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Facing Life's Hurdles

February 20, 2023 17 min read
By Dale Brown Retired Head Coach, Louisiana State University Men's Basketball
Rev. Craig Vasek Pastor, St. Bernard's Catholic Church, Thief Rivers Falls, Minnesota
Athletes Jumping Hurdles

National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame Coach Dale Brown joined Father Craig Vasek to explain the four major hurdles all of us face in our lives.

Father Craig Vasek (FVasek): I’m grateful for your time today! When I think of people who can speak about virtue formation, character development, and faith in athletics, you are one of the first people that come to mind.

Coach Dale Brown (DB): Well, I had a good teacher – my mother was a strong and wonderful human being. She was abandoned by my biological father just two days before I was born, but she never complained or talked about him negatively. Any goodness that I may have came from my mother.

FVasek: And that’s where I wanted to begin, if we could – with your childhood and some of the lessons you learned from your mom.

DB: We often talk about heroes, but I think there are more she-roes walking this earth! There are so many mothers who have been abandoned and still worked hard to raise their kids, and so many of us have received incredible value systems from our mothers. She didn’t talk the act – she walked it. She was a remarkable, spiritual human being who never had a bad word to say. A poem by Edgar Guest, one of my favorite poets, described her perfectly:

I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I'd rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way….
I soon can learn to do it if you'll let me see it done;
I can watch your hands in action, but your tongue too fast may run.
And the lecture you deliver may be very wise and true,
But I'd rather get my lessons by observing what you do…
Let me give you two paramount examples of that. In the middle of the winter in North Dakota, where temperatures would get as low as 35-degrees below zero, she would walk back from the grocery store with two brown paper sacks under each arm, and she would count the bread, the milk, the beans – everything – to make sure she got everything. And two of those times, when she was done counting everything, she went back to the closet and put her coat on, saying, “I will be right back!” When I asked where she was going, she showed me a quarter and said, “The lady at the store gave me back a quarter too much!” And she didn’t talk about it. The second example of how remarkable she was happened when I was about nine years old. After being abandoned, she had to find a way to support me. She had grown up on a farm in North Dakota and only had an eighth-grade education. She found a one-room apartment above a bar and a hardware store in Minot, North Dakota, and she got a job as a maid and also babysat for 50 cents an hour. The county’s welfare program gave her an additional $42.50 each month. So one night while she was babysitting – again, I was about nine at the time – I came across her Bible. We didn’t have a television or radio, so I would sit around and read a bit when she was working. And out of the Bible fell an envelope with a letter inside. I didn’t read the letter, but I did read the envelope, which was made out to her from a man named Charles A. Brown in Oklahoma. When she got home later, she made us hot cocoa and cinnamon toast – that was a big deal for us – and I said, “Mamma, I was going through your Bible and saw a letter. I didn’t read the letter, but who is Charles A. Brown?” She said, “That’s your father.” I said, “That’s not my father. Is that your husband?” She said, “Yes.” So I asked, “What kind of a man is he?” Again, she never said anything bad about him or complained about her life. She said, “He was a good man. He worked hard, he was never mean.” So I said, “If he was a good man, why did he leave us?” And she said, “Well, he fell in love with another woman and disappeared.” Not one bit of bitterness. She did what St. Francis of Assisi said to do in the thirteenth century: he said we should preach the Gospel every day, and if necessary, use words.

She got me up daily to go to Mass – not just Sundays, but daily. I tried every trick I could think of to get out of it: “I think I have cancer. I think I have a cold. I think I caught leprosy.” And she would say, “I don’t care what you’ve got, we’re going to church.” It’s similar to coaching kids. Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. That’s what a parent should give to a child, that’s what a teacher should give to a child, that’s what a coach should give to a child. So, I think of her every day. Never had a complaint. So if there are saints, she qualifies as one.

FVasek: Those life lessons of accountability and discipline are so important. I imagine your upbringing informed your coaching career.

DB: It really did, even oftentimes without me realizing it. She instilled those values deep inside of me. That makes me think of another lesson I learned from her. When she was out babysitting, I would usually wait up for her. It would get to be a bit boring, so sometimes I would sit in the fire escape and think about all my dreams. One night when she got home, she asked me to sit in my little chair, and she pulled up a footstool, and she said, “Dale, I’m really embarrassed to tell you what I’m about to tell you.” And I thought, “My mother, embarrassed?” She never smoked, she never drank, she never talked badly about anybody, and she never even dated. So what could she have to be embarrassed about? She said, “Dale, when these big-shots come to pick me up to babysit their kids, I’m always self-conscious they will smell the mothballs in my dress” – because we got all our clothes from rummage sales – “and I’m afraid they will ask, ‘What does your husband do?’ And I don’t want to say he left us. I’m afraid they will ask what college I went to, because I don’t want to tell them I only have an eighth-grade education. So I look up big words in the dictionary, and I write them on a 3-by-5 card, and I study them. When I get picked up, I have them in my lap just in case I need to look at my notes. But I try to control the conversation by injecting these big words. Dale, I don’t ever want you to do that. Because what I’m trying to do is make an image, and son – that’s not right. If you spend too much time polishing your image, you’ll eventually tarnish your character and be an unhappy man.” There’s often a huge difference between the way we portray ourselves to others and who we are inside ourselves.

FVasek: Wow. “If you spend too much time polishing your image, you’ll eventually tarnish your character and be an unhappy man.” That’s incredible.

