Brooks Bollinger, a retired NFL quarterback and experienced football coach, joined Father Craig Vasek, Athletics Chaplain of the University of Mary, and Coach Craig Bagnell, head coach of the University of Mary football team, to discuss his experiences in learning from failure, growing as an athlete, and helping those he coaches recognize that what they do is not who they are.
Father Craig Vasek (FVasek): We’ve really tried to highlight for our athletes at the University of Mary the idea that there is an objective and a purpose to sport. The objective of sport is to win, every single time. You shouldn’t compete in any game without intending to win – you’re not trying to lose, and you’re don’t have the mindset of, “I’m just happy to be here.” But the purpose of sport is to become a virtuous person – to become the best version of yourself, the person you were made to be. So the objective of sport is to win, but that all has to be understood within the greater context of life and what it means to be human. So maybe before we talk about some of the insights you’ve gained from your experiences as a football player and coach, you could walk us through your life a bit. Could you give us a bit of background?
Brooks Bollinger (BB): I was born in Bismarck, but I grew up in Grand Forks. I am the oldest of four kids. My mom was an elementary teacher at St. Michael’s Catholic School. My dad was the offensive coordinator for the University of North Dakota football team. I always say we didn’t go on fancy vacations and we didn’t necessarily have a ton of money, but we had the keys to the gym, and that was a great way to grow up. I got to grow up in the gym and the equipment room of the University of North Dakota, surrounded by my heroes – both the staff and the players. When I was about nine years old, I got to start throwing balls to the linebackers during practice, doing handoff drills, and stuff like that. It was a great way to grow up.
I played football, basketball, and ran track in high school – I think I was just trying to avoid the weight room. I started varsity as a freshman in basketball and football, and I got to play for some pretty successful teams. We went on a run where we won the basketball state championship one spring, took second in the state in football the next fall, and took second in the state in baseball the next spring.
After high school, I went to play football at the University of Wisconsin on scholarship. I red-shirted my first year: we won the Rose Bowl that year. I had my first start the next year. It was the fourth game of the year, and we were playing at Ohio State. We won 42 to 17. After that, we won nine straight games and won the Rose Bowl again, and that changed my life. At least, it changed how the world looked at me. After a great career at Wisconsin, I was drafted by the New York Jets in the sixth round. I got married that year, and my wife gave birth to our first son, Miles, out in New York after my rookie year.
>I spent the first three years of my professional career in New York. I started nine games there, but I was mostly a backup. I got traded to the Vikings and spent two years with them. My wife, who played soccer at Wisconsin, is from St. Paul originally, and the rest of our kids were all born here in St. Paul. After my two years with the Vikings I did one year with the Dallas Cowboys behind Tony Romo, then I played down in Orlando for two seasons in a league that came and went called the United Football League (UFL) under Jay Gruden and Sean McVay. I had hoped to get another shot at the NFL, but it didn’t happen, so I found myself sitting here trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I got a call from Hill-Murray School, a Catholic school just north of St. Paul, saying they saw that I had officially retired and wanted to offer me a coaching job. I took that job, and we had a magical season. We went to the state tournament for the first time in 35 years. We had a magical group of kids and parents, and I loved it. I was only the football coach that year – I didn’t have any other job at the school – but they offered me a fundraising job that March that would have begun that summer.
Not long after I received the offer to stay at Hill-Murray, I got a call from Paul Chryst, who had just been named head coach at the University of Pittsburgh, asking me to coach quarterbacks for him. I remember telling him on the phone that I was going to come out to Pittsburgh, and my wife was crying: she is from St. Paul and she didn’t want to leave! So we kept our house here in St. Paul, but we packed up and got our kids enrolled into a good little Catholic school in Pittsburgh. The first year was really hard. When I wasn’t working, I was out recruiting. We fell into more of a rhythm during our second year. I really enjoyed coaching at Pittsburgh, and I was doing what I had always dreamed of doing: coaching college football.
