Saturday, March 09, 2024

When Perfection Doesn't Fit- Where to Find Help

So, I think I'll find a long white line
Curse the world and leave it all behindI been trying all this timeBut still can't climb the mountains of my mind (Chris Stapleton)

There is a mental haunting to coaching that has to be monitored closely. In my 34 years in this business, I have worked with individuals who suffered both physical and mental decline under the pressure of competition. Because of the variables of alignments, formations, and movements; football coaching has a unique ability to imprison the mind.

This game has endless hours of film watching, drawing, and creates a thrill when these thought experiments produce results on the field. In my younger days as an offensive coordinator, my eyelids would flicker the movement of plays when I finally tried to get some sleep.

48 hours before a game, I would rehearse and replay endless scenarios of down and distance in certain areas of the field and would match the opponent's defense against those calls. At the same time, I developed an idea for a base plan and the changeups required to keep the other team off balance.

For a 'highly functioning introvert' like myself it is an escape and a madness all at the same time. It can be tough on a marriage and create issues with children who need attention and interaction.

I miss calling plays and I believe I was really good at it. But if I am honest, I am glad to NOT be doing that as well. 

I work with an excellent play caller now but ALL play callers are subject to disdain and ridicule. It hurts a lot when people attack play callers.... it usually comes with no understanding or respect for the energy and effort by those who are actually in the arena.

The most sinister complainers are those who 'know the game' - but never stop to realize what they DO NOT know. They don't know the personnel of each team as they cross match, they don't know the analysis of both teams previous games leading up to this game, they don't know how practice went, they don't know if a play is a set-up for another time, and usually the evaluation is a simple as a good call works and a bad call doesn't.

Those people never go away, so if you go into the business, it is simply the price you pay to make those calls. Over the years, I learned how to deal with it, but that part can be aggravating!

But this post is about how it can go DANGEROUSLY wrong- and I write this in hopes that someone reading this may be helped or help someone to avoid the most senseless tragedy of all.
There is a mental drive in football that can lead to difficult places. In our quest to be best, we can get close to a waterfall of tragedy.

I was made aware of this sad story many years ago by Bob Crandall, former BCS teachers, who knew Coach McDuffie personally.

On Feb. 16, 1996 Wayne McDuffie, age 52 was found dead at his home in Tallahassee, FL. He had shot himself- twice. No one ever really knows why people choose such an illogical and tragic route, but if we don't learn from these stories, we can't prevent them from happening again.

In a by-gone age before google, i-phones, and YouTube- these stories tend have short shelf lives and not a lot of lasting information.

A lot of coaches have a time where their name is hot. And in the 1980's Wayne McDuffie was the latest to receive accolades of his innovative and productive attack. He masterminded Florida State’s high-octane offense in those days. He was also a part of Georgia’s 1980 championship team, Vince Dooley’s offensive line coach. 

High school coaches flocked to his clinics where he spoke with intelligence and charisma -he was an intense man on and off the field. Coaches admired his toughness.

He fit the stereotype of the ranting and raving coach. His language was vulgar, and he worked his players so hard in practice that even other coaches winced. Of course, we don't mind if coaches, the leaders of young men, are flawed. Everything is excused so long as they produce excitement on the field.

McDuffie served as offensive coordinator at Florida State from 1983-89 and recruited Heisman Trophy-winner Charlie Ward during his tenure.

Georgia guard Jim Blakewood: “I can’t imagine there being a tougher coach. We felt like nobody in the league worked harder than we did. The teams we were getting ready to play couldn’t survive our practices. The games were a piece of cake.”

In Tales from the 1980 Georgia Bulldogs, Dooley discussed what a great coach McDuffie was and how he couldn’t turn off his intensity. They had to send him on recruiting trips Thursdays and Fridays. “The players would be so stressed out after Sunday through Wednesday with Wayne that they needed a few days to build their confidence back up.”

But hot names cool down... and Coach Wayne was no different. 

McDuffie's haunting to push perfection was taking its toll.

In 1994, McDuffie was wearing down.... “I really thought I wouldn’t survive this year. I’m so exhausted from trying to put pieces together that don’t fit,  It was the end of another grueling season as offensive coordinator at UGA. “I’m trying to make something from nothing. I really thought I would die. I thought I would have a heart attack and die because I worked so hard.” The team had what was, for Wayne McDuffie, a disastrous season. The Bulldogs went 6-4-1.

