As his team attempted to rebound from losing the first two games of the ALCS, New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi spent his one precious day off saying goodbye to his dad, who passed away over the weekend after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
The team and its skipper kept the failing health of Jerry Girardi out of the public realm until the very end. Unlike the business world, the high stakes of professional sports doesn't allow for time off to grieve. Generally, when there is a death in the family, you can postpone a meeting, and your business associates will be understanding of a personal loss. That's not the case in sports; regardless of what goes on in your personal life, there's still a game.
I experienced this myself when I was a defensive coach with Chuck Noll and the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1987. My dad, with whom I spoke every day and who was my best friend, died rather suddenly as a result of esophageal varices (swollen veins in the esophagus). My mom had called me on a Monday to tell me he had gone to the hospital and the next day called back and said, "You should think about coming home."
By the time I arrived, he had suffered a seizure. I called the monsignor, who administered last rites, and by Thursday night he was gone.
That Sunday we had a game; not just any game, but the 1987 season opener against the San Francisco 49ers. The Steelers were trying to rebound from a 6-10 season in 1986. Meanwhile, the Niners were in the midst of their dynasty and were heavily favored to win.
In front of 55,000+ fans, the Steelers' defense held Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and co. to a field goal in the first half and went into the locker room with a 17-3 lead. The scoring started with a 50-yard fumble recovery run by "Beltin' Delton" Hall in the first quarter, which set the tone of the game.
The defense played with great resolve to win the game against a heavily-favored opponent. The final score was 30-17. After the game, Coach Noll awarded the game ball to the defense, which had manhandled Hall of Famers Rice and Montana. Linebacker Mike Merriweather, the team MVP that year, handed me the game ball in honor of my dad. It was the most emotional moment of my life. Later, I sat and wrote every player a handwritten note.
Athletes and coaches have to learn to compartmentalize their lives. There's no time to reflect on personal losses because there's always the next game. In my case, I never took a day off and jumped right back into work. In professional sports, you have to learn to focus on the next battle, put your pain behind you and deal with it.
We have seen professional athletes and coaches rise to the occasion so many times, but we have also observed the emotional impact losing a loved one plays on a team.
Recently, Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith took the field just hours after his 19-year-old younger brother died in a motorcycle accident. Smith caught six passes for 127 yards and scored two touchdowns in Baltimore's thrilling 31-30 victory over the New England Patriots on September 23rd.
In 2003, Brett Favre famously threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns as he led the Green Bay Packers to a 41-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders during a Monday night game only a day after the quarterback learned of his dad's death.
In 2005, former Colts head coach Tony Dungy lost his son to suicide in midseason, yet his team still finished 14-2.
Last season, the Packers’ former offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, now Miami's head coach, lost his son less than a week before the NFC Divisional Playoff Game. Despite an impressive 15-1 regular season record and leading the league in points per game, the Packers fell to the New York Giants 37-20. The death of Philbin’s son clearly had an impact on the NFL's most potent offense, which had averaged 35 points a game yet was noticeably out of sync.
For the athletes, the adrenaline kicks in, and they focus on the physical. Coaches and managers focus on the game plan. They simply aren't thinking about dealing with a personal loss or what's happening in their lives.
Working supersedes the grieving process. That's how you deal with personal losses during a season.
It's a surreal time for Joe Girardi, who holds one of the highest pressure jobs in all of sports. He had Monday off and paid respect to his father. Then he got right back to work. There's no other way to do it. Fans can never truly appreciate the focus and toughness of players and coaches in professional sports.
Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice. Among his high profile placements are Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy, New York Jets President Neil Glat, and Michigan head coach Brady Hoke. Earlier in his career, Jed coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA). Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.