The Better Angels of Our Nature
The Miracle League of The Lehigh Valley
Center Valley, PA
December 8, 2016
First I want to congratulate the Honorees tonight especially Jared and Sara—you are both Hall of Famers and an inspiration to everyone in this room.
It is perhaps fitting that we are here at DeSales University because Saint Francis DeSales was a man of service. Although he was born to a life of privilege in a prominent family he chose a life of service to others, a life devoted to helping other people.
It is nice to be here as we approach one of the magical times of the year—the Holiday season. As the snow starts to fall, and the winds grow colder it is hard to see past the next day or week or month. But the dreams of springtime and summer loom in your minds, those warm sunny days when you’ll be back on the field and the crack of the bat will be heard once again.
Soon we’ll celebrate the holiday season of family and of looking back at the year that was before we step boldly into the next year. It is part of how we understand that time’s march is beyond our control.
Time marches forward….Our children grow and we capture their smiles in our hearts.
Tonight when it was mentioned earlier that this league serves over 250 children I was reminded of something I learned from my father. He and I used to walk home from the games when I was still coaching at Penn State. One time before I had kids he told me “Once you have children you will only be as happy as your least happy child.”
Now that I am a father I know how true those words are. I know how much a child’s smile means to a parent.
Tonight by your presence here you are part of something that brings smiles to the faces of young people all over the Lehigh Valley. You mark a decade of community involvement in what was once just a dream—a dream realized in both the establishment of Fowler Field but more importantly in the smiles, laughs and cheers of the athletes and their families,
Through your support and your generosity of time and money you create moments that warm the hearts of parents, family and friends and most importantly of the athletes who compete. Even as time matches, they will hold those memories forever.
Competition brings out the best in us. We face challenges and then prepare to meet them.
But competition also threatens to draw forth some of our worst impulses-- for we live in a society that values winning for winning’s sake, the idea of winning at all costs.
How often have you seen sports stories about contract disputes, lawsuits, performance-enhancing drugs and cheating? All too often vanity and pride—not pride in a noble manifestation but rather the pride that is one of the seven deadly sins—how often have pride and greed driven athletes and coaches to compromise their integrity to win at all costs?
It is a common theme and we grow sick of stories about academic fraud in college athletics, illegal recruiting enticements or even something as simple as allegedly deflating footballs. In sports players in the pros have agents who are concerned about how they perform in “contract years”. Coaches’ contracts have become mazes of clauses and buyouts and bonuses and God knows what else.
The point is that there are fewer and fewer places in our society where we have honest competition. From business to politics to sports we constantly hear about people with leverage cutting corners to get ahead regardless of the consequences to other people’s lives. Find the angle and work it so we can win at all costs.
We should aspire to a world where it is far more noble to just miss with our integrity intact than to win by sacrificing our values of right and wrong.
Where can we find those places where people who relish the joy and honor of true competition? Often it is in youth sports leagues where kids are just learning the rules of the games and developing a love of sport—before over-zealous parents get involved.
It is in places like the Miracle League, it is in an event like the Pennsylvania Special Olympics that my mother Sue Paterno got involved in.
Years ago my mother got involved in Special Olympics. When Sue Paterno gets involved in anything, she never takes no for an answer and she never goes alone. That’s the way she is. From her husband Joe Paterno to the Penn State Football program there was a deep level of involvement in organizing and hosting The Pennsylvania Special Olympics Summer Games at Penn State.
Certainly when people give of their time, the athletes and their families gain from the experience---but what they gain pales in comparison to what the volunteers gain.
Our time around Special Olympics reminded us of the purity of true competition.
There is an understanding there that you will not always win. You will have your day but on another day someone else may be the winner. It is truly the most supportive competitive environment I have ever witnessed.
I spent over two decades coaching college football and not a day goes by that I don’t miss because it was a classroom to teach about the fine line between success and failure. It was a classroom to teach about life.
One of my favorite lessons and examples I shared with my players from time to time was the story of the Geese.
On many early mornings my dog wakes me up to go on a walk. I live near Spring Creek a beautiful limestone spring-fed creek. Near my neighborhood is a preserved marsh area where two smaller runs merge before flowing into Spring Creek.
On countless mornings I’ve heard the sound of geese honking and seen them form the familiar “V” formation. The organization that all of them seemed to instinctively know and understand intrigued me—and I was curious.
Now I am not a biologist or a zoologist or any kind of “gist”. But research uncovered a story behind the geese and the “V” formation.
The geese form the “V” for efficiency in flight but it is more complicated than that. The lead goose changes over and over again.
Everyone wants to be out front and be in the lead but these animals know to give others a chance to lead. The lead goose also has the toughest job flying into the wind first. Because the lead goose has the toughest job the lead is the only one not honking as they go. All the other geese honk. It is like they are cheering on the goose that has the toughest job.
The lessons of the geese are pretty simple:
1. Leaders face the toughest job, a job best done by keeping your mouth shut. Let the others do the talking and don’t toot your own horn—or in this case honk your own horn.
2. There will be days when you lead and days when you follow. Every day, every challenge and every game requires you to see your role, accept that role and perform it to the best of your ability.
On several occasions Michael Jordan passed the ball to a teammate to hit a game-winning shot in the NBA Finals. This past summer even though LeBron James had thrown his team on his back to get to game 7 it was teammate Kyrie Irving who took the game-clinching three-pointer.