As soon as our second regular season at Pittsburgh ended, I had 12 flights in 14 days for a recruiting trip. When I got back, I told my wife I was done. We had three kids by that point, and the oldest was 8 years old. I realized that if I kept that schedule up, I wouldn’t know him. And I knew that if I went one more year, I would get caught up: I would get a job as an offensive coordinator at some point, and we would be moving again. All of that had been my dream, but I knew it wasn’t the right path at the time and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice the things I would have to sacrifice to get there. So I called the principal of Nativity Catholic School in St. Paul, asked if they had room for my kids, and told them to expect them Monday. I went back to finish up in Pittsburgh, then for the second time in my life I found myself in St. Paul thinking, “Okay, so now what am I going to do with the rest of my life and how am I going to feed my family?”
It was kind of scary – it felt like jumping out a plane with no parachute. I got connected with Matt Birk and the work he was doing in the Greater Game Initiative and his book All-Pro Wisdom, and I knew I wanted to do something purposeful like that. And coaching and teaching are what came to my mind. I decided to get into financial services and was working towards my Series 7 license to sell securities and my Series 66 license to work as an investment advisor, because I thought of it as a way to mentor people. I found pretty quickly how hard it is to just build a new business when you’re 34 years old and your wife is pregnant with your fourth child. Life was moving fast. That’s when I got a call from Cretin-Derham Hall, a Catholic high school in St. Paul, asking if I would be interested in coaching there. And I’m kind of addicted to the game, so I started coaching there, and by the end of the year I agreed to become their head coach. I did three seasons as the head coach before I decided to step back – I just didn’t have the time or the bandwidth to serve those kids the way they needed to be served and to build the program the way it needed to be built. My dad, Coach Bo, still coaches there, and now my son goes to school there, and I helped out with the freshmen last year. So I’m still around the program.
I’ve been working for Bell Bank since then – it’s a family-owned, privately-held, North Dakota company with great people and a great purpose. For the first time in my adult life I feel like I’m in a great place and I’m still able to help out with a football program from an arm’s length.
FVasek: That’s all very helpful, because you already started to give us a glimpse of some of the life lessons you learned along the way we want to share with people. Could you speak for a moment about some of the people – teammates or coaches or mentors – who you’ve encountered along the way who have been impactful?
BB: First, I have to say that there are far too many to list. I’m not the most talented guy in the world and I’m not the smartest guy in the world. I joke that I played in the NFL with an accountant’s body. But I found success because I’m a product of my coaches and teachers and teammates.
It started with my dad and the coaching staff at the University of North Dakota. The opportunity to be around those people every day had a big impact on my life. It’s easy to take a lot for granted growing up, and I was lucky to have a strong family and be raised in a strong community. I could still go back to St. Michael’s Catholic School in Grand Forks and talk to many of my teachers today. My coaches at Grand Forks Central High School had an immense impact of my life: I’m thinking especially of Mike Berg, my football coach, and Todd Olson, my basketball coach.
At both St. Michael’s and Grand Forks Central, the message was consistent: selflessness, sacrifice, discipline, accountability. I think a football coach often gets a lot of credit because it’s fun when you're winning games and football gets a lot of public attention. And I don’t know that I’ve ever been around anybody as good at living out those values as Coach Mike Berg. But what made those values really stick was the fact that they weren’t just encouraged on the football field, but they were encouraged by teachers throughout the school. Having a consistent message – selflessness, sacrifice, discipline, accountability - reinforced again and again had a great impact on me, even though I took it for granted at the time. I’m very lucky to have grown up in such a great community in North Dakota, and I got to experience that at a time when we had great competition throughout the state and the region.
Having that strong foundation meant so much when I went to play at Wisconsin. There was such a big jump talent-wise and athletically from playing in high school to playing in the Big 10, but Coach Barry Alvarez reinforced the same values I had been raised with, and the expectations and standards were seamless from one level of play to the next. And that helped me to stand out early on. The values we were expected to live weren’t anything new to me because I had been raised to live them out. They were always the expectation from my parents, my teachers, and my coaches.
The list of people who have impacted me goes on and on. I love people, I draw energy from people, I love learning from others and pulling different things from people of all walks of life. Coach Bagnell and I got to be around each other for a couple of years, just talking football and coaching kids. My dad always taught me that it doesn’t matter if someone is in a position of power over you: even someone who isn’t might have something to teach you. You can draw wisdom from people in every situation in your life. So it’s been a constant theme in my life that I’m the product of my environment. Whenever I’ve been stuck in life, I’ve been grateful to have people I could draw from.
