Next man up

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“Next man up.”

This is a common phrase uttered by coaches and players when referring to how they plan to handle an injury to a starter. It’s not just three words, it is a way of thinking that you learn early in life from playing sports. It is also a way of handling life when things go wrong.

When I coached, I always told my players who did not start the importance of preparing as if they were a starter. No one knows when a starter will get injured or foul out of a game. To be successful at stepping in for the player ahead of you requires putting in a tremendous amount of mental preparation because you do not get as many practice reps as the guy ahead of you on the depth chart receives.

Lou Gehrig, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rogers were all back ups who had to wait their turn before going on to stardom. Injury or age may have led them to their starting gig, but once there, each had to prove they belonged as the starter.

I say this, because recently I became a starter. Four weeks ago, I began a new job, my first since retiring after 30 years in education, and have been learning a number of different responsibilities while two others have checked my work each day. Last week, I was pleased to hear I did not make any mistakes on Wednesday or Thursday and I am pretty sure I was perfect on Friday. Still, I had two people I could go to and ask questions or get clarification on things so I have had a crutch to lean on.

Today, that all changed. I reported to work at 7:00 am and noticed right away I was the only one there. I figured one of the two women I work with who over see my work would be in so I booted up the computers. Then the company cell phone rang and I saw it was the owner calling. She informed me the person who normally opens up was knocked out with the flu and she was out of town on business and could not come in. The other woman who works in the office later in the day could not get to work before 8:30 so it was up to me to do everything needed so our drivers could hit the road on schedule.

All the tasks that needed doing were things I have done before and felt comfortable with, I just never had to do it all. Since Monday brings a killer work load, I thought briefly about why I decided to take this job, especially when I don’t need the money. Besides the unexpected pressure and responsibility, I also knew there was a good chance I would be asked to work an eight hour shift which would mean giving up the chance to go for a bike ride on a beautiful afternoon as well as canceling the appointment I scheduled for someone to repair a refrigerator at home.

I suppose some people would quit and go home. However, I drew upon my years as both a player and a coach. It was now up to me to make sure the week got off to a good start, not for me, but for the entire company I work for. I am sure my boss was anxious knowing her business was in the hands of a rookie who was still learning the ropes. My colleague who was sick was probably wondering what kind of a mess she going to have to clean up when she gets better while the other woman I work with was visibly stressed out when she arrived.

As for me, I was able to calmly tell her all the tasks I completed, what it was I was working on, and what it was that needed doing. When I saw her relax, I knew I had things under control. When she told me later she did not need me to work beyond my usual five hours, I knew it was because everything was going well.

Tomorrow, I may not start. I may be back to second string and completing whatever tasks others ahead of me decide. That’s okay. I also know if the owner does not come in first thing or if my sick colleague takes her time to come back to work it will be because they have faith in me to get the job done.

It’s been ten years since I last coached a team and decades since I last played on one. Still, the experience of both is what allowed me to break each task down into doable assignments. It allowed me to realize the only pressure I have is what I place on myself. Most of all, it made me realize how fortunate I am to have  two great people to train under because what I was able to do was not a reflection of any great talent I possess, but rather, the talented people I had prepare me for my turn to be the next man up.

Top photo: February 21, 2001, the unknown sixth round draft pick, Tom Brady, enters the game late in the fourth quarter for the injured starting quarterback of the New England Patriots, Drew Bledsoe. For the next 14 years Brady would be (and still is) the Patriots’s starting quarterback. Since then New England has won four Super Bowls and Tom Brady has been the Super Bowl MVP three times and the NFL MVP twice. Tom Brady was the next man up. (YouTube)