While McDuffie conformed to our ideas of a football coach, he also was a church-going, highly-principled father of three. He wasn't the only one to see the contradiction, but nobody could view the conflict within.All the signs were there. The amusement-park mood swings, a strong, masculine veneer hiding a spirit as brittle as a cracker.

Fired by Georgia along with the rest of coach Ray Goff's staff, McDuffie told Florida State coaches he was a candidate to become offensive line coach with the Miami Dolphins.

Wayne jogged in his golf-course neighborhood, pushing himself hard. He lifted weights. And, with his wife, he wrestled with plans for the future. He hoped a professional team would come calling. He had feelers in with the Dolphins. But his birthday (December 1) and the holidays passed, as did the big bowl games, the pro playoffs and the Super Bowl, and Wayne McDuffie was still unemployed. He was 51 years old. The chart, the map, had led nowhere. Football was all McDuffie had known. His phone never rang.

What happens to men like McDuffie when they lose their jobs, as he did after last season at Georgia? Or when they're passed over for a job with the Miami Dolphins, as McDuffie learned he had been the afternoon of his death?

McDuffie had been fired only twice in his life. In his first coaching job ever, when Florida State was winless during the 1973 season under head coach Larry Jones. And then last year at Georgia.

He had grown tired of the politics surrounding college football and had reluctantly accepted the fact that he never would reach his lifelong goal of being a head coach.

In researching numerous articles regarding this sad story, I came across a lot of details that link to patterns that are familiar to us as these stories seem to be more common than we are comfortable to admit.

Toni McDuffie's best hypothesis is that it was a combination of stressful factors that aggravated his 20-year battle with manic depression. For most of their married lives, Wayne had used various medications to control his moods, which would rocket up and suddenly down. But nothing seemed to work.

Over the last few years, he had complained about never really being able to enjoy life. On a scale of 10, Toni said her husband had hovered around a 4.

Ever careful not to step over the personal boundaries Wayne had set, she never asked him about his medication or whether he was taking it properly. Anything else and maybe she could have interceded, but mental illness wasn't something he talked about.

It was almost as if he considered it a character flaw instead of a medical condition.

"I know Wayne could be depressed at times," a friend said. "He was moody in the sense that when things weren't going well, he didn't take it lightly."

I'm writing this particular blog to coaches who struggle with this. Looking back over my career, I see patterns here. And I recently had to revisit some of the same concepts as I face the reality of turning 60 this summer.

I want to reach out to  stern-faced individuals....elite competitors, who drive themselves because they believe they can squeeze perfection from an imperfect world and mercilessly drive themselves  and everyone in their sphere totally convinced that it is  all for a greater good.

Do you see Coach McDuffie in yourself? Do you know one that you are close enough to have the conversation?

I gathered a number of articles in my research, I wanted to include parts of this one in particular:

Those who knew him would never imagine Wayne McDuffie admitting anything resembling weakness. "I'm trying to make something from nothing. I really thought I would die. I thought I would have a heart attack and die because I worked so hard. I worried so much and tried so desperately to hold this thing together." 

His wife lived for those moments when her tough, chiseled husband would open himself up to her. When he would express some vulnerability. When she could help Wayne carry the weight accumulated through his carefully regimented climb from playing at Florida State and coaching for more than two decades, including two stints each at his alma mater, at the University of Georgia and even for the Atlanta Falcons.

Of course, Wayne would rise above his pain. She knew that was what he always did--that he had wrestled with manic depression for years and that with her help and the help of his medication, he could cope. He would always, always pick himself up--and never admit weakness to anyone but her. He would be back to being the Wayne McDuffie that she alone knew--someone far removed from the grim, oppressive, aloof, abrasive perfectionist so many others encountered. 

 She also knew that, as Wayne turned 50, he allowed most people to see him only as cold. Mean. Egotistical. Someone to be feared, someone who could be brutally sarcastic and humiliating.

But she alone knew that his mind was forever racing, analyzing, reviewing. That there was never a moment when he wasn't sorting out some problem inside his head. His distant demeanor wasn't egotistical or intentional, she thought--it was just a byproduct of an extraordinarily active, preoccupied mind.

Wayne's mind, thought his wife, was always going in a thousand directions.

