Who needs long pep talks? The New Orleans Saints won. So did Scott Brown. That’s enough pep talk.
The argument is whether “heart,” “spirit” – you know, all that corny stuff – is real; is it a useable solid, or just a poetic gas? As I pocket my winnings from Super Bowl XLIV, I’m increasingly convinced that “fight,” “moxie” or, as we used to call it in high-school football, “jinegar,” is as real and palpable as an Alp.
The wise man introduced on radio as “handicapper to the stars” the Friday preceding the Super Bowl was ridiculing those of us in the “heart” camp as he promised that the Colts, led by Peyton Manning, were going to pick the Saints apart. “This is no ‘heart’ thing,” he sniffed. “You want the ‘team,’ not the ‘heart.’ And the Colts are the ‘team.’”
And it did seem the Colts were constantly making first downs, the Saints were constantly punting, the Colts were constantly moving, threatening and scoring; and yet at the end the score was Saints 31, Colts 17.
I got to know “heart” early. Remember when Army had Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis and Navy had nobody recognizable, with a losing record to match? At breakfast the morning of the Army-Navy game, I said, “You know, I think Navy’s going to put up a good fight.” My father, a kind man given to fits of irritation at what he considered stupidity, slammed his oatmeal spoon down on the table, turned on me and said, “Sometimes you can say the dumbest things. Army’s undefeated and Navy’s lost every game except one!” We neighborhood boys listened to the game, and when halftime came and Army led 21-0 we turned off the radio and went down to the meadow to play football ourselves.
A few hours later, on our way home, we ran into my father who was prowling the neighborhood looking for me. “Don’t you know what happened?” he yelled. No, we didn’t! “Navy should have won,” he roared. “The score was 21-18. When the game ended Navy was on the Army goal line with another down but the stupid referee didn’t see Navy calling for a time out! What a disastrous jerk!” Daddy was a kind man also given to fits of irritation at unfairness. Sure, Army had Blanchard and Davis. Navy had heart.
You don’t have to win to provide courtroom proof of “heart.” The University of North Carolina played Notre Dame in 1949. That was the year Notre Dame could have beaten us with their Protestant team! Our Carolina superstar, Charlie Justice, was injured. Our starting backfield featured one first-stringer, one second-stringer and two third-stringers – against Notre Dame! The score at halftime, broadcast across an unbelieving nation, was 6 to 6. Notre Dame went on to win big, but “heart” is the only way to explain 6 to 6 for so long. Remember Superbowl III, when the overwhelmingly favored Baltimore Colts were toppled by the New York Jets led by Joe Namath? How do you explain that? Providential intervention? Demonic intervention? I prefer plain old heart.
Heart is too precious a commodity to limit to the field of sport. In 1939 the Soviet Union attacked Finland, with a population half that of Chicago. The hearty Finns repeatedly repelled the best the Soviet Red Army could throw against them. Finally the Finns had to cede the Karelian Isthmus to Moscow, but not before they had won the admiration of a world that could not believe what it beheld.
In 1940 Mussolini’s Fascist Italian army attacked Greece. The Greeks not only threw them all the way out of Greece, but went onward and took half of Albania from the Italians. When five Arab armies failed to abort the embryonic state of Israel in 1948 and when Israel speed-grabbed the huge Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights and the West Bank from Egypt, Syria and Jordan respectively in the Six-Day War, did any military analyst dare say, “It’s not a ‘heart’ thing; it’s a ‘team’ thing”?
Heart holds a much broader grip on us than merely on our stadiums and our battlefields. The single mother, the suddenly unemployed, the unfairly accused, the mugger’s victim, the abandoned husband; that’s just a short list of conditions afflicting millions of unfamous people whose heart daily helps them win private Super Bowls of their own.
And what exactly is this “heart”? It’s learning how to run out of ammunition and keep right on firing.