Wide Right, Wide Left: How We Handle Adversity Matters
A Valuable Lesson on Civility and Caring from One Kicker's Misfortune and the Reaction to It
There is so very much information and advice about how to do just about everything in modern life that we often overlook valuable life lessons that are right in front of us. Sometimes, these come from the most unexpected of places. And yes, sometimes they even come from seeing someone have the worst day of their life on your big screen television!
And such was the case with the plight of the poor Cleveland Browns—winless now for over two seasons—and their now-former kicker, Zane Gonzalez. In an otherwise very forgettable early season game in September 2018 with the highly favored New Orleans Saints, Gonzalez had one of the worst days a kicker could ever dream of in his worst nightmares, let alone experience live on national television. And of course, knowing how social media works today, the infamy of his missing four field goals and extra points in a single game would spark both immediate rants from angry fans and make for a lifetime of being the first thing that will come-up every time someone Googles his name.
Yet, the Zane Gonzalez story does not end with him being unceremoniously cut by his head coach Hue Jackson the very next day. It doesn't end with the fact that he had a ready-made excuse, having played the game with a serious groin injury (ouch!). This is because of the reaction to what happened after he missed all those kicks (or as they said in Cleveland after, "all those f#$%ing kicks!"). Instead, the reactions—by Gonzalez himself, by his teammates, and by the Saints kickers, provide valuable lessons in how to react—and how not to react—when adversity hits at work.
For his part, Zane Gonzalez took total responsibility for what happened. There was no dodging, no denying, no excuse-making even though he had the hurt groin (again, ouch!). He didn't duck-out the side door of the Mercedes Benz Superdome after the game. Instead, he met with reporters—as difficult as that certainly was to do after arguably the worst single-game performance by a kicker in some time in pro football—and took ownership of what happened. According to an interview with ESPN, Gonzalez stepped forward and accepted responsibility for what happened—as well as his likely fate: "It's on me 100 percent. I can't be too mad at myself because I'm the one that did it, you know what I mean? I can't blame it on anybody else. It sucks because we were so close to that win, and it's been so long. I just let everybody down."
Ask yourself: When was the last time that happened at your company? At any company? When has this ever happened in Washington? We are so accustomed to individuals in our society shifting the blame for anything bad happening onto not just someone else, but a whole host of others that we're actually shocked when someone stands-up and says: "Yep! I did it!" Gonzalez could have blamed his holder, his long-snapper, the air conditioning in the Superdome, his faulty groin (again, ouch!). Instead, he took personal responsibility for what happened. It was bad. It was not going to change or go away. However, he stepped-up and owned the moment.
But you're saying, "Well, then he got fired the next day!" And yes he did. And from a football standpoint, it was the only move the Browns organization could make. Kicking—at every level of football—is a ruthless, bottom-line proposition. Make the field goal and you are a hero! You get the praise, you get the accolades, you get the girl! Miss the field goal and you are the goat, you are worthless, you are "that guy who lost us the game"—no matter what the rest of us did in the other 99.7 percent of the game.
However, trace the careers of almost any NFL kicker—and even many in the collegiate ranks. Their's is a nomadic profession—one where most of those who make their living with their strong leg do not necessarily get to retire from the same team or graduate from the same school with which they started. Indeed, that's the exception, rather than the rule. Thier's is a career where second, third... eighth chances often are the ones that see them shine.
And thus, it is very likely that we have not seen the last of Zane Gonzalez on an NFL field. Almost certainly, his phone will ring again and when his injured groin (one final time, ouch!) is healthy, he will get the chance to replace another member of the kicker tribe who failed on a game-winning field goal or shanked an extra-point. And why would a coach or general manager be more likely to call Gonzalez than a random Zendejas or Smith? Most likely, it will be precisely because in his worst moment of adversity, he did take responsibility for his misses—even if he didn't have to do so. And thus, Gonzalez's character shined through—and hopefully, a coach will—sooner rather than later—give him another turn on the stage.
Avoiding the Scene
The reactions of literally everyone else associated with the Cleveland Browns organization immediately after Zane Gonzalez missed the last of his four kicks that would have sent the game into overtime was telling. Gonzalez sat alone, head in his hands, on the Cleveland bench. When the TV camera found him, it was quite telling that no one in Browns gear - not a teammate, not a coach, not even a staff member—was anywhere to be seen around him. There was Gonzalez—alone with his thoughts and more than likely well-aware of his fate—with no presence from anyone on his team around him.
Think about how this scene is replicated away from the glare of national television and the massive audience (still) of any NFL game. When someone fails around you - at work, in your family, in life in general—are you there for them—or do you run far, far away too? Too often we gravitate quickly to success and pull quickly away from what is perceived to be a failure. We want to be around winners instinctively, and yes, we may have very good reason to get away from "losers."
However, whatever kind of relationship we are talking about—work, familial, friendship—there will be adversity. There will always be a missed chance, a missed signal, a missed opportunity to get ahead. There may even be four of them—maybe even more! And so we have the choice of how we should react in those moments when others fail us. Should we be like the Cleveland players who stayed far, far away from Zane Gonzalez after his terrible game? There are often many, many reasons to do so, lest we get caught-up in the wake of either that person's mistake itself or all the other "stuff" that may spring from that thing. We have tons of self-help books and big personalities like Dr. Phil who tell us to not just distance ourselves, but to get away—and get away quickly—from those around us who fail us. However, how often do we cut our losses too soon? What if we write-off someone as a person who can't do the job, who can't hack it, who isn't "good enough too soon. Yes, there's risk in "going down with the ship," but isn't there the opposite risk of "missing the boat" at the same time if we act too hastily—or without all the facts?
A Time for Compassion?
What made this otherwise forgettable game quite remarkable and memorable were the actions taken by the Saints two kickers, placekicker Will Lutz and punter Thomas Morestead. As with most professions, there is a fraternal bond between kickers in the NFL. And when the two Saints players saw what happened to their Cleveland counterpart—not just his struggles during the game, but when he was abandoned by his teammates after it, they displayed one of the more memorable acts of compassion and sportsmanship to be seen on a football field. Rather than celebrating their team's victory immediately after the end of the game, the Saints kickers each went over to the very isolated Cleveland kicker, put their arms around him, and gave him words of reassurance. This brought a great deal of post-game attention—especially across social media—to Lutz and Morestead for how they reacted to the situation, especially when compared to Gonzalez's own Browns teammates. At the depth of Gonzalez's despair, he found comfort not from his own people, but from his ostensible opponents that day.
For all of us then, we should ask ourselves how have we, how would we, how should we react when we face our own adversity—or that of those close to us, whether at work, on our team, or even in our own family? Will we take responsibility for the outcomes we produce—even if we have an excuse? Will we rise to comfort others and help them learn from their mistakes, or will will simply walk away from those on "our team." Can we seek out the chance to help others—and reach across boundaries, both real and imagined, to do so.
It has often been said that we reveal our true character when we must deal with adversity. How we deal with others in their times of adversity is also amazingly important. And for managers and leaders, it's exceedingly important to deal with the mistakes and errors that will inevitably come in a manner that shows not just personal responsibility, but empathy and caring as well. We may want to react in the moment, but that moment will end, and the action that may make us feel better in the short-term could well spell trouble over the long haul. No less a football—and leadership—authority than Alabama Coach Nick Saban put it this way: "One thing about championship teams is that they're resilient. No matter what is thrown at them, no matter how deep the hole, they find a way to bounce back and overcome adversity."
Zane Gonzalez's story is yet to be finished. Will he personally be able to be resilient and make it back to the NFL? Time will tell—but many are betting on him to do so (perhaps, even in Cleveland!).