The Secret's in the Dirt


I was never the most talented,

never the flashiest. I relied on grit. Other players might have been more talented, but I can assure you, no one was going to outwork me.

I haven't always been a football fan. It wasn’t until I realized that (a.) every Fall for the rest of my marriage would be spent without Caleb and (b.) I wouldn’t be a part of something he enjoyed so much, that I decided I was going to become a football fan. Not just any football fan, a Cowboys fan, which is a whole different ball game. Since that fateful football decision, Jason Witten has become a hero of mine.

In case you don't know who I'm talking about, for the past 15 years Witten has played tight end for the Dallas Cowboys. He's their career leader in receptions and yards and has played in more games than any player in Cowboy history (247/248 games). The man showed up and played through broken bones, devastating personal losses, and sickness. Yet for all his glittering accomplishments, what makes him a hero of mine is the way he handled the daily grind, the way his teammates talk about him even after he's left the team, and his sheer determination. If you're not a football fan, please keep reading. Jason Witten has something to teach us all in the way of grit, character, and chasing dreams.

We all want Touchdowns and Hiney-spanks

As a student of the game, learning to spot a touchdown was the first benchmark to master. Get the ball down the field, across the thick white line with your team's logo, and you get points. This was by far the easiest part of football to understand, because unlike "off sides" or "pass interference", you can't miss a touchdown. They are glory epitomized. They are celebrated with head butts (football equivalent of hugs), aggressive hiney-spanks (football equivalent of high-five’s) and end-zone dances. They air on ESPN highlight reels and are reenacted in Mark Wahlberg movies with an epic soundtrack behind them. It's the team’s goal: get points, win the game, repeat until you've got a Super Bowl ring.

Everyone wants the touchdown. Everyone wants their hiney happily spanked. Everyone wants the secret to the success.

But it’s how you respond to loss that defines the way you appreciate a victory. In the Amazon Prime series All or Nothing, we get a sneak peak of what goes into making these big beautiful plays possible. And to my delight, Season 3 followed the Dallas Cowboys. Now, it's no secret they had a disappointing year in 2017.  What I thought would be our Super Bowl year ended in an underwhelming 9-7 season with a good dosage of player drama. Losses starting racking up and the passion started dying down. So the day after a big loss, Witten stood up during a players meeting, right in the midst of all these discouraged young athletes, and he revealed his secret to success:

It’s in the dirt

The big secret to getting carried off the field is in the dirt of the daily grind. Touchdowns are the manifestation of weeks (or years) of dedication worked into the unseen and nourished with daily discipline. They‘re the fruit of scrimmages, diet, film study, memorizing plays, and simply out-playing your opponent. That's what makes those plays possible. Showing up Monday after a loss to sink your nails into the dirt, fix your mistakes, and get back to work produces the opportunity to win the next week. If you don't show up Monday-Saturday, you won't see the win on Sunday.

There is no secret sauce fed to these players, no Captain America serum being injected into these guys that builds those big biceps; it's hours in the gym. It's hours with physical therapists and dietitians that allow them to run faster than should be humanly possible. They're studying other players and taking notes on play calls, preparing themselves mentality for each game. They engage mind, body, and soul, pouring out everything they have in the sole pursuit of their goal.

For those of us who aren't highly paid athletes, what does this mean?

It means, you're built to dream big. Your singing career, the book you want to write, the business you're building; it's all possible but there is mystery path to lasting success. The secret is work, discipline, study, and determinism. Dreams need to be translated into the dirt of daily life to grow into a reality and you need to own that part of the process if you want to own the victory.

I’m constantly amazed by how much you can accomplish by simply showing up and putting forth effort. How seeing dreams develop into mature accomplishments always starts with a burning passion and is followed through with a steady roar of discipline. Watching the confetti drop requires a season of showing up and sitting down at your computer when you'd rather be watching Netflix. It means budgeting when you're dying to have the newest iPhone. It requires you to write, even when you're uninspired.

This isn’t a popular message today. We're all about minimum viable effort. How little can I give and still get high yields? That five hour work week has us all looking for ways to cut corners for the sake of efficiency, which I think has some incredible benefits, but it also minimizes the simple fact that lasting fruit comes from the dirt.

Healthy dreams come to fruition through well worked and watered soil. The hours spent studying and practicing deposits ….. Big dreams have root systems locking them firmly in the ground to weather the harshest storms; the budget crisis, the injuries, the disappointments. The magic may seems to burst into fireworks when the dream comes true, but the real magic comes from knowing where that dream started and all the hard work that went into nurturing into success.

You're 100% capable but are you willing?

My husband and I have this running joke that if he could take one year and do nothing but train, he could become a punter for the NFL. We joke, but I think if he really did nothing else for a solid year (or few years) and trained, he could do it. The human mind is a powerful tool and once it’s set, it can will the body to do just about anything. Given time, focus, sacrifice, and discipline, I think anyone can do anything they set their mind and heart to. But you have to be willing to go the distance, to get your hands dirty, to do things you don’t feel like doing all for the sake of achieving your goal. To come in first place, you have to be one-minded in your pursuit.

The beautiful part is, you don’t have to be the best starting out. You just have to be willing to stay the longest, work the hardest, and learn the most. Pouring out all you've got will produce not only a pathway to success, but a grant you peace of mind so no matter the outcome, you can be confidant it wasn’t for lack of effort. I love the way Jason puts it:

“I was never the most talented, never the flashiest. I relied on grit. Other players might have been more talented, but I can assure you, no one was going to outwork me,” he said. “Whenever young kids come up to me and ask me how do you grow up and play for the Dallas Cowboys and have that type of career, my answer is always the same, ‘The secret is in the dirt.’ I learned early on in my life through many challenges that I could change my circumstances with hard work, but I would have to be willing to go out and earn it. The sheer concentration that is required to pursue a dream, it’s not for everyone, but it was for me. I yearned for the daily grind, and I couldn’t get enough of it.”

Hard work keeps you humble

There's nothing more rewarding that reaping the fruits of your labor; be it watching your children grow up to surpass you, knowing all the ways you sacrificed, prayed, and supported them, or watching a small business grow into a thriving company, knowing all the late nights and tax related headaches you had. There's something about putting in the work, keeping your hands in the dirt day after day, that keeps you grounded. It's hard for success to go to your head if your head is down, pouring sweat.

People who absorb and appreciate the cost of victory know their role in the harvest. They put in the work, breaking ground, sowing seed, pruning, fertilizing, and have the wisdom to ask for help. That wisdom extends to acceptance that giving your best doesn't guarantee fruit. If you read the open letter to Witten from his teammates, you'll know that Witten's hard work wasn't self-seeking. He knew his role in the planting, showed up day after day willing to work, and the reaped the rewards of the harvest.

Dream and Do

Are you willing to put in the work to make your dream a reality, knowing that there is a possibility, even with your hardest work, that you may never see the confetti fall? Jason Witten never got a Super Bowl ring- writing out that sentence literally made me tear up. This year, he announced his retirement to take a job with ESPN. After spending a majority of his life practicing and playing football, he retired having never won a Super Bowl. What he left with was a freakishly long and successful NFL career, the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, and more importantly- he left fertile ground for others to grow. He inspired the men around him to work hard because he set the standard high and did his job incredibly well. Who knows, maybe because of the years of work Witten put in, maybe this will be the Cowboys Super Bowl Year. Jason Witten exited the NFL knowing he left it all on the field and held nothing back. He left with the love and respect of the people he worked with. He left the Cowboys better than he found them. What will be said of you?