But in a sense, with all the people I have been able to learn from and grow with, my best teacher has been failure. I think that one of the things that allowed me to succeed athletically at a young age was that I got comfortable being uncomfortable, that I had the courage to put it all on the line ever when I wasn’t ready. I had a sort of “ready, fire, aim” mentality. And failing at an accelerated clip – sometimes publicly – forced me to learn from my failures. It is hard to learn how to fail and draw what you can from failure, but I’m getting better at it.
At the end of the day, I think the two things I’m most grateful for from my football career are an unbelievable network of great people and relationships and the opportunity to fail more than most people, which is how I grew.
FVasek: At the very center of the cardinal virtues are magnanimity and humility. Magnanimity means that I have to strive for greatness and go for the heights – I can’t just shoot for average. I have to shoot for my highest and maybe even a little beyond what I think my highest is. Humility means that I have to stay grounded and make sure that I’m not making myself the center of the universe: I need other people.
You’ve hinted at both magnanimity and humility, but another virtue is coming to my mind while you’re talking: docility, or the ability to be taught. Allowing yourself to be challenged by and learn from others – and to allow yourself to learn from failure – is necessary for coaches and players. When we insist that my way is the best way, even if everyone else is saying otherwise, I’m in danger of putting myself on a path for real failure – not just failure to learn, but real failure. So I’m grateful that you hinted at the idea of docility being a guiding aspect of your life.
Craig Bagnell (CB): Brooks, you had made a good point about the fear of failure that I want to return to. It’s so important to be able to learn from failure, but a lot of people haven’t had that instilled in them. They haven’t been taught the importance of learning from failure, and they might not have the growth mindset – the process mindset – of recognizing failure and moving forward from it.
I’m wondering your thoughts on how publicity impacts college athletes. How have you seen kids impacted by having great publicity and having a social media presence? I think social media brings such a big challenge today: when an athlete fails, it’s out in the open for everyone to see, and obviously people don’t want to fail. What would you say to an athlete who still has to overcome his fear of failure because he is too afraid of what people will think and say?
BB: As a quarterback, you don’t really have a choice. Even without social media, everyone in the stadium knows when the quarterback fails – even the people who don’t really understand football. It was hard for me to learn, because I was a good athlete when I was in high school, but I wasn’t a phenom or anything like that. So I would fail a little bit and have bad moments, but it wasn’t a publicized thing. Then all of a sudden I was a starting quarterback in the Big 10.
I mentioned that we won my first start, which was against Ohio State. But near the end of the first half they were leading 17 to 0. This was a 2:30pm game televised nationally on ABC, so I felt like I was failing and was thinking about what a disaster it was. But then near the end of the first half we had a good drive that ended up with a field goal, so the half ended 17 to 3. One of our defensive ends grabbed me and said, “If you play like that, we’ll win this game.” That snapped me out of it. We came back in the second half to score 39 unanswered points, and everything took off. It’s not like it was all me – but at least I hadn’t screwed it up! We won nine straight games after that, and then we won the Rose Bowl. I think I won my first 14 games as a starting quarterback. Everything was just kind of working, and I was young enough that I didn’t know why everything was working. And that was great. I didn’t think I was as good as everyone seemed to think I was, but the world had just lifted me up. So I went to this internal place of just trying to protect the perception.
But eventually we had some hard losses, and I had to deal with failure for the first time in that arena. I remember so many nasty comments about me popping up on online message boards, and someone figured out my school email address and said some terrible things. Sometimes I would get recognized if I was out for dinner and people would say something. A lot of those encounters were great, but some people would just say mean things. I remember times my sister got into it with people for things they had said, and I think my dad may have gotten kicked out of a couple of stadiums for responding to people.
So I’ve experienced the highs and the lows, but thank goodness I played college football before social media. With social media, there’s really no place to hide from that attention. And it goes way beyond sports now. When a kid fails on the field, or when a kid’s girlfriend breaks up with him and then he sees her posting a video from her next date with another guy – all of this stuff is so public now. I know what it is to deal with success and failure publicly, so I draw on that experience as a coach to help kids navigate it all.
