Turning Defeats into Victories

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Like millions of Americans, I will spend much of the next three days glued to the TV, watching some of the best professional and college football teams slug it out on the gridiron. But I’m pretty sure my favorite football moment of the season has already taken place – a highlight you don’t have to love football, or sports at all, to appreciate.

To say the Army Black Knights of the United States Military Academy and the Navy Midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy have a longstanding football rivalry would be a bit of an understatement. They have squared off 118 times (first meeting: November 29, 1890). Every player on both service academy teams dreams of coming up big in the Army-Navy game. That certainly includes Navy kicker Bennett Moehring, who had even planned how he would celebrate if he ever made the game-winning kick.

On December 9, a snowy and windy day, Bennett got the chance he’d been dreaming of. Trailing 14 to 13 with just seconds to play, Navy lined up for a 48-yard field goal. The stakes couldn’t have been clearer – the outcome of the game rode entirely on Bennett. As a Navy man watching the game, I was excited and more than a little nervous for the young man. A field goal of that length isn’t easy under any circumstances. But Bennett got off a heck of a kick, and it looked good until the very last moment, when the wind pushed it just a few inches too far to the left.

On the biggest stage possible – in front of 68,000 freezing fans and a national TV audience – and in the exact scenario he had dreamed about, Bennett failed. But then two things happened that for me and millions of other sports fans, flipped the script, turning a disappointing outcome into both a victory and a teachable moment.

First, as 20-year-old Bennett’s heart was breaking and knees were buckling, his teammates and coaches immediately embraced him. “My team wouldn’t let me fall,” he said, “even though I’d just let them down.” Soon other messages – calls, texts, emails, social media posts, you name it – were pouring in, from friends, strangers, and former Navy football players. The overarching message: You did your best and we are proud of you.

The second, perhaps more important thing that happened is that Bennett – strengthened no doubt by all the people around him – faced up to what happened like an absolute champion. He could have avoided the media. He could have blamed the weather or a teammate’s penalty that made the field goal attempt longer than it might have been. Instead, he answered every question, and took responsibility for what happened. He said he felt blessed to play football at all, and would use his failure as motivation to get better.

In Bennett’s words, “It’s important for me to go through this. If I made the kick, the glory would’ve faded. But with this, I can be an example of good sportsmanship, and that’s lasting.”

I want to wish every reader of this blog a happy new year. I hope your 2018 is full of triumphs, and devoid of disappointment. But my guess is that for you, me, and everyone we know, the next 360 days will bring a fair share of both. So I’m going to keep the story of Bennett Moehring in mind, and I hope you will too.

When you see somebody faltering, when their hearts are breaking and knees are buckling, lift them up.

And when you fall short, keep your head high, and remember that it’s not failure – because we all fail – but how we respond to it that matters.

By the way, three weeks after the loss to Army, Navy walloped Virginia 49 to 7 in the Military Bowl. Bennett went 7 for 7 on extra points. And in eleven short months, he’ll have another crack at Army. 

The dream lives on.

Thanks as always for reading, I’ll write again soon.