It has been two days since I witnessed the craziest Super Bowl in history and I still can't get it out of my head. The game was over. The game should have been over. Atlanta was up 28-3 midway through the third quarter, no team had ever come back from 10 down in the Super Bowl, let alone 25.
I was sitting on the floor at my coffee table (my favorite place to work) watching a stream of the game on my laptop while answering emails on my iPad. Due to the time difference between Sydney and Houston my 'Super Bowl Sunday' became 'Super Bowl Monday Morning.' The sun was shining and due to a bad habit of procrastinating I had stuff to do while I watched the game. The fact that I was only half focusing on the game didn't seem to matter anyway. In my opinion, the game had been a bit boring throughout the first half. Sure Atlanta's offense had been breathtaking to that point, but it had just become more and more painful to watch New England sputter, stumble, and self-destruct in the biggest game of the season.
When my feed cut out after witnessing Gostkowski miss an extra point attempt and botch the subsequent onside kick, I made no attempt to reset it. I blasted out a couple more emails before my phone announced the arrival of the man delivering my new dining room chairs. By the time I settled back into my floor-level workstation I figured the game was done and dusted. You can imagine my shock when I logged onto espn.com to find that the game was about to head into overtime. NO F-ING WAY! I did not believe what I was seeing even as I booted up the livestream on my laptop while loading every highlight I could find on my iPad.
In a year filled with insane outcomes to contests of all form, this was the craziest (okay... maybe the second craziest). As the Patriots marched down the field in overtime, systematically gut-punching the Falcons defense in a manner that was impossible to fathom after the first half (and as equally painful to watch), the only thing I could think about was mental fortitude.
As a spectator, and sports fan, I am well-versed in all manner of tricks that we play to convince ourselves that the game, or series, is still winnable. Being a fan of the Washington Professional Football Team, convincing ourselves of delusional scenarios for victory that have at least a .01% chance of working has become an art form. It is easy to do when you are merely a fan. We aren't risking anything. Win or lose we are not affected in any way that truly matters. Our family, friends, career prospects are not in the least bit attached to the performance of a group of people in tight pants and shiny helmets. We have the freedom to dream with only minimal blow back should the dream crash and burn. Beyond that, the reason why we are creating fanciful comeback daydreams is not in response to anything that **we* are responsible for.
As an athlete, I know that the situation is far more difficult when you are the one directly responsible for the hole you are now sitting in. I've gotten off on the wrong foot in my fair share of marathons and multi-day track events. I have experienced how hard it is to swing negative momentum. I am definitely not the type of athlete to harbor even the slightest bit of overconfidence in my abilities, but even in situations when I'm feeling particularly cocksure, I know my comeback plans after a poor start to a competition are always slightly tinged with doubt. Even if the moment of doubt is subtle and fleeting, it occurs. It is also easy for that fleeting moment of doubt to hang out a bit longer with each subsequent misstep. There is no reset button. No "back to the drawing board" moment or extra training you can magically go back and do. In that moment--in that hole of your own creation--you have to convince yourself wholeheartedly that you have the tools and abilities to dig yourself out. You have to have the sheer force of will to toss out the outcome that any logical bystander can predict and narrow your focus to each tiny move you need to make to come back.
Down 25 in the third quarter it would shock me if Tom Brady was thinking victory. Even if you still believe you can win in that dire of a situation the outcome of the game can no longer matter. Saying this is far easier than doing it, however. With Brady in the worst possible position to be in, in one of the biggest games of his career, and forcing himself to literally compress his focus to one play at a time, and one drive at a time was one of the most impressive things in sports I have witnessed. Unlike the standout sports comebacks of my fan life--the Red Sox coming back from 3-0 against the Yankees, the Cavs coming back from 3-1 against the Warriors, etc.--the Patriots did not have the luxury of playing for another game. They had 20 minutes to make up for 2-and-a-half quarters of misery, yet their style of play was never rushed, hurried, or outwardly urgent. When I went back and rewatched parts of the game that I had missed, I never got the sense that they felt the nerve-induced urge to get back into the game in chunks. They continued huddling between plays, running the ball, taking field goals instead of insisting on touchdowns only, and never tried to win the game all at once. They got lucky a couple of times, but luck cannot result in scoring on their last five drives of the game.
What I witnessed was the shear force of will to dissociate, instantly, with every single bad play and poor decision that was made in the first 30+ minutes of the game. What I witnessed was the mental fortitude to never doubt that they had the tools to be a championship football team, despite recent evidence. What I witnessed was the faith and confidence of every one of those players that despite what the scoreboard said, they could play championship caliber football on the next play, and then the next, and the next, and the next, until unbelievably, remarkably, astoundingly, the scoreboard began to agree with their beliefs.
When the Patriots received the ball in overtime it was widely believed they would win, but the Patriots never played as if it was a foregone conclusion. They continued to be deliberate. They marched down the field in five plays, but none of those plays were intended to score a touchdown until the very last one. The focus was to succeed on the next play, then the next. Not to win the game, but to succeed on that specific play. Until, at last, the goal of the play was to score and the score just so happened to win the game.
2017 is a year filled with major marathons and a big World Championships in London in July. My training has been tough and focused on longer term goals, forcing me to change what my definition of success needs to be in my early season races. I may go through a period where the scoreboard does not agree with who I am as a racer, but I am motivated to not let this affect who I believe I am as a racer. Not many of us can claim to be the GOAT as the leader of the Patriots can, however all of us can pull a page from their playbook and develop a strong belief in ourselves that will allow us to keep clawing, grinding out one successful play at a time, until the scoreboard screams what we have known all along.