The best play I have seen in the NFL this year, perhaps this decade, occurred in the game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
This play, a 24-yard run by Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook that did not result in a touchdown, will be left on the cutting room floor in the sports news rooms of many cities around the country as they build their highlight reels. However, in all my years as a sports fan, I cannot recall another play that combined athleticism, intelligence and “team-first” selflessness as did Westbrook’s play on Sunday. As I watched this play unfold, I was at once astounded and reminded again why we love sports.
For those who did not see Westbrook’s play, the following is the context in which it transpired. The Eagles had a 10-6 lead and the ball on the Dallas 25-yard line with a little more than two minutes left in the fourth quarter. Moments earlier, Philadelphia had intercepted Dallas quarterback Tony Romo for the third time in the game. The Eagles’ offense was trying to ensure Romo would not get an opportunity to inspire another improbable victory, as he had several times in leading the Cowboys to a 12-1 record in 2007. Dallas had already called its final timeouts on defense in an attempt to save Romo some time to lead another such victory. From the Dallas 25, Westbrook took the handoff, broke into the clear and what followed was truly remarkable.
Westbrook ran to the offensive right and, in short order, had beaten the defense to the degree that there was not a single defender in the same camera shot with him. At this point, Westbrook slowed from a sprint to a walk as if to begin the “pre-end zone celebration” that has become popular among many of his NFL brethren. I was bracing for another silly NFL “look at me” moment. But before I could mentally chastise Westbrook for the arrogance I had wrongly expected him to show, he had lain down on the 1 yard line to allow himself to be touched down by a Dallas defender. The end of the play coincided with two-minute warning. With Dallas powerless to stop the clock, the Eagles’ quarterback Donovan McNabb then took three snaps to run out the clock, keeping the Dallas offense on the sidelines and sealing the Eagles’ 10-6 victory.
Westbrook had not just made a 24-yard run, but he had played athletic chess in a manner that would make Gary Kasparov proud. Westbrook had determined that his team’s chances for victory actually increased by him not scoring a touchdown. More importantly, he valued increasing his team’s odds for victory more than his own personal achievement or self-aggrandizement. No one would have blamed Westbrook for scoring the touchdown. In fact, it would not have occurred to most that there was any other option that may have benefited his team more. Scoring the touchdown would have made the score 17-6, putting Dallas in the nearly impossible situation of having to score two touchdowns in less than two minutes to win the game. However, not scoring the touchdown made Dallas’ predicament for all practical purposes impossible: scoring a touchdown at all without the getting the ball.
In all walks of life, so many people say “team” but never really do “team.” We all know it is politically correct to say the good of the team comes before the good of the individual. However, so few appear willing to choose the team when its interests are in directly conflict with their own. Too few people live like they believe there are goals more important that our own. As a result, we cynically expect others, even public servants, to serve themselves first. Little did we know that we would get a lesson in humility from a professional athlete?
Plays like the one that Brian Westbrook made Sunday are the reason why I love sports. The great thing about sport is that you can sit down to watch a game and, if you are paying attention, leave with a life lesson. At the next opportunity, maybe you or I will be more likely to “Westbrook,” meaning put the group’s interests first even to the apparent detriment of our own. Maybe we will set aside making a better “me” and try to make a better world.