My late father-in-law, Paul Strong, was one of the finest men I’ve ever known, and one of the most inspiring. When he was 67 years old, he suffered a massive, debilitating stroke. He was rushed to a hospital in Birmingham, where the doctors said he wouldn’t last the night. The next morning, he was still there, in a coma, clinging stubbornly to life.
That went on for several days. The doctors would tell the family that Paul couldn’t last, to prepare for the end. He kept clinging until the doctors grudgingly said he might live, but he’d never be able to go home. He’d have to spend the rest of his life in a nursing facility.
To get to the point, Paul came out of the coma and went home, where with the help of his wonderful wife Lillian, his loving and supporting children and friends, and the most tenacity I’ve ever seen in a person, he lasted 17 more years. That was incredible in itself, but the real story is in how he went about it. Paul Strong decided that he was not only going to live, he was going to get better. Each morning, he awoke determined to be in better shape by the time he slept that night. He worked hard at walking, talking, keeping his mind alert. But he did it with a great sense of humor that brightened up everybody around him.
When I eulogized him at the funeral, I spoke of the stroke, his physical burden, as a brick wall against which he pushed every day. The pushing itself made him stronger, but over time, with his great grit and determination, he moved the darn thing.
I think one of Paul Strong’s best strengths lay in his expectations for himself. He expected to get better, but more importantly, expected to do the work it took to get better, to move that brick wall a millimeter each day. He worked at living up to his expectations, and he showed the rest of us how powerful expectations can be.
I thought of Paul today when I read about Cam Newton, the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. Cam didn’t get to start yesterday’s game at Seattle because he violated the team dress code. Coach Ron Rivera has a rule: when you travel with the team to a game, you wear a dress shirt and tie. The team may be struggling on the field this year, but by golly, they’re gonna look professional when they travel. Cam showed up for the trip in a turtleneck, and he got benched.
There’s a lot of press and water cooler talk about how Ron Rivera’s dress code is penny-ante, nit-picking, nothing to punish your starting quarterback over. I disagree, and so does Cam Newton, who to his great credit backed up the coach and said, in effect, “I messed up.” Rivera has expectations for his team that run the gamut from wearing a tie to blocking, tackling, running pass routes correctly, having respect for the organization. Some of those expectations may seem small, not worth sweating, but together they spell discipline. And discipline gets results.
I’ve visited this topic before with the Panthers, some years ago when owner Jerry Richardson fired a popular coach who had done some good things before the team hit a significant decline. Richardson had expectations, and when they weren’t met, he made a change. And I’ll bet a wad of money that Jerry Richardson backs Ron Rivera to the hilt in this latest situation.
I learned about expectations early in life. My father was a tough guy, a former college football player and Army Green Beret. He was a hard man to please, and there were many times when we tangled over what I thought were his unreasonable expectations for me. But somehow, along the way, I came to expect good things from myself, and if I’ve done some good things along the way, I credit Dad for instilling the habit of expectations in me, for taking responsibility for what I do…and don’t.
Ron Rivera and Cam Newton and Jerry Richardson are a good example for us to pass along to our kids. If we expect good things, and let them know we do, they’re more likely to do good things.
I know this for sure, Paul Strong would give Ron and Cam a big old atta-boy.