A lot of it comes down to detachment: this is what you do, it is not who you are. We have to teach kids that line and reinforce it, over and over. And you’re right, Fr. Vasek, I think docility is related to that. Just like everything else in life, detachment takes practice. Just like you need to practice a play over and over if you’re going to execute on it in a critical moment, you need to practice the virtues to be ready for difficult moments. So when something goes wrong and you encounter failure – especially public failure – it’s important that you’ve taken that detachment and your identity to heart: this is what you do, it is not who you are.
So to go back to your question, Coach, I think we have to make a point from day one about defining ourselves correctly. What is the lens through which we are evaluating ourselves, and evaluating success and failure? This is what you do, it is not who you are. With I was with the Jets, our quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates had a line that went something like, “If you’re nervous, work. If you’re anxious, work. If you’re sad, work. If you’re happy, work. If you’re successful, work.” Focus on what you can control, know where your strength comes from, and remember who you are at the end of the day.
CB: I think sometimes kids get ahead of themselves and that’s why they fail. They set goals that are higher than their work ethic, or they set goals but they don’t know the necessary steps to get there.
BB: The psychologist Jordan Peterson makes a great point about responding to failure: When you fail or have a bad moment in your life – or a really good moment, for that matter, how much time should you spend dwelling on it? Exactly as long as you need to take everything you can from the experience, and then it’s gone. Success and failure are opportunities to learn and grow if we’re willing to step back and try to understand what when right or what went wrong. We need to learn to celebrate failure because, at the end of the day, it can help us to learn and grow. Let’s say a quarterback throws an interception at the end of the game and his team loses because of it. So many coaches want to chew him out, instead of saying, “Okay, do you understand what happened? Good. This is what we can do to fix it. Now it’s gone.”
Detachment needs to be part of this. I really struggled with detachment growing up. As a coach’s kid, I cared so much about the game and I internalized everything that happened on the field. So as a player, I allowed so many experiences to be too personal for me. I think there is some good in that, because you want to have high standards and care about the people around you. But when you’re taking things too personally and things start to go poorly, you’re not helping anybody if you’re holding onto a lot of pain or finding ways to cover it up.
FVasek: Coach Bagnell raised the problem of setting goals without being willing to put in the effort to achieve them, and Brooks raised the idea of detachment, that what I do is not the same as who I am. That’s magnanimity and humility. You can’t have a goal unless you’re willing to actually put in the effort to get there. At the same time, you have to recognize that this goal is not who you are, and your successes and failures aren’t your identity. We have to find our identity and our worth from elsewhere.
In my work with scholar-athletes as a chaplain, I have found that a lot of them are searching for – and we could even say struggling with – their identity. And a lot of these seems to come from the fact that they are anchoring their identities on whether they won or lost, succeeded at their sport or failed. So it’s important for them to be told and reminded, as you’ve said, that what they do is not who they are.
BB: As a coach, I’ve tried to hammer that idea home for my athletes. Finding your identity outside of sports can be difficult for a lot of athletes. In so many cases – mine included – the world starts identifying you as a certain kind of athlete from a young age. Now there’s a whole machine that’s been created to advance kids athletically: young kids are playing a single sport year-round to advance to the next team, parents are traveling and investing thousands of dollars, and the family’s life now revolves around their 13-year-old’s athletic career. If I’m a kid at the center of all that, how does that not become my identity? So no matter how grounded you are, it’s almost natural to begin to find your identity in your sport over time. It can become a crutch, even if you’re not aware of it while it’s happening. But it becomes clear when your career ends and it’s all gone. When the CEO of a major corporation retires and has a difficult transition, people accept it: “Well, that was his career, that was his life’s work.” But when an athlete is struggling to transition, there is more of a sense of, “Why can’t he get it together?” Well, not only has their income just gone to zero but the whole lens through which they’ve seen the world and through which others have viewed them has just evaporated. Detachment is so important, and it applies to all walks of life.
