an unexpected circumstance
This week college football crowned its National Champion in a game many labeled an instant classic. After trailing a tough, confident Georgia team 13-0 at halftime, the Alabama Crimson Tide stormed from behind to win in overtime, 26-23. This game had it all. Just when you thought you knew what to expect – over and over again – the unexpected happened. It provided some great entertainment. It also provided a great opportunity for each of us, here working to raise athletes and people of our own, to see clearly what separates the champion athlete from everyone else.
The major storyline after the game revolved around Alabama’s quarterback situation. Sophomore Jalen Hurts had started every game in his two years with the Crimson Tide and brought a 26-2 record into the title game against Georgia, which was his second consecutive National Championship appearance. (One of his two career losses came in last year’s championship against Clemson.) This season he threw 17 touchdowns and only one interception, plus he ran for eight more scores. He’s played the most important position and led one of the best programs in college football since the day he arrived on campus. He’s an elite player and leader. And at halftime of the biggest game of his career – trailing Georgia 13-0 – Jalen Hurts got benched.
Georgia’s physical, aggressive defense had shut down Alabama in the first half, and Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban believed a change at quarterback would give his team a spark. Hurts is a dual-threat QB who's always had success both throwing and running, but Saban believed his back-up, a little-known and little-used freshmen from Hawaii named Tua Tagovailoa – who had proven himself a better deep-ball passer Saban thought could expose Georgia’s defensive weaknesses – would be a better fit.
Tagovailoa was a high-profile high school recruit, but had only seen time on the field at Alabama in blow-out wins. (The games he played in, the Crimson Tide won by an average of 42 points per game.) On National Championship night, he hadn’t seen any game action in almost two months, but Nick Saban’s gut feeling about his quarterback change proved prophetic. Tua sparked Alabama with three second-half touchdown passes, including a walk-off game-winner in overtime, to win his team the national title and write himself into Alabama football lore forever.
On the biggest night of their football lives, the two Alabama quarterbacks found themselves in situations they probably didn’t anticipate. So often in life – on the playing field and beyond – things don’t go according to the script we’ve written for ourselves, and what was true for Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa is true for each of us, and for our kids, too: that often it’s those moments when our circumstances unexpectedly change – especially under the bright lights of the big stage – that reveal what we're really made of.
Often it’s those moments when our circumstances unexpectedly change – especially under the bright lights of the big stage – that reveal what we're really made of.
The champion athlete gives a singular effort - their very best, all the time. The mediocre athlete, on the other hand, gives a circumstantial effort. They give their very best…until. Until their team is losing. Until coach takes them out of the game. Until it appears they won’t get what they want. In a sports world full of entitlement, full of self over team, full of whining and pouting and playing the victim, I’d like you to be challenged and encouraged today by Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, two big-time athletes faced with unlikely circumstances, both of whom responded like champions.
When the second half began, fans, experts, and social media pundits were shocked to see Jalen Hurts on the sideline. Throughout the remainder of the game TV cameras cut to him regularly, almost anticipating a meltdown. This day and age, what would you expect? The starting quarterback pouting alone on the end of the bench. Feeling cheated by his coach out of an opportunity he’d rightfully earned. Quietly rooting against his replacement, hoping to get a shot to re-enter the game. Those responses might be common, but they're not what Jalen Hurts chose. Instead, he chose to be uncommon. Was he hurt, or shocked, or disappointed that he’d been benched? I’m sure he was. But did he allow the circumstances of his situation to keep him from doing his very best, as difficult as it was, right where he was in that moment? Absolutely not.
Despite how he felt, he honored his coach’s decision. Beyond that, no player supported, encouraged, or celebrated Tua Tagovailoa’s second half success more than Jalen Hurts. He was engaged and committed. He was all-in on doing his part – even if it wasn’t the part he would’ve chosen for himself – right where he was. He selflessly chose to focus his attention on something bigger than his own circumstance; he made it about the team instead. After the game, reporters swarmed the freshman back-up turned hero, but many were interested in hearing from the demoted starter, too. After witnessing his second half performance, no one should’ve been surprised Jalen Hurts spoke the words of a champion: “It was important for me to stay true to myself and be the person I am, and be the leader I am, regardless of the circumstance.”
And how about Tagovailoa? Despite being a little-used back-up who hadn’t seen playing time for weeks, when his moment came, he didn’t have to get ready. He was already ready. He was prepared for his opportunity, even when it came at the most unexpected time. The weak-minded, medicore athlete probably hasn’t bothered to prepare. He’s convinced it probably doesn’t matter, since he probably won’t play anyways. The poet William Matthews wrote, “Unless a man has trained himself for his chance, his chance will only make him look ridiculous.” Tua Tagovailoa trained and prepared and got ready for his chance, not knowing exactly when or where that opportunity might come. When it came there in the second half of the National Championship game, his team was trailing a physical, aggressive, confident Georgia defense. But the freshman back-up who hadn't played in two months didn’t look ridiculous. Instead, he came in and looked like a champion.
Here’s what I hope you’ll take a minute to see clearly today: sometime, maybe soon, your child may find himself in some unexpected circumstance, like Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa. Who will you have encouraged him to be when he gets there? What will you have taught, trained, and prepared him to do in the midst of that unexpected circumstance? What example will you have set for him, based on how you’ve chosen to handle the challenging, unexpected circumstances in your own life? How are you helping him get ready to handle what’s coming – especially on the bright lights of the big stages in his life – when his true character will be revealed?
I’m guessing neither Alabama quarterback handled their National Championship circumstance the way they did on accident. It was likely the result of some higher-level teaching, training, and preparing by the important people in their lives. Both Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa have regularly credited their parents for helping lead them to success on the football field. Can you imagine how proud each of those parents must have been, watching their boys respond like champions to the unexpected circumstances they found themselves in on championship night? Here’s hoping that each of us can do some higher-level teaching, training, and preparing of our own, today and every day. And that someday soon, each of us can feel the pride that comes with seeing our kids play like champions themselves, regardless of the circumstances.
P.S. - Here's a great article about Jalen Hurts' championship game performance you might consider printing off and giving to your child. His powerful example can serve as a resource for teaching, training, and preparing the emerging champion in your own life.
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