Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Father Factor

Over the years Mrs. Linklater's interest in men's professional sports has included more than just the firm derrieres belonging to the athletes. She often wonders what makes them excel and what makes them flounder. Aside from the usual suspects -- too much money, women, alcohol and drugs.  

She calls it the Father Factor. What part does dad seem to play in the success or failure of the great ones? Or the ones who could have been great.

From where Mrs. L sits, which she admits is pretty far away, she still feels free to play fast and loose with her observations and twist them to suit her arguments. Just like her idol, what's that bitch's name -- oh yes, Anne Coulter.

Mrs. L activated the Father Factor machine last weekend. For some reason on Father's Day, a few notable high profile athletes crashed and burned in spectacular fashion.

Phil Mickelson totally choked. On the final hole of the US Open he lost his mind and decided to go for a birdie instead of par, ending with a double bogie and coming in second. Listening to things a critical person once said to you can make you do dumb stuff like that.

Mrs. Linklater lost several tennis matches during a difficult personal time in her life, when an inner critical voice, who shall remain nameless, would interrupt her toss during the serve.  A year later, the voice and the trouble were gone.

Tiger, very surprisingly, had already choked earlier, not making the cut in a major tournament, any tournament in fact, for the first time since turning pro. This Father's Day would be his first without his dad.

Mark Prior, a former ace pitcher for the Cubs, choked on Father's Day, too. Hewas making his first start since his re-hab for his most recent injury this spring. The first batter he faced hit a home run and it was down hill faster than Jack and Jill from there. The day was a total bust, even though Prior, the most recent hope for the Cubs' future, looked like he'd found his old form during a very successful warm up game in the minor leagues. 

Not to put too fine a point on all this, but Mrs. Linklater thinks there were more than the usual issues affecting those guys. Somewhere, she thinks, Dad played a part in what happened to them that day.

Phil Mickelson has a long history of coming in second. Recently he seemed to have broken through whatever spell his demons had over him, winning two majors in a row with a good chance for a third on Sunday. Finally he was winning the tournaments that had eluded him for so long. He was on a roll at least until Father's Day, when he reverted back to his old ways in a manner that caused Mrs. Linklater to question what games dear old dad has been playing inside his son's head.

She made her Father Factor observation before knowing anything about Mickelson's dad. Moments ago she looked the guy up and discovered that Dad had been a top gun pilot with some heroic exploits notched on his belt. A tough act for a son to follow. Unless Dad gave him permission. Mrs. L wonders how competitive Phil Sr is with Phil Jr. Based on Junior's blow up on father's Day she would say Dad still looms pretty large in his son's legend.

Somewhere there's a reminder to Junior that Senior is still the top gun. Especially on Father's Day. Perhaps Pop is still not ready to relinguish his numero uno spot to sonny boy. Certainly there's a good argument that Phil Junior still feels intimidated enough by Dad's shadow to throw away his chance to win when he had his eyes on the prize.

Yeah, you're not buying any of this, but humor me.

Tiger and his dad had an enviable bond. Never in sports has there been a better example of how a loving parent can elevate a child to greatness. But the bond was broken when Tiger's dad died a few months ago. Not that all the confidence, competence and unconditional love his father gave him were lost. But the effects of Tiger's sadness following his loss were bound to surface somehow on Father's Day.

Ironically, Nike made a commercial to commemorate this iconic relationship that ran all during the tournament, which only served to emphasize Tiger's absence. Thinking about his father had to be a huge emotional distraction for Tiger with his first fatherless Father's Day looming. Certainly something made him shoot a couple of rounds of 76 and miss the cut.

Mrs. Linklater has no clue about Mark Prior's relationship with his dad. But the play by play guys talked about how tight and uncomfortable he looked on Father's Day. His body language said LOSER. Was the Father Factor in play? When a seasoned ballplayer suddenly seems to lack confidence, question his ability, or behave inappropriately, Dad issues may be kicking in.