When I was coaching at Hill-Murray, a kid got cut from the hockey team and was devastated. I said, “Listen, I’m sure playing for such a great team would have been a great experience, but this might have been the greatest thing that ever happened to you. You get to wrestle with this now, and you’re going to pivot and find a new path.” I think that as people continue to find success in a sport and their careers advance from one level to the next, that identity piece snowballs and takes up more and more of who they understand themselves to be. So it’s really important that we practice those virtues that are going to keep us focused on things that are eternal instead of things that are fleeting. That’s a constant battle for every one of us, and it creeps up in a lot of different forms.
I tell my kids to write down the five to seven things that are the most valuable in their lives and stick that list onto their bathroom mirror. I tell them to look at it every morning and every night and ask themselves whether their thoughts and actions matched up with the items on that list: Are you who you say you are?
CB: I think that in addition to that last piece – writing the five to seven things that matter the most – is knowing what the process is for living those things out. We had a team meeting last week where we talked to the leaders about pushing a positive culture. Culture energizes a team – it’s what brings out the sort of behavior we want and encourages good habits. But to develop that sort of culture and those sorts of good habits, sometimes you need to break things down. It doesn’t matter if your goal is to have a 4.0 GPA or a 3.0 GPA, you need to have a clear plan to get there. If you’re going to write something down and stick it to your mirror, you need measurable ways of staying on target. If you want a good GPA, you have to go to class, study, turn in your homework, get to know your professors, and do what needs to be done. If you want to lose weight, you’ll need temperance, and you’ll have to make decisions every day. It’s not going to be fun waking up every day at 5:00am to eat and then training at 6:00am four days per week, but you have to develop the courage to do those things if you want to be successful. So now not only are you forming good habits, but you have a clear checklist every day. Did I get up on time and train hard? Check. Did I go to class and take notes? Check. Did I eat what I was supposed to eat? Check.
BB: That’s an important point. We all have an image of who we want to be, and we hold it in our minds, but then our behavior drifts over time and we get lazy with certain things. Having that objective evaluation process helps with that. Mike Tomlin, head coach of the Pittsburg Steelers, gets his players together every Monday morning after a Sunday game for what he calls “reporting the news.” He calls out all his players – including the superstars – and he goes through everything that happened in training and in the game. And he says, “I’m just reporting the news. This is what happened. It’s black and white, there you go.” So when someone looks at their list of five to seven items, they need to do the same thing: How did I spend my time today? Does it check off? Because this is the eighth day in a row that my life isn’t matching who I say I am. Just reporting the news.
For much of my career, my faith wasn’t where it should have been. I was raised Catholic and have always been Catholic, but it wasn’t the center of my life. As soon as we won that game at Ohio State, life sped up. I was interviewed on national television on the field after the game, and all of a sudden I was doing a pre-game interview with Keith Jackson and Dan Fouts before the Rose Bowl. After the Rose Bowl we were on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and were celebrating in Los Angeles. I had the experience of being pulled outside of my body. I felt like there was me and then there was Brooks the quarterback, and I felt like I was watching Brooks the quarterback for the next decade. I wasn’t always the person I wanted to be, and I knew that deep down inside my body. I fell into a lot of different pitfalls, but there was this interior voice saying, “I know who I am deep down, but my behavior has drifted away from that.” Sometimes I would try to hide behind my accomplishments, thinking things like, “I may have done poorly in my classes last semester, but we won the Big 10.” What I’ve learned is that even when your poor behavior isn’t catching up to you in the moment, you know inside that something is happening.
More recently, I’ve realized that I’m called to take greater pride in my work and my life because it all has a greater purpose. And that’s been life-changing. I apply that even to the smallest detail and the simplest task. It’s not about being noticed by my coach or my boss or whomever. It’s so important to do the little things right in every moment because at the end of the day that’s all we have to offer. Sometimes we cut corners because we know we won’t get caught – but when we realize that our lives have a greater purpose, we can’t hide from it. I wish I had known that at a younger age. And as a coach or a teacher, it’s our job to train our athletes and our students into that way of thinking so that it becomes hardwired into their DNA. The importance of doing the little things right is something you’re so good at articulating to your athletes, Coach Bagnell.
