The Jersey Effect
by Hunter Smith
The Jersey Effect provides a window into my soul . . .
What do you do when you achieve something that you have strived for all of your life? For most National Football League (NFL) athletes, winning the Super Bowl is the single most important goal they could achieve. But five years out from our world championship, alongside 10 of my teammates and coaches I provide glimpses of what really lies beyond the championship ring.
Of course, I’ll never forget that February night in 2007. It was undoubtedly the pinnacle of my professional career—we had climbed the mountain and the monkey was finally off our back. Following our 29–17 victory against the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI in Miami, we celebrated with “confetti and fireworks in the rain.” We were all going to get a championship ring!
It’d been a long road for us Colts. Sure, it was awesome to be a part of a team that had accumulated 115 wins in a 10-year span, giving us the most successful organizational decade in NFL history. But the Big One—the Super Bowl—it took forever to win. We were always in contention, but most of the national media and even some of our fans believed we’d continue to choke annually in the play-offs like we had against number-6-seeded Pittsburgh in 2005.
Then came 2006. I still don’t know how we won our championship rings; it was truly remarkable. (In fact, that’ll probably be a question that I will ask God when I arrive in heaven.) Our defense was not very good, but we were all-around pretty atrocious in ’06. Against Jacksonville, in week 14 of the regular season, we surrendered 375 rushing yards in a game, a staggering 12.4 yards per rush. Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for 166 yards and Fred Taylor went for 131. I’ll say it again: 375 rushing yards—the second-highest total in NFL history. Are you kidding me?
I vividly remember standing on the sidelines during a kickoff that game and hearing the announcer say over the stadium speakers: “If Maurice Jones-Drew runs this kickoff for a touchdown, some lucky Jaguar will win 20,000 dollars!” Next thing I knew, Maurice sprinted right by me. All I did was turn my head. Then I hung my head. “Touchdown!” Not good, not good at all.
We were last in the league that year in rushing defense, yielding 2,768 total yards with 5.3 yards per carry, and last in return defense, surrendering 2,029 yards with 26.0 per return. Overall, our defense ranked 21st in the league, surrendering 332.3 yards per game. And remember, these were the stats from a Super Bowl team. Unbelievable.
Even so, we were still winning. We totaled 12 wins for the fourth time in four years, won the American Football Conference (AFC) South for the fourth time in a row, and even won our first nine games. At that point, the media and fans didn’t care about winning in the regular season, since for the last half-decade we had already proved we could do that. Everyone, rather, was interested in one thing and one thing only: a Super Bowl win. And the city was peeved with how many yards we were giving up, but this collective jersey adversity shaped us. It made our victory even more special than if we had just cruised all the way to the podium in Miami to get the trophy.
That collective jersey adversity is what made 2006 special. We all had to come together and create quite a bit of synergy to get the job done. Come play-off time—despite the critics of our defense and special teams—that’s exactly what we did. In the AFC wild-card play-off game against Kansas City, our defense silenced the skeptics by holding Larry Johnson to 32 yards on 13 carries. We won 23–8. Still, everyone thought our defensive performance that game was a fluke. But we did it the next game, too, against the Ravens and earned our first play-off return to Baltimore since our great “Mayflower Voyage” of March of 1984. We proved that it wasn’t a fluke, by holding the Ravens to 83 total rushing yards in a 15–6 win. What a big win! But it still was not enough.
Next was the AFC Championship in Indianapolis against you-know-who . . . the New England Patriots. Once again, it looked like we were going to choke in the play-offs as we entered halftime trailing our nemesis (as my teammate Jeff Saturday so aptly referred to them) 21–6. It looked as though we were en route to losing to them for the third postseason in four years:
Lost 24–14 in 2003.
Lost 20–3 in 2004.
And now this.
At halftime, not a soul in the locker room sincerely believed we could win the game. This had become all-too-routine. You make it this far, and then New England tramples your dreams. We all knew this was what New England did. They thrived in the postseason; we staggered in the postseason. They were a dynasty; we were a 12-win team in the regular season. They won the Super Bowl; we won the AFC South. Look, I know that wins and losses are not the measure of a man, but “Lord, please help our Colts.”
So after a two-game play-off absence, Peyton Manning and the offense returned stronger than ever, mounting the greatest comeback in conference title game history, leading us to a 38–34 victory. (Needless to say, I didn’t do much punting in the second half of that game.)
Winning the Super Bowl, of course, would be a big deal that year. But considering our history with New England, just going to the Super Bowl was even bigger. When I came out to punt with a few minutes left in the Super Bowl championship game against Chicago, it finally hit me: we were going to win. After all those losses at Foxboro Stadium, all those defensive trials, all those play-off debacles, we were here, literally paces away from entering the Promised Land. A deluge of joy and restlessness to celebrate came over me. I remember looking up at the clock and seeing that there were eight seconds left and no more Chicago timeouts. That’s when it really hit me. It was over. What a huge relief!
