The Only Victories that Truly Matter are the Moral Ones

By: John O’Grady, Founder and Owner of O’Grady Leadership Consulting Services

Victories that Matter

An often-used phrase in sports is, “there are no moral victories.” This phrase is extolled by coaches, fans, and players alike whenever their team loses a contest. It places primacy on the score as the only outcome worthy of acknowledgment.  I am guilty of having uttered these words to youth teams I have coached, my daughter, who is an athlete, as well as teams I have been a member of. I suppose I did because it’s easy to adopt a catchy phrase without much thought, especially one so frequently used. As is the case with most unexamined things in life I have come to realize I have been wrong and exceedingly small in my thinking. Now that I am a little wiser, completing a career as a decorated combat veteran, and launching my leadership consulting business I realize that the only lasting victories are the moral ones – regardless of the score at the end of the game. The actual wins worthy of celebration in life are, in fact, the moral ones – I am now playing the long game. This concept became crystal clear for me while I observed the indomitable human spirit, brotherhood, and competitiveness of the Wagner College Football team as they lost their season opener, 24-21. This loss came to a twenty-one point favorite, University of Connecticut (UCONN) team.

This story starts back well before I even became associated with the Wagner program. It starts on 30 December 2018, when one of the young men on the team, Tyamonee Johnson, was senselessly and tragically killed while home for vacation from Wagner. The 22-year-old man, a father of a then two-year-old, recently graduated and decided to return to Wagner in pursuit of his Master’s Degree. All that changed on 30 December as did the contour of the Wagner Football teams upcoming season without their brother and teammate “T.”  The staff and the team faced their first tough choice of a new season… be consumed by the pain and senseless nature of this horrific event or take control and ownership for what they could control. They chose the latter in the coming days and weeks that passed as they navigated through this hard life lesson, resolving never to forget their teammate and friend. They decided to draw closer as a team, relish the precious moments together regardless of how difficult, and re-dedicate themselves to the rigors of the off-season, preparing for the season without “T.”

Fast forward to the last week in July of 2019 some seven months later.  I was invited to deeply embed with the football team in my capacity as a leadership and culture consultant. I spent a full eight days with the team during the start of summer camp. I was given complete access thanks to Head Coach, Jason “Hoss” Houghtaling, and Associate Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator, Del Smith.  I lived in the dorms with the players and ate meals with them. The dog days of summer start at 600AM and last until approximately 1030PM each day and I was present for all of it. The first thing that struck me about the coaching staff is that they intuitively understand that they are in the business of coaching people and teaching football.  This wasn’t something explicitly spoken, but as I observed them, it was exceedingly clear.  These were men of character built for selfless service for other men. They were deeply invested in the type of leaders they wanted the young men they coached to become. In fact, we spent an entire morning session discussing what it meant to be a “Wagner Man,” and another whole day discussing the topic of cultivating trust with intention.  Now, anyone who knows anything about summer camp or a football coaches’ life, in general, knows time is the most precious resource second only to players. The time investment and subsequent discussions during the week demonstrated how committed the staff was to building men of character, focusing only on what they could control and what was right in front of them each day with the statement, ‘What’s Important Now – W.I.N!”.  Many other staffs would prioritize X’s and O’s over everything else – not Wagner. 

Throughout the remainder of the week, I was offered the opportunity to have breakfast with Coach Hoss, where we spoke at length about leadership and cultivating a values-based culture. Additionally, I met with his leadership council of players where we talked about the season they wanted to have and what they were willing to do to achieve those goals.  I offered up they conversely consider what they would not tolerate while attaining their goals. Throughout this entire process, I sensed this was a unique group of people, invested in each other’s growth, first as humans and second as players, genuinely committed to a pursuit of excellence in all things – no excuses. 

In my parting speech to the team, I challenged them to do three of things as they moved forward. First, don’t sacrifice the future on the altar of today. Second, love your future self as much or more than you do your current self. Lastly, recognize the genuine miracle it was that they were present in this moment, despite the day to day grind, never forget this and understand they had a responsibility to treat it as a miracle – no excuses, put in the hard work and make the hard choices necessary to ensure that all three challenges were met. My promise to the team, “I’ll be watching, and I’ll call you out if you aren’t achieving your full potential.” 

Graciously I was invited back to travel with the team to their season opener.  Fast forward to kickoff, 24 August in the season opener at UCONN. What I witnessed for 60 minutes of football was a group of young men of character, led by men of integrity, fiercely compete.  It’s a small nuance, but it was clear these men didn’t only play with one another; they were playing for one another. They had 100 reasons to relent even before the start of the contest. But like back in December of 2018 they chose not to. During the game, they had another 1,000 reasons to lay down, fold, or quit. Instead, they decided to compete with an unrelenting spirit. Each time they made a conscious choice as individuals and as a collective to begin to define further the men they wanted to be, not just on a football team, but in life. They became winners in life.

For this experience, I became filled with an incredible depth of gratitude that is hard to accurately articulate. I am so thankful for having been able to witness up close this astonishing demonstration of what the human spirit is capable of and be a small part of their journey. It allows me to re-affirm my passion for working with athletes, coaches, and teams, helping guide them toward the best version of themselves. In doing so, I become a better version of myself. I am forever better and inspired because of the choices these men made, play in and play out, and how they departed the field with class.  

I am reminded of an Edwin Markham poem, “Creed.”  The following is an excerpt, “There is a destiny that makes us brothers; None goes his way alone; All that we send into the lives of others comes back into our own.”  In sports, the human spirit is offered the opportunity to express this symbiotic dance in ways rarely found anywhere else. We must never forget this. We should always celebrate this. This is the moral victory, far more impactful and everlasting, and ever-present regardless of the score, win or lose. Yes, there are moral victories. I witnessed one, and I celebrate it, you should too.

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