Clearly in front of the weekend's Father's Day crowd of 40,000 at Wrigley, the tension of his long awaited return got to Prior. Personally, when Mrs. Linklater heard he was going to pitch on Father's Day she wondered why the Cubs' organization didn't let him ease into the rotation with an afternoon start sometime during the week. The Cubs haven't been winning and with his return, Prior was carrying a huge burden on his shoulders to jump start the franchise again with a great outing. Based on what the guys calling the game saw, the problem wasn't that his skills were impaired.  His head was impaired.

That's where Dads do some of their most significant work. Creating the Fear Factor tapes which play over and over in a player's mind. Which begs the question, at least for Mrs. L, what part did Prior's current or prior relationship with his father play in his total ineptitude on Father's Day?

All of this brings our La-Z-Boy shrink to a couple of prime examples of a father's power. In these instances, the power is for good, not evil. She thinks it's no coincidence that Joe Montana and John Elway are the two greatest comeback quarterbacks in NFL history. Not just great quarterbacks. Great comeback quarterbacks. Elway had 46 fourth quarter come from behind victories and one tie.  Montana had 31. Is there anything tougher in professional sports?

But it wasn't their great physicality that made the difference. It was their calm in the face of enormous pressure that made the difference. And that kind of calm only comes when Dad's in your corner.

Elway had the classic size and arm strength for his job, but it's worth noting that he finally won his Super Bowl rings well past his prime while playing on a knee held together with spit and string.

Joe Montana went in the late rounds of the draft, his height and arm strength not given much of a chance in the NFL. Technically, the scouts were right. He never threw with rocket power. However, his timing and throwing accuracy were almost infallible. But it was his composure when the going got tough that became legendary, prompting a nickname: Joe Cool.  

The story of Joe Cool has been told many times. With 3:20 left, the 49ers were down by three points to the Bengals in the 1989 Super Bowl. In the huddle the team was waiting for the call. Montana sees someone on the sideline. "Isn't that John Candy?" he asks the other players. In the middle of the biggest game of the year, with their chances for winning ticking away, Joe Cool remained so unflappable he could think about something else. Then he marched the 49ers 94 yards for the winning touchdown with only 34 seconds left.  

The reason those two Hall of Fame players have joined the ranks of the NFL's greatest comeback quarterbacks is in large part due to the Father Factor. Their dads gave them the confidence to do anything, especially when push came to shove.

Listen to players in any sport who talk to themselves when they're in a difficult situation. How often do you hear -- "You idiot."  "What are you doing?" "That was so stupid!"  Those are critical parental voices they're channeling.  

Based on stories told about Elway and Montana, neither one had to deal with negative parental head noise. They had dads who told them early and often "You can do it, Son."  Peyton Manning also comes to mind. Ben Rothlisberger did too, until his recent helmet free crash.

Montana's dad, Joe, Sr, was always supportive. His only child waited for him to come home so they could play catch, shoot hoops or throw the football together throughout his childhood. Joe Sr backed his son, regardless. Against a high school football coach who kicked him off the team for not following the prescribed weight training program, even though it interferred with playing baseball. When he was a high school All American, but languished at seventh on the Notre Dame depth chart.  When he wasn't a first or even a second round draft pick. Montana overcame doubters and naysayers all along the way because his dad was always 100% behind him.

John Elway, who spent his childhood on the sidelines shadowing his football coach father, honored him best in his enshrinement speech for the Hall of Fame:"  

"My dad wasn’t just my best friend, he was my hero, my mentor and my inspiration. He was the keeper of my reality checklist, and the compass that guided my life and my career. And he taught me the No. 1 lesson of my life – always make your family proud. Now that he’s gone, I thank God every day for letting him see the Broncos win two Super Bowls.

"My dad didn’t so much teach me how to play football, but why to play it. He taught me to compete, to never give up, to play every down like it’s your last. He taught me to appreciate the game, to respect it, to play it like it was meant to be played. He taught me to enjoy my successes and learn from my failures. And above all, he told me, 'Make sure when you go out with your offensive linemen, you pick up the tab.'”

Michael Jordan had a similarly close relationship with his dad. When his father was murdered, Jordan quit basketball to play baseball for a couple of years, refusing to link his abrupt departure to anything associated with his father's death. The Father Factor works in unusual ways. I wonder how his own sons will fare as they embark on their own youthful sports careers. 

