November 2, 2023

A Big Heart in a World That Crushes Them

By: Martin Hackworth

I’m a lifelong fan of pro football. Though I have no long-term loyalty to any particular NFL franchise, I do enjoy the NFL. I root for individual players and coaches, and in games in which I have no favorite players or coaches, I root for whoever is behind (except in the case of the Cowboys – even I have my standards). I’m a fan of the game. But I do occasionally find a franchise that is worth rooting for. Right now, that franchise happens to be the Detroit Lions.

The Detroit Lions are currently 6-2, roughly midway through the 2023 NFL season, and on a roll. The Lions are a gritty team of young players built through the draft and some very astute trades by Lions GM Brad Holmes. They are led by an aggressive defense that gets visibly better each game and a potent offense (that may be the smartest in the league), helmed by a redemption project, QB Jared Goff, via a trade from the LA Rams.

Goff, in my opinion, was never the bust that the Rams telegraphed to the world that he was. Goff is an example of a good player who was a poor fit for the system he was in. Rather than play to his strengths, the Rams almost begged the Lions to take Goff off their hands in a trade for QB Matthew Stafford. A reborn Goff has been playing at a very high level for much of the past two seasons on a team that believes in him and that he may yet lead to the Super Bowl.

But the undisputed leader of the Lions is their head coach, Dan Campbell, also known as Motor City Dan Campbell, or “MCDC.” As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Detroit Lions are going to have to build another bandwagon because the one they already put together is full. How can you not appreciate what Dan Campbell has done with a previously moribund NFL franchise that, until shortly after the arrival of Campbell (and Holmes), experienced decades of futility and irrelevance?

Even Barry Sanders, who I would argue is one of the greatest players in NFL history, retired in his prime over frustration with the Lions. Detroit’s general run of hard luck found plenty with which to commiserate in terms of the atrociously bad Lions.

Dan Campbell is currently the man in Detroit. He’s managed to elevate and inspire an entire fan base, even an entire city, with his devotion to his players, the Lions and Detroit. I’m pretty sure that his players would run through a wall for him if he asked. Hell, I’d run through a wall for him if he asked, and I live 1700 miles away.

The reason that I so much like and appreciate Dan Campbell is that he so obviously has a huge heart and cares for others. Campbell once gave a game ball to a new kicker, which is amazing because kickers are chronically underappreciated in professional football. He cares about his players and is up to his responsibility to an area and a fan base that haven’t ordinarily had a lot to look forward to.

I saw an interview on ESPN prior to the Lions recent appearance on Monday Night Football where Campbell became emotional, reminiscing over his first Detroit team, which went 3-13-1. The reason that he became emotional was because he so admired those players who’d continued to fight despite deficiencies in talent and wins.

From this interview:

“We’re the same gritty team; we’re just more talented. That’s what I would say. The core of that group, man, you talk about a bunch of dudes that were just gonna battle. And we didn’t quite have the horses that we’ve got now. But those guys, you talk about laying it on the line, and going toe-to-toe with anybody, and willing to fight to the end; I’ll never forget those guys.”

“I just, uh, I appreciate guys that lay it on the line. Maybe you’re outnumbered, maybe you’re not the most talented, maybe the odds are against you, nobody believes in you, and uh, I respect the hell out of those guys who will fight, you know? And that’s what we’re about.”

With those words, Dan Campbell transcended football and spoke powerfully to the human condition. MCDC took up for every human being who’s ever fought to do the best that they could do, often in situations of quiet desperation, without any hope of reward, attention, adoration, or sometimes vindication. He took up for those who never give up, never lose their dreams, and value character above riches.

Campbell spoke for single mothers who, despite the odds, raise their kids to be good people. He spoke compassionately for every person who’s ever had an idea that no one else believed in. He spoke for those whose lives are a playing card held by a clothespin against the web of spokes on the wheel of human frailty. And he spoke eloquently for old guys like me who’ve spent a lifetime wanting to believe that the world was a better place than it probably was and are now beginning to have doubts.

This week, in the world beyond football, Israel began their long-anticipated invasion of Gaza after Hamas murdered over 1000 people in Israel on October 7 in a barbaric act of terrorism. I have written columns that touched on my revulsion over this and my feeling that the Israeli government is partially to blame.

Despite the fact that I see this horror as a clear act of terrorism, I’m almost positive that Israel’s stated objective in their current response, to eradicate Hamas, is folly. Don’t get me wrong, I get the desire for retribution, but I think that there’s room for some reason in how to go about it.

Using the current tactics, for every person the Israelis kill as they level Gaza, ten more terrorists will rise to replace them. It might feel good to turn Gaza into a parking lot, but it’s an ineffective response if stopping future acts of terrorism is what the Israelis are actually after.

I’m also concerned that this may be the beginning of a wider conflict that has its roots in the Middle East but may spread rapidly around the world. There is a reason that the United States has not one but two carrier battle groups in the eastern Mediterranean, bracketing Israel.

For what it’s worth, I think that a better solution would be for the Israelis to flood the tunnels that Hamas has been using, something that would be easy given the proximity to the Mediterranean and Israel’s expertise in moving water around, depriving Hamas of much of their military capability, and then quietly use special forces to eradicate everyone who had anything to do with October 7.

There is a precedent for this. Following the attacks in Mumbai, India, on November 26, 2008, by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants operating out of Pakistan, India’s leaders, including prime minister Manmohan Singh, took few overt revengeful actions, instead using special forces to quietly eliminate the terrorists. This restraint ensured that world and domestic opinion in Pakistan turned against the terrorists and their sponsors. Singh took a temporary hit in popularity at home, but his decision proved to be correct.

To make such a decision, a leader has to be wise, courageous, have a view of the bigger picture, and have enough heart to know that suffering is suffering, no matter who causes it. They have to want to fight the good fight instead of the easy one. They have to have some Dan Campbell in them.

The world just might live up to my expectations if more people did.

Associated Press and Idaho Press Club-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist, writer, and retired Idaho State University faculty member who now spends his time with family, riding bicycles and motorcycles, and arranging and playing music. Follow him on Twitter @MartinHackworth.

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