When the NFL Hall of Famer Roger Staubach was at the Naval Academy as a college student, he held every single record he could hold as a quarterback; he even won the Heisman. But the very next quarterback to step up after him, John Cartwright, broke two of those records the following year.
Hall of Famer Dan Marino held on to his NFL records a while longer. At the time of his retirement, Marino held more than 40 NFL single-season and career passing records, including career passing attempts (8,358), completions (4,967), passing yards (61,361), and touchdown passes (420). Marino was the first quarterback in NFL history to reach 50,000 and 60,000 career passing yards respectfully, and also the first quarterback to reach 400 career touchdown passes.
Many of these records have been broken and, this weekend, the Pittsburg Steeler’s Ben Roethlisberger picked off another Marino milestone when he passed for 61,381 yards, moving him ahead of Marino for sixth on the all-time list. And while all this was going on, Tom Brady passed Drew Brees for the most passing yards ever, adding to his list of statistical bests, including the sweetest number of them all: Super Bowl wins.
The point of this football wonkery is to suggest that numeric measurements are fine, but they should not be the measure by which we define our professional or personal lives. Yes, numbers can provide a shorthand for accomplishment, but like all shorthand, it leaves out so much more than it includes. For example, who would argue that Brady’s total passing yards are more interesting or more important than the manner in which he often compiled them, coming from behind to march his teams—mostly the New England Patriots but also the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—down the field to snatch victory from defeat?
Nor do their numbers explain the discipline and drive and other character traits that allow folks in their forties to compete physically with much younger players. But that character is surely fascinating and worth examining. In a recent column in this publication, we did just that in writing of Aaron Rodgers’ curious absence of leadership in the pre-season run-up to regular season play. To our thinking, this story offered deeper lessons about leadership than the fact that on Sunday Rodgers broke Drew Brees’ record as the fastest quarterback to ever pass for 400 touchdowns.
Once your career is over—when you’ve hung up your cleats or packed up your office—what is going to define your career? If you’ve built your identity only on your professional accolades and awards, what is going to be left of your legacy when those trophies tarnish and those records get broken? The great ones understand the importance of being well-rounded, which can take many forms. Being well-rounded can mean taking the time to mentor others and create opportunities for others to benefit from career growth just as you have. It can mean allowing yourself to be mentored by somebody else because you understand that the better you are, the better those around you can be.
You can be great by developing the courage and confidence to make others around you look better, dishing out assists, and working unglamorously to get rebounds rather than focusing exclusively on your points total. Of course, this kind of high-level teamwork is easier to develop when leadership actively supports the work of the assist-makers.
The great ones not only make their teams better, they make the wider society better as well. Staubach may not have been able to cling to his records for very long, but he once told me he cared more about his legacy from 40 years of working with United Way than he did anything he accomplished on the gridiron.
Legendary sportscaster Dick Vitale is another tremendous example of this. As big as his voice and his persona are, his heart is even bigger. He is one of the most actively involved and invested individuals I have ever known. Although Vitale once told me he had been blessed enough to escape having to deal with cancer himself, his compassion has led him to become one of the most active fundraisers for the Jim Valvano Foundation, an organization that had awarded grants nearing $200 million for cancer research. He also became a key contributor to the Payton Wright Foundation to specifically focus on pediatric cancers.
The point about legacies is not that you build a wall with a number on top of it that people will try to climb to get over. It is that you use your talents and resources to impact and enrich the lives of others.
That’s greatness in action. And greatness is a record that can never be broken.
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