There was no jealousy, or selfishness just a desire to win. In that moment it was time for someone else to be the lead goose.
The idea that some days we will lead and on other days we won’t is codified by the Special Olympics motto—a motto that has lessons for all of us well beyond the playing fields.
The Special Olympics motto: “Let me win, but if I can not win let me be brave in the attempt.”
“Let me be brave in the attempt”…..how many regrets do we have in life that may have turned out differently had we only been brave in the attempt?
Bravery and courage….Winston Churchill once said “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of all human qualities, because it is the quality that guarantees all others.”
For many of us we are adverse to the idea of risk, the idea of “stepping up to the plate” in life.
Not so for the athletes in the Miracle League. They approach the plate to swing for the fences. Not so for the people here tonight, and the people who planted the seed for the Miracle League over a decade ago. Your courage to take this on has blossomed into something noble and beautiful.
One of my high school classmates, a man I’ve known for a number of years is a Special Olympic Athlete who’s been to the World Games a number of times. He takes as much pride in his athletic career as any player we ever coached at Penn State.
But mostly—even know—he looks forward to competing.
The best feedback from the Penn State players who volunteered for the Special Olympics each year at the Opening Ceremony and in handing out medals was how much fun they had—but also how they enjoyed seeing the athletes compete. They compete for the honor of finding out something about themselves. But our players told us how often the athletes celebrated the success of other athletes—even ones they had lost to.
That is a unique concept.
But more than that it is something that quite frankly we need more of in this country.
At a time when everyone tells us over and over again how divided we are there are examples of how united we actually are. People make money and make political hay by driving wedges between us and focusing on that which divides us as people.
But as I look around the room the things that unite us are at the local level. It is neighbor helping neighbor. It is a respect for every one of our citizens no matter how perfect or imperfect that they may be.
It is a unity that allows the Miracle League to rise and serve this community.
Too often in society we look for the worst in others, we look for the imperfections and point the finger at others as a way to elevate ourselves. We look to be the winners and mock the losers.
But in my father’s desk there was a note that was an example of the type of teamwork he believed in not just for his team, but also for his coaches, the University and indeed the world at large.
The first part of the note was written by my mother Sue Paterno:
What is the meaning of love? Anybody can love something that is beautiful or smart or agile. You will never know love until you can love something that isn’t beautiful, isn’t bright, isn’t glamorous. It takes a special person to love something unattractive, someone unknown. That is the test of love.
Below that my father noted:
Can you accept someone for his inabilities—you might have a guy playing next to you who maybe isn’t perfect, but you’ve got to love him, and maybe that love would enable you to help him.
We don’t want to be picking on each other, but rather what can I do to make it easier for my teammate.
Crucial to a team’s success.
It is about love. Earlier tonight people talked about the connections of the heart that were made to make this league a reality. It was love of others. I go back to St Francis DeSales’ motto: "He who preaches with love preaches effectively."
That word Love is there again. Tonight is about love for one another. I see Steve’s emotions tonight when he introduced Jared and Sara and it is so real—the heart just came through.
In this room I see a community that decided to do something for one another. In spite of all of our own individual failings and imperfections there is a spirit of what can we do together to lift our teammates…our neighbors..for the children of our community?
Despite the narrative that we are divided the actions of all of you here tonight tell a different story.
There was a time when this nation was much more divided than we are now. In 1861 our nation was so divided that Civil War loomed and the very existence of the American experiment in democracy was threatened by divisions that could not be healed.
Into that moment walked one of the most inexperienced and imperfect candidates for our nation’s highest office. By all measures his formal education was nearly non-existent as he rose from the back woods.
Abraham Lincoln was derided for his lack of education, told that he looked like an ape—but he found himself standing in front of our Nation’s Capitol to take the oath of office. Suddenly he was the lead goose heading into winds of a magnitude never before seen and not seen since in the history of this great nation.
As he spoke he concluded his inaugural address with these words.
“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Tonight I hope you think of the “Better Angels of our nature” that reside in the hearts in these Miracle League athletes who inspire you. I also hope that you will realize that building this league makes you a shining example of the Better Angels of our nature.
True unity of purpose, true unity of values for our Commonwealth and our nation will not come from the top down. It will sprout from communities like this that work hand in hand and get things done for the betterment of others.
Before I finish I want to share something with Sara specifically. You are facing a challenge to walk again and I know that some day you will walk up on this stage. You may not know the story of Adam Taliaferro. He played for us and against Ohio State in 2000 he broke his neck and lost use of his body from the neck down. The Penn Staters in this room remember that.
A few days afterwards two other coaches—Bill Kenney, Kenny Jackson and I traveled to see Adam in the hospital. Athletic Director Tim Curley was with us.
At the time the hope was that Adam would simply regain use of his hands.
Tim Curley asked the doctor what the odds were of Adam walking again and the doctor said “1 in 10,000”
And I will never forget this as long as I live—Adam’s father did not flinch and he said “That’s Okay Doc—my son is 1 in a million.”
Sara you are one in a million.
Tonight all of you in this room--all of you leave understanding this:
You are the lead goose, you have been brave in your attempt and you have summoned the better angels of your nature. Everyone in this room and the many others your efforts have reached and your community are all stronger for it.
Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this night and thank you for the example your community gives to the rest of the world.