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My Life on the Line
By John "Hog" Hannah, Tom Hale
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 John Hannah and Tom Hale
All rights reserved.
Lessons from the Bear
It was a long way from Albertville, Alabama, to Boston, Massachusetts, home of the New England Patriots. For a young country guy who got his start as an All-American guard in the SEC, it was also a long time from 1973 until I retired in 1985. Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, the legendary, larger-than-life head football coach for whom I played at the University of Alabama from 1969 to 1972 would one day call me "the best offensive lineman I ever coached," a quote I would also laugh about much later as being the furthest thing from the truth of how he really felt about me. In fact just before the '73 draft, Bryant told me privately I wasn't good enough to turn pro and simply dismissed my request for some guidance.
With the new eyes I have now, eyes that God has opened, I realize maybe his quote was a way of motivating or possibly even apologizing to me — instead of capitalizing on the fame I would earn playing professional football, which I thought he did for so many years. I hope I'm right. If I'm not, or in either event, I forgive him completely for not believing in me and encouraging me when I needed it most.
Coach Bryant always carried a poem in his wallet titled "This Is the Beginning of a New Day." If he ever told anybody why he carried it for so many years, I don't remember, but here is how it read:
This is the beginning of a new day.
God has given me this day to use as I will.
I can waste it or use it for good.
What I do today is very important, because
I am exchanging a day of my life for it.
When tomorrow comes, this day will be gone forever,
Leaving something in its place I have traded for it.
I want it to be a gain, not a loss — good, not evil.
Success, not failure in order that
I shall not forget the price I have paid for it
— W. Heartsill Wilson
The author, Heartsill Wilson, was an accountant in Texas who also worked on the sales staff of Chrysler. Considered one of the finest sales consultants to the automotive industry, he was one of the most respected motivational speakers of his time.
One of the greatest gifts Wilson had, which I now believe probably appealed most to Coach Bryant, was his ability to see the best in people and get them to see their own value and talents. His philosophy of leadership was often referred to as "peopleology," a term loosely defined as the art of seeing things from someone else's perspective, and in the world of sales, his mantra was "to sell Jim Brown what Jim Brown buys and see Jim Brown's needs through Jim Brown's eyes."
I also personally think now that Coach Bryant carried that poem as a gut check or a reminder to balance his leadership style every now and then away from being a total dictator and a chronic, often punishing, masochistic football coach with exercising encouragement and positive praise of a player's strengths rather than constantly harping on his weaknesses. I remember one particularly grueling practice early in my playing days at Bama when Coach Bryant felt I wasn't giving my absolute best against the defense. He came down out of the tower — where he sometimes watched practice — pulled me out of the line, grabbed me by the face mask, and yanked me over to the sideline like a dog by the chain. "Hannah!" he growled, "You fat, lazy turd! You're better 'n that, boy! You better dig real deep and find out who you are in the gut, boy — in the gut — because I ain't seeing anything but a fat, lazy turd, you understand?" This rebuke out in front of the rest of the squad scared the complete life out of me. I stood there, huffing and heaving and tried to nod my head. "Hannah," he continued, "you better find out who you are, boy, and find out if you're really as good as you think you are. You got a lot of promise, boy, and if you want to play for me, you gotta show me who you are!"
He was literally roaring at me in that voice that sounded like a concrete mixer with gravel tumbling in the bottom. I managed to force out a labored, "Yes sir, coach!" He pushed me back a bit and let go of the face mask. "Okay, then, let's get back to work," he said as he turned his back to me and started toward the tower. "I better never have to have this talk with you again, son." And he never did. For all the years I played my heart out for him at Alabama, and for many years thereafter, I felt like he coached me individually with a lot more negative than positive reinforcement. Regardless, he was a great coach to play for and he taught me a lot. And with that uncertain endorsement from Coach Bryant, I left Bama full of ego and vanity, but I somehow endured to become a nationally recognized pro football player with my face staring out of a helmet on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the most prestigious sports magazine on the planet.