"He was absolutely the most unique character I've ever met. I'd see him in the weight room late at night, killing himself," says Matt Braswell, a former All-Southeastern Conference offensive lineman at Georgia. And when Braswell and other players would drive by the jogging McDuffie, they would lower their car windows and listen as the coach violently cursed himself for not running harder and faster. "He was a son-of-a-bitch. The closest analogy I can draw would be a drill instructor. But Wayne taught me more football than any other coach. I'm not sure it was his mantra 'to never give up.' I think it was, 'If you're going to do it. then be the best you can be . . . and if you can't do it, then you quit.'"

"He was a tough, hard-nosed football coach. You won't run across any harder," says Ray Goff, a close friend and the former Georgia coach who worked hard to lure McDuffie to his staff. "People would recruit against you because of Wayne. They'd say, 'You don't want to go there (to Georgia), the guy is too tough he's too hard.' He wanted to be the best at everything. He could not stand anything not being the best Maybe he tried to keep that same persona off the field that he had on the field-and he had a hard time distinguishing where to cut it loose."

Goff realized McDuffie was unlike anyone else he had ever met. "He was truly the most intense guy I've ever been around in my life. I've never seen the likes of Wayne McDuffie."

Something did happen. At the end of 1995, he was fired for the first time as a coach. Fired after five years, mostly successful, at Georgia--including a year when he thought he had almost given his life to the school. It was, truth be told, something Wayne saw coming. Something, said some, he had invited. Last October, he spoke to the Athens Touchdown Club and publicly suggested that Goff's staff had already been fired by athletic director Vince Dooley. McDuffie's animosity toward Dooley was thinly veiled.

"I had to address him professionally on a couple of issues that I thought he was wrong on. I called him down. But when I did it, it was over. It was just a professional thing," Dooley says. "But he may have carried it with him . . . he could have." After the Touchdown Club speech, Dooley waited three or four days, thinking that Wayne would come in to apologize or explain. "I thought he had not conducted himself the way he should have. What he did at the Touchdown Club was shocking to everybody. . . . I had a responsibility to talk to him about it."

A month later, Wayne and the rest of Ray Goff's staff were fired. 

Wayne McDuffie, everyone said would be coaching somewhere soon. But, only those handful of friends knew that was small comfort for someone who wanted to be a head coach and who studied and remapped that career path--until the reels were mindlessly flapping over and over again. 

 He watched members of the old staff move on to other jobs. He even knew that Goff was spending more time at the little farm he had in Georgia Wayne jogged in his golf-course neighborhood, pushing himself hard. He lifted weights. And, with his wife, he wrestled with plans for the future. He hoped a professional team would come calling. He had feelers in with the Dolphins.

But his birthday (December 1) and the holidays passed--as did the big bowl games, the pro playoffs and the Super Bowl--and Wayne McDuffie still was unemployed. The contract for that lakeside retirement paradise still sat unsigned on his desk. He was 51 years old. The chart, the map, had led nowhere.

By mid-February, there were times when he and Toni didn't talk. She knew, without asking, that he was struggling. But, like he had in the past, she also knew he would rise above it. On February 16, she left for her job at a Tallahassee middle school. It was 7:30 a.m. Wayne told her that she might not see him when she got home, because he was going hunting. Toni took it as a good sign that Wayne was communicating with her. As she left the house, she saw her husband watching her from the kitchen window.

Toni returned home at 4 p.m. Wayne's red car was still in the driveway, and she assumed someone else had driven on the hunting trip. There was an unerased message on the answering machine from the Dolphins: Wayne hadn't gotten the job. She left for a while to feed her horses and run errands. As Toni cleaned up the house close to 7 p.m., she sew Wayne's hunting boots on a back-porch table. She looked on the porch and stared at the blood.

Sometime that day, Wayne McDuffie had taken two shotguns, two handguns, guncleaning supplies and several rounds of ammunition and placed them on his patio table. He partially disassembled one shotgun and took the cylinder from one handgun. Dressed in blue jeans, white socks, brown leather shoes and a white Atlanta Falcons shirt, Wayne McDuffie raised the other handgun and shot himself in the chest.

Then he got up, walked one lap around the pool, sat down and shot himself again...this time in the heart.

