Jason Byassee: How to react to a failure that’s not your fault?

Chris Combs learned as a Duke football player to excel even as his team failed, to work harder and smarter than the minimum, and to worry about no more than he can control.

Chris Combs was a star defensive lineman for the Duke football team in the late 1990’s. He holds the school record in tackles-for-losses, was first-team all-conference twice, and went on to play in the NFL for four seasons. Yet Combs has the misfortune of being remembered for a game-changing penalty more than anything else.

It was third and long as Duke held on to a tenuous lead at archrival Virginia in Charlottesville. UVa was right on the edge of field goal range. A big play here likely tips the outcome in Duke’s favor. It would be a huge win for a victory-starved Duke over star-studded and bowl-bound Virginia. Combs, a Virginia native, was determined to make that big play in front of his many friends and family members who were in the stands. As he did so often in his career, he tore through the opponent’s offensive line and sacked the quarterback. Combs leapt up and saluted his personal cheering section as it went wild for him.

The ref threw his flag: unsportsmanlike conduct for excessive celebration, 15 yards for Virginia and a first down. The referee had effectively taken the game out of the hands of the players and decided it himself. Even today, ten years later, when Combs attends alumni or fan club events, he is greeted with salutes, or serenaded with the name “Sarge.” He takes it in good humor. But it clearly still bothers him.

When we met recently, I too asked this ACC football great about his moment of undeserved failure rather than his 20 moments of greatness (career sacks) or years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars. A serious Christian, Combs now looks back at that career-marking play with a theological frame.

One, the ref repented. Two weeks later, before another game, he approached Combs to apologize. “I’m really sorry I had to throw that flag,” he said. Even now Combs is not sure what exactly what sort of apology this was. “That’s OK sir,” he said at the time, biting his tongue. Reflecting back on the conversation now, Combs reflects that he “never was much to challenge adults.”

Two, Combs sure dialed down his celebrating. After a sack in the NFL, he just walked back to the huddle. His teammates ribbed him for not celebrating. Jacksonville’s star quarterback Mark Brunell dubbed him “Five state Combs,” saying his serious demeanor forecasted a five-state killing spree (see his college photo here). A UVa grad on the Jaguars piped up. “I can tell you why Combs doesn’t celebrate,” he said, and passed on the story.

Combs’ larger reaction is more faith-filled. “Football was an idol to me,” he said. It sure isn’t now. “If you value anything more than God, that’s an idol.”

Combs may be too hard on his old, less-Christian self here. He was just a driven football player, as all successful people are driven. An assistant coach saw him as a rookie and called him “A blind dog in a meat factory”-- all motor and no smarts. So he told Combs he “had a chance” to play in the NFL. That glimpse of hope was enough, and Combs became a dedicated student of the game. He watched film and lifted weights maniacally. When teammates spent spring break in Cancun, he’d travel to work all week with a personal trainer. His position coach taught him to be a master at noticing the small things: “When offensive linemen are heavy in their stance it’s a running play. At least in college. They’re too big not to tell the play in advance.” By his senior year he was so in the groove of the game he could see what was going to happen before the offense snapped the ball.

The hard and smart work paid off personally for Combs, even if his team in college won very infrequently. Combs stepped away from any potential idolatry for good when he stopped being Duke’s strength and conditioning coach two years ago. He wanted to have control over his schedule (his former boss, ex-Duke head coach Ted Roof, once coached at four different schools in 13 months). He has a young child now, and so works for the gentler taskmaster of Merrill Lynch.

The experience of losing so often at Duke has been helpful for this relatively new investor. “Just look at the economy we’re in,” he said. It taught him to worry about what he could control rather than what he couldn’t. Combs is used to working hard even if the result, for now, is a loss. If you can’t stop a ref throwing an idiotic flag, or an economy from tanking, you sure can work harder and smarter than everyone else, and get better on every play.

And you can win in the game of life. Even if you didn’t as much as you deserved on the football field.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.