CB: I think a lot of people have a hard time getting that down. You were surrounded by that mindset every day. I grew up on a ranch in Montana – if the horses weren’t fed, there were consequences. We were lucky to be surrounded by people who did the little things well. But it can be difficult for people to pick up that mentality if they weren’t raised with it, and you see people – even people playing college and professional football – struggling with it. So many students and athletes enter a program with goals in mind, but they don’t know how to achieve those goals. As coaches, an important part of our job is helping them to recognize the process piece, to recognize the necessity of doing the little things right and to be challenged on that. And kids want that – they don’t want to be patted on the back all the time. They want to be coached.
BB: One of the reasons I think training camps are so important is because they provide a sort of right of passage. When I played for Wisconsin we would go stay at the seminary in Madison every year and we would get the snot kicked out of us for two weeks. As a coach at Cretin-Derham Hall, I took the team down to Winona State University one year, and it was the best thing we did all season. We stayed in the dorms, woke up early, and really got after it. Those experiences provide a right of passage a lot of kids have never had before. When they see how far they’ve come and what they’re capable of enduring, it really shifts their mindset.
Shared experiences that shock the system show us what we’re capable of accomplishing and enduring. That’s not only important for kids playing football – I think it’s important for men in general. People don’t know what they’re capable of – sometimes it’s because they don’t think they’re important, or because they don’t think they capable of improving, or because they haven’t been loved – and they need to be shown.
CB: With the restrictions around the pandemic, we haven’t been able to do camps like that or have two-a-day practices. Those experiences help athletes bond – they know they’re capable of battling through adversity, and they’ve sacrificed alongside the guy next to them – so they know they’ll get through whatever comes their way. We’ve had to find creative ways of building that trust and breaking through those mental walls this year.
BB: I did Exodus 90 with a group of guys for a couple of years – 90 days of discipline, penance, prayer, and fraternity. We do our own version now – probably because we’re soft. The daily cold showers for 90 days were probably the hardest part. They were really difficult when it was 21° below zero, and I might have cheated a day or two, but I really got into them after a while. I like to say that the hot water cleans you better, but the cold water washes self away. That’s all helped me to learn a little discipline. I’ve always found it easy to do hard things for other people, but I was never naturally self-disciplined. I do a retreat every year with Matt Birk – he has a crazy amount of self-discipline. I’m fascinated by that, because men today need it. Men – not just boys playing football, but all men – need to just do hard stuff: mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally. Matt Birk has this shirt that just says, “Esto vir” – “Be a man.” That’s exactly the mentality you want to build into the culture of a program: “Let’s do hard stuff just because.” But that’s difficult to build into a program: when you tell kids, “We like doing hard stuff,” a lot of them look at you like you’re a little crazy. I would love to have a camp that combines that mentality – a love of struggling – with a faith element.
CB: You’re right about building a healthy culture: it’s not just about doing things that are physically hard, but also things that are mentally hard. We’ve been focusing on that more in our college football program here. When we have the team in group settings off the field, we’ve been challenging them on a human level. Recently we split them into groups and had each one of them tell the rest of the group what their own, personal weakness is. That’s a hard thing to do – I don’t want people to know what my weakness is. But when I know what my teammate’s weakness is, we can break through to that next level. If I know that my teammate tends to get down on himself and I see him fail in some way, I can get in there and stop that mental spiral.
BB: Now we try to protect kids from those experiences. We don’t want them to be uncomfortable or to face adversity, so we stopped them from learning how to do hard stuff. Many of them make it into college programs without having done anything hard at home, at school, or on the field. So not only is it our job to teach them how to persevere and grow, but it’s counter-cultural a bit. It’s our job to say, “No, we don’t want to protect you from all struggles, we want you to do things that are hard.”
FVasek: Gentlemen, I want to thank you for those insights. But I also want to set the record straight on something: Brooks, you had said that you were a professional quarterback with an accountant’s body. But I’ve watched your highlight reels – where you’re throwing 50-yard passes and running flee flickers for touchdowns, all set to Rage Against the Machine. You were no accountant lost on the field! Brooks and Coach Bagnell, thank you so much.