Johnny Football, Phil Jackson, and Jesus; Or, Why There Is No "I" in "Team"

I was in the UK for three weeks, reading the great papers&mash;the Independent, the Guardian, the Telegraph. And you know what didn't get covered by those fine journalists, and I didn't miss a bit? Press coverage of Texas A&M's Heisman-winning freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel. The British papers had their big sports stories and stories about celebrities and politicians acting out, as Mr. Manziel is reputed to be acting out, but nothing about "Johnny Football," as Mr. Manziel has been styled.

Still, I came home to another disturbing story about the Heisman-laureate's failures of judgment&mash;the report that Johnny Football was witnessed autographing memorabilia in the living room of a sports vendor, and may have taken a five-figure payoff for so doing. Another vendor also came forward this week to claim he paid Mr. Manziel money. Those allegations of serious NCAA violations follow a legacy of me-first behavior in the news this year&mash;flagrant partying, disrespectful Tweets, arrogance.

People at the top of their fields have to be arrogant enough to believe that they will succeed where others fail; that's not why I fault Mr. Manziel. And while I teach at Baylor University (a historical rival of Texas A&M, although we no longer play them in sports), my antipathy for Johnny Manziel's me-first behavior since he led his team to a successful season and won the Heisman doesn't come because he plays for the Aggies.

It comes because, despite his undeniable talent, Johnny Football is setting himself up for failure, and threatening to take his team down with him&mash;and that is not only bad for them, but it's bad for sports, and a bad spiritual lesson for anyone who follows and admires him.

Phil Jackson&mash;that most successful and spiritual of coaches&mash;recently published Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, a book about his career, his coaching philosophies, and the importance of living for something bigger than your own desires. The central truth that emerges from it can be seen in the lives and work of two of the greatest athletes of this era, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

Mr. Jackson sketched the contrasts between his two great stars. Mr. Jordan, while a great scorer and powerful personality, was able to learn to submerge his desire for individual greatness for the good of the team. The result was a run of Chicago Bulls teams that won six world championships, and who learned that they were bigger together than they were on their own.

Mr. Jackson writes about those teams as achieving their destinies, living into their highest possibilities. It's the sort of language Christians might use to talk about doing what God put us on earth to do.

On the other hand, Mr. Jackson says it was harder to get Kobe Bryant to be a leader by serving the larger good. Not coincidentally, although Jackson's Lakers won five championships, it was generally a struggle getting Kobe to care more about the team than about himself. Kobe scored lots of points, but almost every year saw conflict in the locker room, and any sense of deep spiritual connection&mash;of larger purpose&mash;was largely lacking.

Jesus taught that true greatness lies in the service of others, and that too often we seek out what is ultimately unimportant instead of what is eternal and lasting. In the readings for this Sunday from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus offers this seminal piece of wisdom: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." What he means is that what we hold to be most important will command our attention and our allegiance&mash;and practically speaking, that what we treasure will command our actions, so it's important to treasure only what is worthwhile.

12/2/2022 9:10:34 PM
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  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post,, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.