Some people would say my life was the American Dream come true. Maybe in their eyes they were right. In mine the truth is that most of my life and pro career were more of a living nightmare than a dream because the man I saw in the mirror each day was someone I never really knew. The real me was a little boy in a champion's body trying to make his daddy happy by emulating the pro football players I had watched growing up. I wanted to become one of those players so badly I became an impostor, posing as "John Hannah: The Best Offensive Lineman of All Time." Until I finally outgrew that mission and found myself in Psalm 73 — the number I wore for my entire college and professional careers — the drive to become a player like I idolized and to please my father in the process detracted from every other meaningful relationship I had. In striving to be the best in every game or competition, I never completed the development of my personality, nor did I truly get to know my Heavenly Father. Both of these shortcomings drastically affected my quality of life and ultimately frustrated bonding with my own son.
The brutally honest fact is that my trophies and success were not gained from pursuing ideals. They were medals I won fighting against God's will. They were ribbons, plaques, crystal, and brass awards I weighted myself down with as I guarded the true inner me. I was rewarded and decorated for hiding inside a uniform as I pursued a myopic goal of defining my image as the best athlete I could be.
Even though it took a lifetime to realize it, I now know it all began by misunderstanding some basic lessons of life that my dad taught me as a boy. When I displayed some sensitive personality traits of introspection and compassion as a child, I mistakenly thought he strongly deterred those because he encouraged me to show him how tough I was or how well I played football. I began to fear letting him down — or worse — doing something on or off the field that would disappoint him and embarrass me.
My life became about developing a superathlete/football player image. I was dazzled by the big-name players I watched growing up and wanted to be like them. I wanted to become an even better player than they were and to gain fame and recognition for my efforts beyond my wildest dreams. I also wanted to please my dad and earn his continued praise and I thought becoming the best football player I could was the only way to do that. Reaching that goal required controlling everything and everyone else in my life to keep them focused on me and my athletic strengths. It wasn't until I was well into my 50s that I realized the image I chased all those years had actually become an obsession that enslaved me. I guarded everything else about my true character and personality, so that no one — my dad, my peers, and later even my own children — would ever see my perceived weaknesses of sensitivity and compassion, my God-given traits of humanity, which I felt would do nothing but create disappointment.
Now the need to honor your father is not necessarily bad, for that is one of the Ten Commandments. But when that need begins to subordinate your relationship with God and forces you to adopt a false face and an impostor image to please both of them and become obsessed with building that image, the need becomes an issue of unhealthy control, which retards your spiritual growth and stunts the development of relationships with others based on trust and respect. I was born into unique circumstances with a father who was a former professional football player, a brilliant and highly protective mother, and a set of genetics that would quickly elevate me into the company of world-class athletes. But from a very early age, my sensitive personality led to a lifelong struggle between my body and soul. Unfortunately, as my size and athletic skills outgrew my mind and heart at a grossly disproportionate rate, the struggle to maintain a balance between all these human dynamics also began sooner than I was able to understand them much less handle them.
The power of defining my identity as a gifted athlete while suppressing those deeper personality traits was addictive. The larger my athletic image became, the harder I pushed to stifle the inner me. The need to maintain control of enhancing one and subordinating the other became a destructive obsession that took its toll on me and most of my other personal relationships. Just as addictive substances ultimately cause harm and damage to a person and those around them, controlling something in one's life is no less addictive and in some ways potentially more destructive to relationships and commitments.
As with every addiction, nothing good ever comes from them. In my case the more control I exercised in growing my image as a jock and suppressing the sensitive inner me, the more damage I did to my relationships with my friends and family and ultimately with my dad. The larger my adopted and false image became, the more I hurt the ones I wanted to please the most. I'm still making up ground for all those decades I all but ignored my maker, but I am glad to know now that He has never once given up on me. One of my favorite bluegrass song titles is "I'm Not Holding on to Him, He's Holding Onto Me," and that's how I see my relationship with Him now.
Doesn't that sound strange coming from someone who sports pundits otherwise called "the best"? By driving myself harder and harder to be the best, I stiff-armed the real me in the process. Looking back on those days, I am utterly dismayed at how much of my life I misused and wasted living by that warped way of thinking. That muddy road from Alabama to Foxborough was cloaked in darkness and doubt even with the glaring stadium lights and blinding flashbulbs.