In a Monday Night 41-7 win over the Raiders, Brett Favre paid his father a final tribute, passing for an amazing four touchdowns in the first half and 399 yards for the game on the day after his father's sudden death.
"I knew that my dad would have wanted me to play. I love him so much and I love this game. It's meant a great deal to me, to my dad, to my family, and I didn't expect this kind of performance. But I know he was watching tonight." 

On the flip side of the coin, how about an example of very talented, physically gifted players who could have made it, but failed miserably?

Like Ryan Leaf, who even in college revealed the behavioral signs of his impending implosion.  Had to be a bad dad there. Drunk, abusive, critical, whatever, Mrs. Linklater doesn't know exactly.  But she's invoking the Father Factor.

High school and Ohio State star quarterback, Art Schlichter, is another example. His gambling addiction has caused him to continue to commit felonies for which he is currently incarcerated.  Mrs. L thinks that the Father Factor played a huge part. But she also thinks there were probably other abuse issues, too.  

Jeremy Shockey, tight end for the Giants, was on the short road to ruin spending his free time getting lapdanced in strip clubs, drinking escessively, and running off at the mouth. A magazine article described his difficult relationship with his absent father and his life with a wacko Mom. But someone seems to have stepped in to help the guy get his over the top behavior back in line. However, he's still vulnerable.

There's one notable lefthanded quarterback from the eighties whose father controlled every part of his life from what he ate to how long he slept. The plan was to create a superstar athlete who would succeed beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Last I read this unfortunate young man was arrested for yet another drug possession.  [SEE COMMENTS]

Mrs. Linklater thinks that an idiot should be able to identify players at risk. Unfortunately professional sports lets those people coach instead.

And those players deemed at risk as rookies should be mentored by Hall of Fame father figures in their sports who should call them, give them advice, and offer encouragement. 

Football Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw sent a message via TV to NFL youngster, Ben Rothlisberger, after his motorcycle accident. Pointing his finger at the camera, Bradshaw invoked the Father Factor. He shook his finger and told Ben he was an idiot for not wearing a helmet. And Ben is one of the good ones.

At a time when immature, uneducated, fatherless teenagers are leaving school to join professional sports, more young players could use some of that tough love.


screaminremo303 said...

Lefty is just Lefty. This is the same guy that made a killing with a parlay bet a few years ago, taken out a year in advance, that some bimbo team would win the Super Bowl. No one gets to be famous or great by playing it safe, otherwise we'd all be Democrats. Anyone who has followed Phil's career just KNEW he was going to go Tin Cup down the stretch.

The young prodigy you spoke of is Todd Marinovich. Dude, where's my life?

jevanslink said...

Thanks.  I couldn't remember his name -- just that it had a VICH in it.  Haaaaaa.  Mrs. L

bosoxblue6993w said...

Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth had less than perfect fathers.    My nephew. who plays for the SF Giants is barely hitting above the Mendoza Line ... but his Dad makes Ward Cleaver look like a psychbopath.

jevanslink said...

If your nephew was a low round pick who has turned out to be a superstar, then we could talk. Or a high round pick who went bust. Or high round, high achiever. Or a pitcher who choked during the big ones. Or like second basemen Steve Sax who suddenly couldn't throw a ball to first and have it get there.

If Ty Cobb and Ruth were around today, their careers would have been over much sooner.  For example, John Rocker's racist attitudes and smart mouth have already cost him. Ty Cobb was one of the most hated players in the game. No way he would have survived the modern clubhouse. Babe Ruth and Jeremy Shockey have parallels, although different sports. Charismatic athletes with alcohol issues. Ruth's womanizing and boozing wouldn't stand the scrutiny of today's media. He would have imploded.

Mrs. L  

screaminremo303 said...

Babe Ruth would have made out just fine. He had all the qualities of a Democratic President. But I think he preferred to smoke his own cigars.

jevanslink said...

I just remembered Denny McLean.  Talk about a bright flash who crashed. Has anybody ever won more than 30 games besides him?  He may still be in prison.  Mrs. L