Find Your Huddle: Bill Curry’s Encouragement for Us All
In his early career, Bill Curry played in Super Bowl I, III, and V for the Green Bay Packers and then the Baltimore Colts. Once he retired from playing, he served as an assistant coach with Green Bay, and then the head coach at Georgia Tech, the University of Alabama, the University of Kentucky, and Georgia State. He wrote a book with his friend George Plimpton back in 1977, and then alone he wrote Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle: Lessons from a Football Life in 2008. Due to popular demand and a desire to complete his personal story of inspiration and growth, the Press is republishing a Tenth Anniversary Edition of Ten Men with additional content.
Coach Curry happened to be passing through Macon this week (and I happened to be proofreading his manuscript last week), and so it all fell into place for him to be the next target of my interview series. The staff of MU Press emphasized to me what a charming and kind gentleman Bill Curry is, and I will tell you beforehand that they were spot on. He met me at the MU Press office with a warm smile and a gentle, firm handshake. I was star-struck but tried my best to conceal the shakiness in my voice. Once we got settled and I loosened up a bit talking about my studies, I lost the nervousness and spoke to him like I’d speak to someone who hadn’t played in and won the very first Super Bowl.
Elizabeth (E): What is the one thing that you hope readers will learn from your book?
Bill Curry (B): That we all need each other. As brutal as football is, in its raw, basic form, it is a life lesson that’s very difficult to learn anywhere else—at least for me. My high school coach Bill Badgett (there’s a whole chapter in the book about him) was famous with us for hammering into us that football is just life marked off in a hundred yards. We thought that was silly when we were fourteen years old, but now that I’m seventy-five years old, I know it’s true. Because you’re going to get knocked down again and again, and you’ve got two choices: you can get up, or you can lie there and wallow in self-pity. If your teammate gets knocked down, you can pick him or her up and dust them off, or you can ignore them. It’s the choice we face all our lives, with family, friends, strangers. We get to choose how we respond. And the way we respond to those basic kinds of questions really determines who we are. Nothing can deprive us of our right to choose how we respond. Until you learn to take responsibility for every aspect of your life, you will not be able to move to your maximum.
E: I was not expecting Ten Men to be such a philosophical book.
B: Once you step in the huddle, now you can’t be racist; you can’t be sexist, because there are women in the locker room. This Friday night a million-plus high school children in the United States will play football, and two thousand of those will be girls. All of these people are in a kind of a huddle, and the moms and dads are sitting in the stands. And somebody’s son or daughter scores a touchdown or a field goal. I saw something last week that the homecoming queen kicked the winning field goal, and I just think that’s great! So what do we do? We hug and embrace. We don’t stop to see what color somebody’s skin is, or what church they go to. We’re not together any other time of the week, and so we can’t lose that fundamental human touch, I think. Sport helps us to maintain those relationships. That’s why if some of the stuff in Ten Men seems philosophical, that’s what it’s about.
E: If you could go back in time and only play under the leadership of one of your coaches mentioned in your book, who would it be, and why?
B: Well, it would have to be a mixed bag. The one who changed my life the most was my college coach, Bobby Dodd. I was a very immature, very lackadaisical student, and I thrust myself into Georgia Tech for all the wrong reasons. I went there because Carolyn Newton was going to be at Agnes Scott, and Tech was the closest campus to Agnes Scott. That’s not a good reason to pick a school. I’m sitting next to National Merit Scholars on either side of me, and I was not that. And Coach Dodd loved us so much that he would not allow us to cut class. I did cut a class, and the next Wednesday morning I ran stadium stairs until I could not stand. I decided that chemistry at 8:00 in the morning was really a wonderful thing.
E: You learned really quickly.
B: I owe all of that to him and his system. He did that to us because he was an all-American at the University of Tennessee and never graduated. So he made sure that we were going to go to class and graduate. Most of us did. In terms of my football career, the guy that changed my life was Don Shula because he gave me one chance after another, even when it seems like I didn’t deserve it. And he allowed me to grow up in the NFL and I’m eternally indebted to him. And so, I love all my coaches, I appreciate all of them, I owe all of them, but those two are the ones that did the most to change my life. Then I took what I learned from them and tried to apply it to my own coaching.
E: Your wife Carolyn seems like an extraordinary woman. How has she influenced you over the years both on and off the field?
B: On the field, well, I was desperate for my father’s approval. He would come to my games and say nothing about my performance. So eventually I’d ask, “Dad, how’d I do?” and he’d say something like, “I don’t know, but that Newton girl is the greatest cheerleader I’ve ever seen in my life.” When I was a player on the field she was, not just for me, so involved with our team, with our players. She was emotionally and spiritually a part of the team, and the guys could sense that, and they’d appreciate it. Of course, I’d very much appreciate it. And from the standpoint of our relationship, she is blessed and cursed with absolute honesty. When I’d get into a funk, she’d say, “You’re not going to behave like this.” I’d try to go to bed, and she’d walk up to me and say, “You are not going to sleep angry. We are going to talk until we talk this out.” I really owe her everything. She’s…the best leader I’ve ever seen.
E: You’re going to make me start crying.
B: Well, when I was a kid, I went home and told my dad that I’m going to marry Carolyn, and he said, “That’s the best idea you’ve ever had.”
