“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” said fabled football coach Vince Lombardi. You may be surprised to learn that these words were not originally spoken by Lombardi, but by UCLA Bruins’ coach, Red Sanders. In a sense, in being viewed by history as the originator of the phrase, Lombardi was given an undeserved “win.” For that, I do not fault him. He may never have intended to become known as its originator, or may simply have forgotten he’d heard it said before. Author James Michener claimed Lombardi was misquoted and really said, “the will to win is the only thing.” Whatever he said, I’d like to think that’s what the man meant.
Everywhere these days, from “deflategate” to politics, winning is “the only thing” is increasingly being taken to heart.
As one who spent a great deal of my time and energy engaged in competitive sports, the will to win resonates better with me. At various times in my life, fully aware that I lack elite genes, I trained like a professional athlete and competed in a state of pain as if I had a chance to win. Even in my own age group, while I often finished among the better performers, I usually didn’t come in first. Thanks to all the effort, though, I wound up higher in the pecking order than my DNA would have predicted. What modest success I had, the world will little note nor long remember, but the personal rewards have been many.
If winning is defined as finishing first, if that’s all there is to it, you and I and 99.99999999 percent of the population are losers. The unfortunate truth is that unless you are born with that star level DNA and have the personal qualities that drive you to fully develop your potential you are unlikely to reach the top of any field without cheating. For most of us, winning must be defined, in the immortal words of sports writer Grantland Rice, as not whether we win or lose, but how we play the game.
To be a winner we are not required to win, but rather, are required to pursue our goals as though we actually have a chance to achieve them. The reward will be that we become the best possible versions of ourselves, and, perhaps, may occasionally be surprised to find ourselves in first place.
Winning is not about coming in first in one race, or two or a hundred, it’s about how we run a lifelong race. It’s about strength of character achieved through dedication and perseverance. Most important it’s about integrity, doing our best while honoring the rules of fair play and maintaining respect for our rivals.
When, in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens gave his closest competitor, a German, tips on how to do better in the long jump, he personified what it is to be a true winner. Jesse won the event anyway, but even if he hadn’t, that act of sportsmanship was better testimony to his being a winner than was the gold medal that was placed around his neck.
Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If-” includes the lines, “if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same……then you may call yourself a Man….”
To continue with my little lesson on Yiddish from the blog “Azoy Ah President,” the Yiddish equivalent of Kipling’s “Man” is “Mench,” literally “man,” but not just meaning “male.” Applied equally to all genders, it connotes being a truly fine human being. In “Azoy Ah President,” I imagined some of the Yiddish phrases my grandparents might have employed to describe our former president. As the horrific story of the past four years, especially its final months show, “Mench” is one word that would never have come to their minds. This man who insists he “wins” at everything has never fairly won a thing in his life.
I’d like to feel joyful at Trump’s defeat, and to gloat at how he redoubled his loss by his outrageous behavior following the election. But, as it’s clear his influence will persist even beyond his stay in the oval office, all I can feel is sadness. It’s so sad to see Republican politicians minimize and rationalize a blatant act of sedition, obstruct all worthy legislation and stir up the petty peeves and prejudices of their base simply to increase their odds of “winning” future elections.
I mourn for a nation that has become a place where such a loser as Donald Trump could even have been considered worthy of the Presidency let alone achieve it. I mourn for the tens of millions of losers who have been taken in, corrupted and embittered by him. But I mourn most for the biggest losers of all, for democracy and for the billions of people all over the world who may never again count on America to be a beacon of hope. All because our government is increasingly dominated by losers, losers who have the chutzpa to call themselves winners.