A few years ago (May, 2022), I dedicated a number of posts to the topic of mental health and athletics- you can find the first one here:

Athletics and Mental Health

I wanted to include a portion of the last post as a help to those who struggle in the area or now someone who fits this profile:

Though modern Christianity often tends to shy away from these topics… the Bible and the history of Christianity is a hard core, blunt testimony to believers who walk in periods of darkness and despair.

If you doubt this - read David’s laments as he cries through lonely nights, Naomi who called out to those around her to change her name. She said “Don’t call me Naomi (pleasant), Call me Mara (Bitter)”. Jeremiah was known as the ‘weeping prophet”.

There is an ENTIRE book called “Lamentations”- I guarantee we don’t read that book a lot.

Martin Luther was famous for fits of what he termed a malady of melancholy.The great nineteenth century preacher Charles Spurgeon suffered from acute depression. Often he was bedridden and unable to preach, sometimes as much as twice a month.

Now, again, it is so important here to not put all of these experiences in a simple basket called 'the blues'.

The more we learn about these conditions from acute to chronic, from chemical and genetic disorders, from weather related conditions, from trauma in early life, from tragedy in life, from fear and anxiousness, to identity crisis… even spiritual crisis… this is never going to be simple and the cure will often appear out of the reach of reality… but God is never absent and we are never without hope.

I also wanted to make reference and distinguish to something similar, but not the same. Early church fathers spent much time on a season they referred to as , “The Dark Night of the Soul”.
The phrase comes from an 8 stanza poem by St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), a Spanish monk and mystic.Gerald May, in his book  Care of Mind/Care of Spirit, says that these dark night places are doing a work that is deeper than our experiences of emotion, thought or action. In some ways, it might be more helpful to call the “dark night” a non-experience or a process of ‘unknowing’ .

The word ‘distinction’ is so important in ciphering through these experiences….

“It is important for us to make a distinction between the spiritual fruit of joy and the cultural concept of happiness. A Christian can have joy in his heart while there is still spiritual depression in his head. The joy that we have sustains us through these dark nights and is not quenched by spiritual depression. The joy of the Christian is one that survives all downturns in life.” R.C. Sproul


I may be wrong, but I NEVER remember being ‘depressed’ for any length of time throughout my teens, 20’s, and early 30’s. Sure, I got ‘disappointed’ and I suffered loss. I went through seasons of unrequited desires.

But not only do I not remember fighting depression or negativity, I actually had little patience with anyone who did. I disliked anyone who spoke in defeatist terms.. and the ‘blues’? My shallow and unfeeling reply was ‘get over it, you loser’.

BUT LIFE (and God) made sure I experienced what Ecclesiastes was promising.

Sure I was still a man of faith, I was loved, I was blessed- I was a peaceful man more with joy than regret..

but I also found myself dealing with a strange new friends… fears, doubts, loneliness, and emptiness. And they were tangible.. I could taste them. They made my eyes tired, they kept me up at night, and I couldn’t even introduce them to my wife.

It wasn’t dramatic enough to be labeled a ‘mid-life crisis’- I wasn’t thinking of convertibles and Corona’s…..But I was pulled by a strong gravity inward to wrestle with deep desires and questions that I had hidden with youthful exuberance and a smile.

Now, here is the weird thing….looking back over 20 years of meeting these friends in sneak attacks and seasons of grief or pain….. It was wonderful!

Because I did find the one person who met me there, in the dark, under the accusing crooked fingers of my demons.

Jesus was and is there, though many times I did not see Him. He didn’t say much.. but I knew He cared. You know the old Marine saying? “You can pretend to care, but you cannot pretend to be there.” One of the greatest growth moments of faith is to look into the darkness and know you are not alone... HE WAS THERE!

How was He there? I found that God’s Word powerfully attached to all of those dispositions. I particularly found healing in Psalms and in the gospels.

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:7­-10).

The apostle Paul in writing to the Philippians gives me the admonition to be anxious for nothing,” telling me that the cure for anxiety is found on my knees, that it is the peace of God that calms my spirit and dissipates anxiety. Again, I can be anxious and nervous and worried without finally submitting to ultimate despair.


Before you give me a wreath of victory… the struggle remains. And for some people, it is a lifelong battle that requires consistent medication, evaluation, and professional support. At this time, I haven’t had to go there, but it is no lack of faith and no reason for shame if I did.