That’s when I tried to deny what I was feeling. Amidst the euphoria, tears, and elation that my jersey had brought me, there was an undeniable feeling that may surprise some of you—emptiness. I felt it again on the plane ride back to the freezing temperatures of Indianapolis where tens of thousands of screaming fans had been waiting for hours to welcome us in the RCA dome. I looked at our chaplain Eric Simpson on the plane: “So this is it?” I asked. “This is what it feels like at the top of the stack, huh? Is this it?”
I know that many of us felt the mixed emotions. A degree of joy coupled with emptiness. We won . . . now what? Whether or not all of my teammates will admit to it is another story. You accomplish something that is the number one objective in a lot of people’s lives, and a feeling of incompleteness screams from the winners on the Super Bowl plane. There was a distinctive loneliness—gnawing at my heart.
What would I do now? Strangely, all I know is that I realized there was a problem. What was beyond the ring (which was yet to be received), the trophy, and the unbridled passion to win? What now? My jersey affected me deeply. My soul was exposed.
In The Jersey Effect, Coach Tony Dungy helps me illuminate that the NFL is a great “laboratory for life” but the problem is that “. . . most of the players and coaches around you have taken sports out of perspective and made it 'the end-all’ of life’s focus.” Fame and fortune can hijack even the most well-intentioned players, feeding them subtle lies that football is a god. Many think that you must win at all costs, that fame can bring happiness, or that football is the most important thing. Tony’s first NFL coach Chuck Noll at the Pittsburgh Steelers taught him that life was about more than just football, and there’s no doubt about it that Tony’s championship rings were not what mattered most to him. That’s why he has invested so much time in so many people on and off the field.
We all need heroes, but what we need more than heroes are mentors and role models. The operative word is model. We need leaders who have been there before us and were willing to show the way. Tony served as this role model to me and to my teammates, who are now role models themselves.
You see, sports have the power to unite us and separate us, to ignite deep passions, to build community, and to amplify the voice of the athletes and coaches. People, like it or not, seem to listen a little more attentively to people who have worn a jersey. We are persuaded by athletes to buy all sorts of things. Athletes have long stumped for brands from razors and cars to beer. Sport-fame and fortune are usually fleeting. Legends are made and forgotten. Championship rings won, soon become forgotten memories for all but the most loyal fans. A lot of NFL athletes end up broke, divorced, depressed, unhappy, and wounded. We can all point to countless athletes who have fallen from grace because of handgun incidents, driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, public divorce, child custody battles, and the list goes on. We see it every week on ESPN. At some level we are affected by it, and our young athletes and parents are left wondering, “Is this what it means to be a professional athlete?”
Tony teaches that to get a proper perspective, athletes must grow in four key dimensions: academically, athletically, socially, and spiritually. According to Tony, the “Jersey Effect” is a powerful way to live your life. It is not just about the influence that the jersey wields: it’s about a full 360-degree impact on those around us. Coach on player, player on coach, player on parents, team on community, you get the idea. It’s about sowing and reaping. It’s about iron sharpening iron. It’s about pursuing the ultimate prize, which has little to do with an individual ring or a team trophy.
Last year while playing for the Redskins, I dropped a snap, and we missed an extra point. We lost the game. I took responsibility. I was fired. I no longer play football for a living. And that was that. Or was it?
Several months before my career ended on that dropped snap in Washington, I had already begun cowritingThe Jersey Effect with my friend Darrin Gray (Twitter @AllProDadLeader.com) who works with Tony Dungy at the national fatherhood program called All Pro Dad. Together Darrin and I took on the challenge of accurately capturing 360 degrees of the jersey effect. We were already writing about the timeless truths and subtle lies I had experienced in my 12-year professional football career. In the coming months I enlisted the help of 10 of my 2006 coaches and teammates to address the lessons they learned from the Super Bowl championship journey: Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell, Clyde Christensen, Ben Utecht, Jeff Saturday, Dylan Gandy, Matt Giordano, Tarik Glenn, Reggie Hodges, and Justin Snow.
I knew there was plenty to learn by looking deep inside the souls of these Super Bowl XLI champions. This book is more than a recollection of the Super Bowl season, though that’s what makes it especially enjoyable; it’s an inside look from the guys that brought the Lombardi Trophy to Indianapolis and brought a ring to me that I rarely wear. More than that, it’s about the lessons the Super Bowl taught us, the character deficiencies it revealed in us, and the meaning behind the jersey. It’s unique because it’s incredibly transparent, as high-profile athletes unveil some of their greatest struggles associated with the Super Bowl, thus opening a window to all of our souls. These men of faith teach us what it really means to be “champions for the Lord.”
If you want to take a journey with us, start by picking up a copy of The Jersey Effect. You can also learn about what I am up to these days with my band, The Hunter Smith Band (@HunterSmithBand), and what I am doing with Jay Hein, president of Sagamore Institute, to launch a sports and culture initiative to further study the impact of sports on culture and vice versa. Whether you are player, coach, parent, or fan, you can help us spread the word that there is indeed life beyond the championship ring.
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