Herm Edwards was pissed. It was week 8 of the 2002 season and his New York Jets were limping along at 2-5.
Fresh off a loss to the Cleveland Browns, a frustrated Edwards took a deep breath, walked up to the podium in the pressroom and prepared to answer questions from the historically brutal New York media.
When asked a question by one reporter about his team’s inability to win during the first half of the season, Edwards delivered what has become one of the most infamous statements in football history.
“You play to win the game! Hello? You play to win the game!”
Sure, we as American sports fans poke fun at this speech, immortalizing it in countdowns and Coors Light commercials. But what we never do is look deeper into the point that the frustrated head coach, who proceeded to drive home, forget about the loss, and lead a newly motivated team to a 7-2 finish, was trying to make.
The important thing to note is that he calls football exactly what it is—a game.
This is something that sports figures—in particular a once revered football mind in late Penn State coach Joe Paterno—seem to have forgotten.
In the case of Paterno, who led his Nittany Lions to 409 victories over 62 seasons as the team’s head coach, the point was more than to just prepare and call plays to win the game. He lived to win.
And he was damn good at it, too. His team’s successes on the field have earned him the right to stand alone as college football’s winningest coach and for a time as the most beloved figure in Penn State’s 157-year history.
It is only recently that we’ve come to discover the costs of these once celebrated achievements. Nearly twenty young men, victims of Jerry Sandusky’s, had to wait two or more decades for justice, mainly so that the storied Nittany Lions football program wouldn’t have to confront any black eyes along the way to more bowl victories and strong recruiting classes.
Now the football program is in shambles and the NCAA, never expecting a turn of events quite as horrific as this, still doesn’t know quite what to do.
Impose fines? Give the school’s football program the death penalty? Take away scholarships? There’s no point now—the damage has already been done.
Possible recruits wouldn’t dare let themselves be courted by what is now a fire sale rather than a program, where everything—and everyone—must go. The fate of a statue outside of Beaver Stadium that once celebrated Paterno’s successes and contributions to the academic vitality of the school could be decided as early as Monday morning.
Whatever decision is made will be upsetting to many and thus it does not matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. Besides, it’s not even the statue that should earn the most shame, but rather an engraving surrounding it that reads: “Joseph Vincent Paterno: Educator, Coach, Humanitarian.”
Somewhere along the way to 24 bowl victories, the latter was lost by the wayside. Hoisted trophies and notches in the win column became more important than accountability and the well being of others.
What Edwards said on that ordinary night in 2002 was a perfect truism; it reminded his Jets team and others who heard it about the importance of embracing competition and trying to reach new heights on the field of battle.
At the time, it served its purpose as a rally cry, and that’s great.
Those who take it or have taken it for a life philosophy, however, have sadly narrowed their worldviews.
Hopefully these last few months have given the sports world a better understanding of priority; that compassion for those in need and awareness of our surroundings are more important than we might think.
Something tells me a more candid Edwards that night would have said something like, “You play to win the game! You live for much more than that.”