I was also helped by Os Guinness in a book titled, “The Call”

For me,  Os Guinness began to articulate about finding authentic love and truth in the dark.

He writes: The notion of calling is VITAL to each of us because it touches on the modern search for a basis for individual identity and an understanding of humanness itself.

He outlines stages of human identity that is connected to our own sense of purpose. All human worldviews and philosophies speak to aspects of these ‘labels’ of identity

One is “I AM CONSTRAINED TO BE”– this simply is where we are right now by following the path that led here. It is the lot we find ourselves, and can present itself like a prison of our own circumstances. Sometimes these constraints look insurmountable… and some are.

The next one is “COURAGE TO BE”- this is the one that I held to as that optimistic 20 year old. I bought into all the snappy slogans that turned into self-help best sellers. “Be all you can be”- “Shoot for the Stars”. Now, to he honest- these are great challenges and they do ‘birth’ dreams that are helpful in the process of pulling against our restraints.

The third one is “CONSTITUTED TO BE”- this one is where most secular philosophies stop and ‘mission accomplished’ is celebrated. We have broken out of our constraints and now revel in a life. We have FOUND our identity in context of experience, passion, and skill. The power is within ourselves and can be described as a kind of 'intestinal fortitude' or 'guts'.

But the Bible does not stop there… it wants me to take one more step… a step of faith..and it is a huge deal…

‘CALLED TO BE’– this is the relationship of love that moves us with purpose and not a product of chance and whim. By being called to a person… especially the Creator and Lover of our souls, we have a place to go when our soul is wounded and crushed or flooded with anxiety. Who can we depend on when our 'guts' run out?

R.C. Sproul said it like this:

The presence of faith gives no guarantee of the absence of spiritual depression; however, the dark night of the soul always gives way to the brightness of the noonday light in the presence of God.

My relationship with a FATHER… THE FATHER.. the lover of my soul… gives me a NAME that matters.

My despair... anxiety... loneliness.. depression... grief... was good- because it drove me to the One who was seeking me all along.

C.S. Lewis says it is in our stories…. a ‘desire for a far off country’  the scent of a flower we have not found… the echo of a tune we have not from a country we have yet to visit”

And when we find Him in the depths.. we still don’t know a lot… but we know Him. And our question becomes “What do you desire me to do?”

Remember Naomi… the one who wanted to be called “Bitter”?

Naomi knew darkness. She and her husband had to sojourn in famine conditions in Moab. She had 2 sons who married Moabite women. Life was tough, but grew desperate as Naomi had to experience the death of her husband and, 10 years later, she went through the pain of losing her two sons!

And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”  (Ruth 1:19-21 ESV)

But, OVER TIME, Naomi experienced the love of God through Ruth and God stepped in and provided a Kinsman Redeemer and lifted this family up!
I hope you know the story about how Boaz, a kind and devout man, met Ruth and sacrificially worked to gain Ruth as his bride. And when Ruth gave Naomi a grandson… the blessing was complete.

Naomi’s identity was miraculously changed:

“Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! [15] He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” [16] Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse.” (Ruth 4:14-16 ESV)

The depression/anxiety that we struggle with may be profound, but it is not permanent, nor is it fatal.

And sometimes, all we can do… all we need to do is just keep breathing… our hearts need to keep pumping… and listen for the word of Your Father… He is THERE and He does CARE.

As a coach, these struggles have made me better. I'm not tempted by the glory of sports fame nor chained to achievements... the stuff never loves me back.

Instead... I have just loved being with athletes and I feel their anxiety and my heart aches to help them. And the cool things about kids.... the have an uncanny sense of knowing if you REALLY care about them. And one they know you care.... there is no end in how you can help them. And I don't mean how to better read the safety as he rolls to 3 cloud... or how to switch the pass pro when they feel a filed pressure coming... no you help them in deeper ways.

i want them to see me faithfully fighting with relentless optimism....

I want them to see me not running away from God in the midst of chaos and tragedy of life.. but inspiring them to cling to the One who loves and restores.

One day we will all see Him face to face...He will wipe away our tears… and we will truly know a freedom from human misery, death, and deceit.

"The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and He saves those who are crushed in spirit." Psalm 34:18

Can you dare to believe this?

If you or anyone you know of has patterns or signs of concern, make sure you reach out and find help.

We can go though a lot of things together, but no one ever really wins alone.

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