On college campuses across the nation there are dreamers who desire to be, “the walk-on.” High school athletes who may have failed to draw the necessary attention or flew under the radar. They may have lacked the natural abilities or tools the recruiters desired, but were gifted with the grit and determination to prove people wrong. Their ambitions are buried in a dream of playing for a school they always desired to play for.
The University of Georgia just won their first National Championship in forty years. It wasn’t with a five-star, big-armed, lightning fast, or pro style quarterback. It was on the shoulders of a walk-on. I rarely write on current events, but I couldn’t pass this one up. Why? Because Stetson Bennett is most of us. We have way more in common with him than the most talented and naturally gifted stars in the game.
Very few of us just arrived in a leadership position. We had to work for it, scrap for it, fail for it, and win the job. It didn’t come easy for him or us.
Let me be clear. I know little to nothing about him as a person or his character. Every nugget in this post is merely my brain attempting to process how people that should be able to connect with such a relatable story can be such critics of it. Here are four leadership thoughts on the concepts I wrestled with while watching the story of, “the walk-on” unfold:
For me, I can’t help but connect with a story like Stetson Bennet’s. I played four sports growing up: baseball, football, basketball, and wrestling. I was good at most of these, on my best days above average, but never great at any particular one. Definitely not good enough to draw interest from an elite collegiate program. I flew right below the radar of being fast enough, tall enough, strong enough, or explosive enough.
What I did not lack was grit and determination. I gravitated to wrestling towards the end of my high school athletic career. There were more talented people in the room, but one thing my coaches knew was that there was not a single person that would outwork me in the room. No one would prepare more with more determination to overcome than me. You may beat me in a six-minute match, but you were going to get your money’s worth!
Your story is probably a lot more like mine and Stetson Bennet’s than the best athletes you played with. Most of us lacked the natural gifts to play at a high level. Our only chance would be to walk-on with a high-level program. A path paved with grit.
If the story of, “the walk-on” should connect with us, then why were there so many critics of Stetson Bennet?
I have always been extremely disappointed in people’s ability to criticize collegiate athletes. These young people typically range from the age of eighteen to twenty-three. On the night of the National Championship, I watched my social media feed light up with criticisms of this twenty-three-year-old walk-on, especially in the first half when Georgia was losing.
The feed was lit up with calls to put the backup in, harsh name calling, comments that the moment was too big for him, and profanity laced tirades. Here is the crazy thing. Stetson Bennet today is better than any of us in our prime. Heck, I know most of the keyboard warriors I saw lighting up the feeds. Believe me, they have no business criticizing the water boy, much less, “the walk-on!”
Dale Carnegie once said, “any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, and most fools do.” To make the quote more relevant today, you could probably add, “just give them a keyboard.” As leaders, we should be weary of those we choose to criticism publicly. We can easily appear to be the fool. We have all been subject to harsh and unwarranted criticism and it stings. Doesn’t it?
Silence the Critics
Leading your team to their first National Championship in forty years is a pretty good way to silence critics! Late in the fourth quarter the Bulldogssealed the game with an interception. Most will remember Kelee Ringo returning the interception 67 yards for a touchdown or the still picture of Coach Kirby Smart jumping explosively high into the air.
Here is the moment I will never forget as long as I live. After Ringo enters the endzone, the cameras cut over to an emotional Stetson Bennet. I can only guess what was going on inside his heart, but I would be willing to bet that the tears being cried were ones of relief. Relief from the burdens the critics had cast on him throughout the season. The burden of the team he carried, every comment that stuck to his back, every person that told him he couldn’t rolled out with those tears. The harsh critics were finally silenced.
We never know the burdens that people carry from critics. There are those we lead that have been told all their life they are not smart enough, they are not talented enough, or they are not good enough. There is a fire that burns within those people and as leaders we have to figure out how to fan the flames, not douse them with more criticism. The desire to silence critics can drive people to a whole other level of performance.
Coach ‘Em Up
There was one more person that took a lot of criticism to keep Bennet under center, Coach Kirby Smart. He had three other five-star quarterbacks sitting on the sideline. In the face of intense pressure, he chose to stand behind his guy, “the walk-on.” It would have been easy to listen to most of the critics and play the backup, but he didn’t. In fact, on paper the backup was the more skilled quarterback.
What Coach Smart knew was he had the right guy, in the right position, at the right time. That is what we should aspire to do in our organizations. Put the right person, in the right position, at the right time. Sometimes that means taking a chance on someone that doesn’t have the most decorated resume or checks all the skill boxes. It just means sometimes a leader needs to trust their gut and go all in on someone. It is what the great ones do, so coach ‘em up!
I can get so discouraged with this world sometimes. We seem to be growing critics, not leaders. We idolize those we have no connection with and criticize those we can relate to most. Like the story of, “the walk-on.”
What if we could celebrate more stories like Stetson Bennet’s? What if he was the standard bearer rather than an elite group of athletes that none of our stories connect with? Maybe instead of telling someone they are not good enough, what if we inspired them to go further than they ever thought that could?
We have an awesome responsibility to build people up, rather than tear them down. Criticism is destructive, quality leadership is constructive. Believe in your people more than they believe in themselves. That’s what great leaders do.