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Gridiron contests have always been more than mere sport here in the South, and Clemson's domination of Alabama on Monday night showcased more than awesome athleticism. The Tiger victory alone would have been big news. Alabama looked unbeatable at times this season.

However, the magnitude of the win--a four-touchdown drumming, which included a shutout second half and three red-zone turnaways of the Tide--fully embodied the "Who'd have thunk it?" moment.

The game's final outcome was unexpected, unconventional and unpredictable--much like events in life and work often are. It shattered all manner of status quo suppositions: The point loss is Alabama's worst in the Saban era, the point total matched the highest ever allowed.

Besides being plain fun to watch, the improbable national championship blowout underscored vital truths that transcend helmets, uniforms, yard markers and paydirt.

It's not how you start, but how you finish.

Clemson's standout true freshman quarterback looked shaky at first. Trevor Lawrence's performance in the opening possession, going three-and-out with badly errant pass attempts, elicited more groans than cheers from the Tiger faithful. The Alabama defense appeared as impenetrable as ever.

But just three plays later, everything changed in a seeming instant.

Heisman runner-up Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa probably knew the moment the football spiraled from his fingers that he had misread the coverage; the Clemson defender intercepted his nearly lateral pass and sprinted 44 yards untouched, giving the Tigers a touchdown and renewed resolve.

The phrase "don't give up," while intended as an encouraging admonition, still begins with a negative. The positive inverse is what to do: remain persistent in purpose. Setbacks are never as important as their attitudinal influence.

"When you're going through hell, keep going," may not be a verifiable Churchill quote, but it sounds like something he would have said.

Instant success never is.

The "sudden" turn of events surrounding the pick-six wasn't really sudden at all. It was the long-coming end result of hours and hours of thinking, planning and preparation before the game even began, and before that play ever unfolded. Clemson's defensive coordinator had formulated a brilliant deception: Lined up in apparent man coverage, a blitzing Clemson corner made Tagovailoa think he had an open receiver in the flat. But the Tigers were actually in zone defense.

What looked on the TV replays like a spectacular individual pick-six accomplishment was in reality a total team effort involving the practice field, the coaches, the booth, the bench and the starters. Grueling front-end groundwork often gives the impression of spontaneity, which onlookers often misinterpret as a happenstance.

Parity in talent, differentiation in execution.

There were great football players all over the field from both teams. Both coaches are highly talented mentors, strategists, recruiters and motivators, with Saban generally regarded as a luminary in a class and category all his own.

Viewers saw several incredibly athletic plays, but brief flashes of extraordinary talent didn't deliver a blowout win. What mattered more than talent overall, and what prevailed in rolling the Tide like child's play, was execution.

Talent can be honed, but it is mostly a product of natural ability. Some kids can simply run faster, jump higher, throw a ball further or faster. Execution is a product of effort, diligence, attitude. Accepted responsibility invokes commitment, which promotes practice, which forms habits, which delivers performance.

True in football, true in any field, true for any job or role.

Good things happen to teams pursuing lofty goals. Almost every offensive play in football is designed to potentially result in a touchdown. That's why, on some third- or fourth-in-one handoffs up the middle, the running back winds up breaking through for a long-gainer or score.

In most games, teams will run dozens of plays but only reach the end zone a few times.

In football and every team endeavor, success is never about how one particular individual performs. It's about what the group can do when every individual behaves according to a plan and system.

Obviously some positions are more high-profile than others in football, other sports, movies and organizations. But every job is important; every lapse can be crucial. Eleven offensive players have a function on each play; 11 defensive players, who don't know which play is being run by the offense, rely on their training to read the situation and react fast and forcefully.

The resulting complexity: 22 talented individuals have at least 11 opportunities for mistakes or lapses on each of 60 or 70 plays per team per game.

When quarterbacks are credited with having "great games" and posting impressive completion stats, what really happened is the offensive line blocked extremely well and the receivers overperformed. When quarterbacks have bad games, the pass rushers excelled and the defensive secondary outplayed the receivers.

Games like Clemson-Alabama are reminders to push back against the easy skepticism of conventional wisdom, and recall that even the most unlikely of things can, do and will happen.

Remember this about any mass of hindsight expressions about who could have "thunk" whatever just unbelievably transpired: There were some who not only thought it, but earnestly believed it, in foresight. Learn from them.

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Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

Editorial on 01/11/2019

Print Headline: Football as ethos

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