Monday night, I will be glued to the television to watch Alabama and Clemson duke it out for the NCAA National Championship. I will be pulling for Alabama…I went to school there and will be on the edge of my seat to see if the Tide can clench an unprecedented 16th National Championship. I’m nervous about our chances for victory because Clemson is a formidable opponent. I’ve heard lots of people say, “No way an ACC team beats an SEC team in the title game,” but I know that Clemson is the finest team we’ve faced this year. And not because of anything they do on the practice field or in the locker room…not because they have some secret training tool or better athletes than we do. Actually, Clemson and Bama share the same secret to success and it has nothing to do with football and everything to do with what Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban encourage their players to do off the field.
Every major NCAA football program shares the same practices. All of them recruit the best athletes they can find, all of them scout their opponents and hire top coaches and trainers who specialize in preparing elite athletes for competition. All of them have thousands of boosters who donate millions of dollars to their programs. All of them have elaborate stadiums, time-honored game day traditions and legions of devoted fans. All of them give the young men they coach every conceivable opportunity to develop their raw talents. All of them work to mold the student athletes they coach into men, into leaders both on and off the field. There’s not much difference between any of the Division I schools and how they approach the development of their football teams. So how did Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban end up on top?
Clearly, both teams have enormous talent. They both have experienced coaches leading them. They both have motivated athletes and both teams will show up Monday night ready to compete, fully prepared for a game that is the culmination of all of their pre-season goals and dreams. But it takes something extra to end up playing for the Championship; a certain amount of luck plus that indefinable element that turns a group of young boys into a united team. Swinney and Saban have ended up on top because of all these things but they both have an added element to their football programs. Both of these coaches are affiliated with programs for people with special needs and both coaches involve their players in that affiliation.
Right now, you’re probably thinking I’ve lost my mind. What in the world could spending time with a person with Down syndrome have to do with becoming a contender for the football National Championship? How could someone with cerebral palsy have any affect on the outcome of a high-stakes athletic competition? What does a Division I athlete have in common with a person with autism? I think it’s their involvement with people who are routinely marginalized that has given Saban, Swinney and their players the edge.
Alabama’s legendary coach, Gene Stallings, once said this to me (I’m paraphrasing): I’ve spent my life around the most elite athletes in the world. I’ve watched professional football players achieve physical feats that I never imagined. But the most impressive physical, athletic achievement I’ve ever witnessed was when my son, Johnny, who had Down syndrome, took his first steps at the age of four. Those first steps represented years of practice, struggle and determination.
Saban has been involved with The Rise School at the University of Alabama since he arrived in Tuscaloosa. His personal foundation donates thousands of dollars each year to The Rise School, a national model for early intervention and inclusion. His athletes routinely volunteer at the center, always showing up for their shift in a coat and tie. The Rise School’s founder, Dr. Martha Cook, told me once that there’s nothing that moves her heart more than seeing a 300-pound linebacker sitting on the floor playing with a three-year-old child with cerebral palsy. She told me that Saban’s requirement that his players spend time with her students is evidence that he is “producing not just athletes, but men.”
Swinney has been involved with Clemson’s groundbreaking Clemson Life Program since he began his tenure and his personal foundation, like Saban’s, donates thousands to the program. Clemson Life is a full-on residential college program for students with special needs and has received national attention for the unique nature of its elements. Swinney invites Clemson Life students to closed practices, picks them up in the team’s bus and even lets them touch the fabled rock at Clemson’s stadium, a privilege only given to Clemson’s football teams. In this moving video, its evident to me that Sweeney has instilled respect for everyone, regardless of their abilities, in his athletes.
So what is it about football teams spending time with people who have special needs that gives them the edge over other teams? It’s my contention that the Tigers and the Tide view their accomplishments and abilities through a different filter because they regularly spend time with folks who share none of their physical ability but have the heart it takes to be a winner. How can you take for granted your superior physical ability when you spend an hour with a child in a wheelchair? How can you allow yourself to squander even one minute of your practice time when you have hands-on experience with people who will struggle their entire lives to tie their own shoes or to acquire the skills they need to live independently?
When both teams take the field Monday night, they will be equipped with everything they need to win…the finest preparation, a carefully thought out game plan and their own athletic prowess. They will also be equipped with a level of compassion and humanity that you can only experience when you spend time with people who have special needs. Those football players have been influenced, their hearts have been moved and their appreciation for their own skill has been humbled by seeing people overcome the odds every day…just to say their own name…or complete an academic assignment…or navigate a world that is designed in ways that prohibit their full involvement. I believe the players for Clemson and Alabama will bring to the field an inspiration and motivation to win that isn’t based on self-serving goals but instead is based on a true appreciation for the worth of every person’s abilities.
I could be wrong. Maybe Clemson and Alabama have ended up on top because they worked harder than every other NCAA team or because luck played out for them. But I don’t think I’m wrong. I think these two teams ended up on top because their coaches have instilled in them a perspective for winning that comes not from competing with the most exceptional athletes in college football but from interacting with people who have overcome obstacles and challenges those young athletes will never have to face.
And to me, that makes Saban and Swinney the best coaches in college football. And in my book, both teams deserve the National Title for this reason alone.
But I will, of course, be yelling Roll Tide all night!