So, sports became a motivator for me to do better academically, because you didn’t want to show up on game night standing on the sidelines in your jersey and blue jeans. That was a sure sign to everybody that you were ineligible, that you had a failing grade.
“I DIDN’T KNOW IF I WANTED TO BE A RUNNING BACK.”
I was drafted in the eighth round by the New York Jets. I remember getting the call. “JC, this is Coach Walt Michaels of the New York Jets. We’ve just selected you as our eighth round pick in the National Football League draft.”
I went to their training camp in Hofstra and asked, “What are my chances of being quarterback?”
They said, slim to none. “We don’t need help with quarterback, we need help with running back and someone to come in on third down, special teams and kick off returns, punt returns.”
I didn’t know if I wanted to be a running back, so I said, “I want to play quarterback.” That didn’t happen, so I went up to Canada where I played for a while, proved I could throw the ball, and then retired, because I thought it was time for me to move on and start develop something outside of football.
When I retired, I was only twenty-eight, twenty-nine years old. I became a youth director at a local church and in the early ’90s, after I got into politics, I can honestly say that for about two or three years I hardly ever looked at a sports page.
“TEAM SPORTS TEACH YOU THE CONCEPT OF ‘BIG TEAM, LITTLE ME.’”
I tell young men and women all the time that if they take everything they learned on the football field, the basketball court, the baseball diamond, and apply those principles to the business arena, or to being a mom or a dad, or to being an elected official, they work, because they’re universal. These lessons include an understanding of delayed gratification, which is the result of a lot of hard work that creates a mental toughness and the perseverance, sacrifice, and commitment it takes to excel. Team sports teach you the concept of, “big team, little me.”
I don’t care if you’re on the first team or the third team, sports is a great educator for all the principles I just mentioned: hard work, sacrifice, and personal responsibility. Athletics teaches that personal responsibility means that if J.C. Watts throws an interception, he can’t blame someone else for it.
“IN FOOTBALL, IT DOESN’T MATTER WHO SCORED THE TOUCHDOWN.”
I’m not so sure everyone understands the team concept in politics. In sports, if someone’s wearing the same color jersey as me, it’s my responsibility to help him, to block for him, for instance. You don’t have players like the right guard saying, “I’m going to undermine this play, because it wasn’t my play.” In politics, however, it’s often about empire building, trying to advance your own personal career, which is directly opposite of what you learn to do playing sports. In football, it doesn’t matter who scored the touchdown, it matters whether the team wins.
I have seen enough of the world to know that you can go from goat to hero to goat in one play. I think you learn to keep it in perspective and keep a balance about it. I remember one game when I was playing in Canada. I had played just horribly. I came off the field and was in my locker feeling about as tall as grass, because I didn’t perform well and we’d lost the game. The coach stopped by my locker and said, “Hey, keep this in perspective. The way to do that is to remember this: there’s three billion people in China that don’t give a damn about how you played.” The important thing is, in athletics, as in life, to prepare yourself to compete. In business, you’ve got competitors out there and in athletics you’ve got other teams trying to beat your head in. It’s the same thing in politics. You approach life the same way you’d approach the big game: You prepare yourself, you train, you condition, you make the sacrifices, the commitment, and you persevere.
The foregoing is excerpted from "The Games Do Count" by Brian Kilmeade. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
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