I hid inside that football helmet and jersey. I guarded my inner personality with shoulder pads. I denied God's voice calling to me by listening only to the roaring crowds because I wanted them — the fans — to really like me and I guess I always just assumed I didn't have to do much to have God like me. After all He made me the way I was with an extraordinary amount of talent. I mistakenly thought it was okay for me to take what gifts He had given me and run with them as far as I could without realizing I was actually running away from Him by seeking constant glory and fame through those talents instead of always honoring Him first.
Until my stubborn ox was completely ditched, I never truly experienced God's grace and accepted that He made me a man in his image rather than just a great football player. Only after being broken would I finally accept his love and forgiveness for my refusal to accept his omnipotence. As with other addicts, his blessing came to me only after I had recklessly inflicted unbelievable damage to my body and soul and caused unnecessary personal loss to myself and others.
By viciously controlling my prowess on the field and hiding my weaknesses and vanity inside that uniform, I couldn't see I was wrongfully trying to earn his love rather than accepting it completely. Because I was struggling to make him love me so hard, I had to be broken — knocked to my knees, beaten, trounced, and bloodied in my heart — to realize I didn't have to earn his love and become his child. The person I used to be — the tough Hog from Alabama — was nothing more than a bloated personality driven by a massive ego who believed success was attained by my efforts alone. But as I was finally compelled to acknowledge God's amazing grace, I acknowledged that "Hog" the football player was just an opaque, fleeting image that I built and which led only to temporary success and self-deception. My eyes slowly opened as I began to shed the impostor I had become. The biggest challenge I ever faced was to break away from the mind-set that had sustained me.
Although the roaring player on the football field was really just a disguise and the impostor inside protected me from emotional harm, the little child wanted him to leave, but he stayed and grew larger and larger as he was decorated with medal after medal and award after award. That impostor enslaved me so that I did what I thought that image required of me, and by keeping Hog the football player front and center, I ended up keeping God somewhere in the distant secondary.
I hated living a lie, but I did not know how else to live my life. The more recognition I got from my image as an athlete and football player, the more submerged my real personality became. I found myself permanently stuck in a role that identified me, instead of vice versa. The chains and armor by which that image held me captive were too adorned and engraved. The food and drink of fame that image brought me were too rich and filling. I was like the man in the iron mask. That impostor face cost me a lot in my relationships with other people, but most especially it kept me away from a true relationship with God for a long, long time. Until God flattened me like never before, broke me from the belief that I was in total control, and stripped me of the heavy armor, I was nothing.
A Psalm of Asaph
Surely God is good to Israel,
To those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold
For I envied the arrogant,
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles;
Their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from the burdens common to man;
They are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore, Pride is their necklace;
They clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity,
The evil conceits of their minds know no limits.
They scoff and speak with malice;
In the arrogance they threaten oppression.
Their mouths lay claim to Heaven,
And their tongues take possession of the earth.
Therefore, their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance.
They say, "How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?"
This is what the wicked are like —
Always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
In vain have I washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been plagued;
I have been punished every morning.
If I had said, "I will speak thus," I would have betrayed your children.
When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me
'Til I entered the sanctuary of God;
Then I understood their final destiny.
Surely you have put them on slippery ground;
You cast them down to ruin.
How suddenly are they swept away by terrors!
As a dream when one awakes, so when You rise, O Lord,
You will despise them as fantasies.
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant.
I was a brute beast for you.
For I am always with you;
You hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
And afterward you will take me into your Glory.
Whom have I in Heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire but you.
My flesh and heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart
And my portion forever.
Those who are far from you will perish;
You destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
But for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the sovereign Lord my refuge;
I will tell of all your good deeds.
A Southern Family
To give you a concise account of my early history — some would call it ancient history — I was born on April 4th, 1951, in Canton, Georgia, to Herb and "Coupe" Hannah. My mother's real name was Geneva, but when she and Dad started dating, he said she was as pretty and sleek as a '37 Chevy coupe. So he nicknamed her "Coupe," which stayed with her for the rest of her life. They were salt of the earth people who married while they were still in college, even though he was at Alabama and she was at the University of Georgia. They were from what most would call "the country." My parents both had particularly hard childhoods for reasons I'll explain, but they were a loving, hardworking couple, and my earliest memories are full of nothing but love and security.
Excerpted from Offensive Conduct by John "Hog" Hannah, Tom Hale. Copyright © 2013 John Hannah and Tom Hale. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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