E: Why did you decide to get into public speaking?
B: I sort of got pushed into it. My greatest fear in life is public speaking, I don’t know why. When I was nineteen years old, a junior at Tech, I had a public speaking course. I could not stand up and do a five-minute autobiographical statement without my knees shaking and my chest quaking. The professor worked with me, but nothing seemed to help with the nervousness. One day I had my notes, and I just threw them in the garbage. I stood up in the class—and there were about five different wacky professors with particular speech patterns, and I had them down cold—and started doing [mimicking] those professors. And they went crazy, guys were falling out of their chairs laughing, and the professor loved it. Now what I do, is I stand up and tell stories, and I mimic people. It might be Vince Lombardi, or Bobby Dodd, it might be Carolyn, anybody. I got involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and there was a constant demand for someone to come speak to these groups. They’d give me a frame of reference, and I’d still be nervous, but I was serious about sharing my faith—I still am. It was excellent practice. Time went by, and it developed into a business. Now it’s a chance to encourage people. With all my heart, I try to encourage people to be the best they can be.
E: If there’s one thing you could change about the NFL and generally “the game” today, what would you change?
B: I would change whatever the training has been for the officials in being able to call tackling and penalties. They are incredibly inconsistent. I don’t know how you teach tackling now. The rule changes have taken the head out of the game to try and avoid concussions. So, you don’t go in and strike somebody in the chest with your face, which is what we did. You strike with your shoulder pad. The officiating is so inconsistent, and they call it so pathetically. They are making so many mistakes that players are confused. Whatever the league is doing to train the officials has got to get better. College officials are doing a better job than the NFL.
E: How has your time spent as a player affected your strategies as a coach regarding the issues of diversity?
B: Well, in the most drastic possible way. I reported to the Green Bay Packers and had never been in the huddle with an African American person, except for college All-Star games. Vince Lombardi’s greatest attribute was that he would not tolerate racism. So we had more African American players than anyone else in the league. There were teams that had none and bragged about it. There they had one or two and bragged about it. And we crushed them. But that’s not the reason he did it. It was a competitive advantage, but I don’t think that had anything to do with his thinking. His thinking was that we are not going to allow prejudice in this locker room, or in this huddle. Any racist demeanor was stomped out by the head coach. Everybody understood the respect factor. I still thought that those African American guys would listen to my southern accent and hurt me and send me home. I wouldn’t have blamed them. We were in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement—burning cities. But they did just the opposite. Especially Willie Davis. He took me aside and utterly changed my life. It was an unexpected, undeserved, unrewarded kindness from him. It gave me an example of what a great leader is. I’ll never be Willie Davis, but it made me a better person than what I would’ve been.
E: So as a coach, earlier on, perhaps, have you had to do the same kind of stomping out?
B: Every day. There was a conversation at every opportunity about how we are one team, we are together. Off the field you can go off and do what you want to do within our rules, socially. But when you step into that locker room, or cross that white line—we are together. And we are going to love and support one another in every single way that we can. If I had to stop a practice, if I heard a remark, we’d call everybody up and deal with it. We are going to treat each other as equals all the time. We had equally stringent rules about how we’d treat women, how’d we address women, how’d we speak to women. Our rules were simple. If you touched a woman improperly, you’d be gone from here so fast that no one would even remember your name ever. If you speak inappropriately to a woman, then you’re going to be spending a lot of time with me and learning about how you’re supposed to address a human being. We had workshops. Georgia State had a marvelous program. They would role-play a dating situation that would get out of hand. When you rehearse something, when you get in that situation and you’re at a fraternity party that next Saturday night and see something that could turn into a disaster, you’re probably going to act on it.
E: Football is this source of discipline, it changes these young men’s lives.
B: It does. They want so badly to be in the huddle, and for us we use it to teach these young men social graces. The guy who can handle it is the head coach. And if he doesn’t have brutal rules about it, then you’re going to have trouble with it every day.
E: What advice do you have for me and my peers about to enter the workforce?
B: Are we talking young ladies, now?
E: We can be.
B: Establish from the very beginning that you’re there to do a job. You aren’t there to be an ornament or to be made light of. Don’t put up with any nonsense. Make your principles clear and don’t allow any garbage.
We shared a few more unrelated stories up until he had to get going to another event. We took a picture together, and he let me hold his Super Bowl I Championship ring (I should’ve taken a photo!). It was huge and heavier than I expected. It didn’t even say “Super Bowl” because that term had only been applied to the game retroactively.
He was such a down-to-earth man, well-spoken and intellectual, much like in his book. He is not what most would expect out of a person who’s been involved in such a brutal game for over fifty years.
Like in Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, each chapter of Bill Curry’s book builds off the other and gives you practical insight into how to evolve in the face of adversity and hardship. He helps you discover how to continue your life’s education after college or high school by illustrating the lessons he’s learned up to his seventy-fifth year.
Hopefully, you’ll find your own huddle in which you’ll experience mutual respect and love. Your team (family, friends, even strangers) is there in the huddle to push you to be your best. However, you’ve got to open your eyes and recognize it. Simply put in his own words, “With all my heart, I try to encourage people to be the best they can be.” That’s exactly what he does, and that’s exactly what we’ve all got to do.
The revised Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle will is available for preorder now, with a publishing date of November 1, 2018.