Prepping for the Big Game Leaves Pro Athletes Ready for Anything
Lynn Swann, Mark Herzlich and Scott Fujita Reflect on Lessons Learned
For Lynn Swann, the preparation for a championship game is much more than being physically ready. With so much on the line, outstanding athletes like Swann need management and leadership skills that enable their success on the playing field and far beyond it.
"Internal competition is as important as the external competition," said Swann, who won four championships while playing football for Pittsburgh during the 1970s. "Great players will make other players better. That’s part of the function of leadership. That’s part of making your team stronger and better and reaching your goals long term."
Swann, who has since become a broadcaster, business executive and political candidate, says the habits a player forms on the way to a championship can support
future success in any endeavor. "It translates across the board," he said.
“Nothing really has changed that much in all the things that I do, and the boards that I sit on," he said. "It’s still a team concept. It’s listening. It’s being a leader when you need to be a leader.”
One management tactic that helps the pros get ready for a big game, according to former linebacker Scott Fujita: Creating a structured routine amid the chaos of a championship event.
“I think the better job you can do as an individual and as a team of keeping on schedule and on routine, the better off you’re going to be,” said Fujita, who won the 2010 football championship while playing for New Orleans. “There’s a whole lot of pomp and circumstance around the actual game. It becomes almost a holiday event. So it’s finding the best way possible to minimize distractions. Take care of all the problems that might present themselves before you even go down there.”
Mark Herzlich, who went from being an undrafted free agent to being a linebacker in New York on a championship team, said sticking to business as usual should include family and leisure time too.
“One of the things that Coach [Tom] Coughlin and our ownership did a great job of was to make sure our schedule was such that we had time to get to know downtown Indianapolis” where the championship game was held, Herzlich said. “And after practice, we could walk around and get dinner with our teammates and hang out with our families a little bit. But they kept it a normal practice schedule. So we went about our days just like we would have at home.”
Swann said that routine can even include details such as the players' shoes. After his team won a championship in 1974, Swann said, shoe companies offered money to players who would wear their shoes when the team returned to the championship game a year later. With many opportunities to make money, some players were planning to wear a different pair of shoes in each quarter.
Their coach, Chuck Knoll, reminded them that they might be trading the endorsement money for a championship. “He told the whole team,‘Look, if that’s what you want to do, go ahead and do it. But if you’re wearing new shoes every quarter, and you’re changing into something you haven’t worn before, your shoes might not be broken in. You might not be as comfortable. And you might not play as well. But if you just do as you always do, with the money you make as the winning team, you can go out and buy all that stuff that they’re offering you,’ " Swann said.
After that speech, Swann said, the only sound you could hear was that of shoes dropping in the locker room.
For Fujita, the preparation he did to win a championship ring helped him expand the role he built as a community leader.
“I think anytime you can find a way to make what you do personal, whether it’s in football or any walk of life, the better chance you have for success, and the better chance you have to make something that is meaningful and fulfilling,” he said.
That’s actually why he chose to play in New Orleans, he said. As the first free agent to sign up to play in that city after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, “Everybody thought I was crazy,” Fujita said. The town was still a mess, but he was determined to make a difference and help with the rebuilding.
“It just created a perfect marriage between the two,” said Fujita. “And it made everything that much more personal. The stakes were that much higher. We rode that emotional wave" to the 2010 championship.
Mark Herzlich faced daunting challenges before he ever suited up as a pro. He was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer, between his junior and senior seasons at Boston College. Although he missed the entire 2009 season, he returned to play for the school in 2010 before ultimately landing on the professional championship team.
He uses his platform as a champion to inspire others facing hardships. He wrote a book titled What it Takes about his experience fighting cancer.
"I wasn’t handed any silver linings," Herzlich said. "I had to look for little miracles in every day life to give me motivation to move on to the next day. [The book] was about answering all the letters and questions from everyone who had written me and to provide hope to people in any situation in life. Whether it was cancer, whether it was something else, loss of a job or some other sickness, it was to provide that hope.”
Whether it's politics, business or helping those in need, these three men say they continue to rely on the lessons they learned as champions.
Swann said that when he gives a speech, he often closes by asking the audience to think about the best four years of their lives.
"I always tell them, for me the best four years of my life have always been the last four years," Swann said, "because if every day you work on getting a little bit better, you will. It doesn’t have to be a grand slam. If you hit a single every time, when the bases are loaded, a run will score. If every day we try and get a little bit better, whether it’s in your personal life, in your business life or in your community, it doesn’t matter, then you’ll look back, and the last four years will always be the best four years of your life, and you’ll have no regrets.”
Read more from our interviews with these champions:
Photo Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers | Mason Lerner is a freelance journalist who has written for ESPN The Magazine, the Houston Chronicle, the Associated Press and the Galveston County Daily News. Follow the athletes in this story on Twitter at @Lynn88Swann, @MarkHerzlich and @SFujita55