DB: Always be who you are. In addition to my mother, I have to give credit to a priest by the name of Fr. John Hogan. I went to St. Leo’s High School in Minot, and he was our principal and our basketball coach. He taught me an awful lot, and he did it without hollering or being profane. We were a little school and we played all the big schools in basketball – we were really pretty good. We had to turn in eligibility slips every Monday at 1:00 pm. I never had any problem with eligibility, but I wasn’t planning on being valedictorian, either – I went to class and did the work. I remember one week I walked into his office while he was on the phone, threw my slip on his desk, and started to walk out. He put his hand over the phone and said, “Dale, wait a minute until I finish this conversation.” So I waited by his desk, and when he hung up, he held up my eligibility slip and said, “What is this?”

I was confused. “It’s my eligibility slip.”

“What time was this due?”

“1:00 pm, Father.”

“So we’ve established this: You knew this was your eligibility slip, you knew what time it was due, you can read time, and it was 15 minutes late. You’re not going on the road trip this week.”

As I was walking out of the office, I thought, “I’m the class president, we’re playing two of the best teams in the state this week, and I’m the leading scorer in the history of the state of North Dakota. I’m going on that trip.” So I showed up to get on the bus as usual, but guess who drove off without me? Ever since then, I’ve been a stickler for showing up on time. So if I tell you I’m going to meet you at 1:00 pm, I’m always there 20 or 30 minutes early!

FVasek: Is that focus on responsibility and accountability something you brought into your own coaching?

DB: Absolutely, ask all my players who got left behind for road trips because they weren’t on the bus on time! I wasn’t trying to be a tyrant, but they knew the rules. If they used any kind of narcotics, they were done. They knew the rules.

FVasek: I imagine that sometimes you lost talented athletes with that sort of policy. Did you find it was better all around?

DB: It was absolutely better all around. 80% of the guys who played for me at Louisiana State stayed for all four years and got their degrees. There were minor things – one or two times I suspended guys for marijuana. My policy was that if you did it once you were suspended for one game, and if you did it a second time you were off the team for good. But young people want to be disciplined. Discipline isn’t swearing or barking – it’s showing people love. I learned this from Fr. Hogan. There was an angry old nun at St. Leo’s, and one day a classmate asked me what I thought of her, and I called her an S.O.B. – I assume you know what I’m saying. In the next class, there’s a knock on the door, and I hear Fr. Hogan’s voice saying, “Is Dale Brown in your class?” So I go out into the hall and he stands me by the locker and says, “What did you call Sister in your last class?” And I said, “I swore at her.” He said, “Oh, is that what you said? You said, ‘I swear at you’?” I said, “No,” and I told him what I said. And he grabbed me by the shirt and said, “Dale Brown, you behave yourself young man, because you’re going to make something of your life, and I love you, man.” I’m 87 years old now, and I was 17 at the time – so that’s 70 years ago – but I could almost tear up remembering that moment, because it’s the first time a man told me that he loved me. And I brought that into my coaching. I would tell those young men, “I love you, man.” A lot of those kids were like me and never had a father to tell them that. We don’t need more image-makers. We need more guys like Fr. Hogan teaching in our schools.

FVasek: These lessons from your childhood impacted you throughout your career in magnificent ways.

DB: No question about it.

FVasek: Coach, I understand that you oftentimes speak about the four different hurdles people will face in life. Could you walk us through those?

DB: A lot of people look at life as a marathon. Now, life is a race, but it’s a hurdle race. No matter who you are, there are four major hurdles we have to be able to negotiate and jump over to find peace, love, happiness, and success.

The first hurdle is believing you can’t achieve something, or worse yet – being told you can’t. I met Shaquille O’Neal when he was 13 years old. His father was serving in the military in Germany, and I went over there to speak at a base. He approached me and he was so big I thought he was a soldier! He was stuttering, and he asked me for some drills to improve his jumping ability. So I showed him a few things, and when I got back to my office in Baton Rouge, I sent him my weights program. Not long after that I got a letter from him, still in Germany: “Coach Brown, I did everything you told me to do, and my coach cut me off the team! He told me I’m too slow, I’m too clumsy, and I have too big of feet. He said I wouldn’t make it in basketball and that I should try to become a soccer goalie instead. What should I do?” I sat back in my desk – what sort of profound statement am I supposed to make to a 13-year-old child across the ocean? So I decided to tell him simply about my own life. And I ended my letter by writing, “Shaquille, the first thing you have to do in life is get over the hurdle of ‘I can’t,’ or worse yet – someone telling you that you can’t. You can do it, because God doesn’t make any junk. So don’t give up under any circumstances, try your best, and you’ll be successful.” Well, the rest is history. He’s one of the greatest basketball players of all time, he got his doctoral degree, and he’s achieved so much. So that’s the first hurdle.

The second hurdle comes when you’re successful. When you’re successful, you’re going to have some failure. Go back through history and look at the greatest success stories, and you’ll see that they all have failures. So even after you’ve gotten over the first hurdle and you know that you can do it, you’re going to get fired from a job somewhere along the way, or you’re going to lose, or you’re going to get your heart broken. When that happens, how will you handle it?

FVasek: I find that so many students are terrified of failure. The coaches I work with try so hard to get their athletes to understand that failure is part of the process on the way to victory! But if we never fail, we’ll never find success.

DB: If you’re afraid of failure, you’ll fail – and you’ll be stuck there your whole life! Arnold Toynbee, a world historian, wrote a piece on failure, and he said that failure is temporary, but giving up is permanent. So the important thing is to capitalize on your victories as well as your defeats! Failure gives us an opportunity to start again, except this time more intelligently.

The third hurdle is that at some point, you’re going to have a handicap: cancer, a broken bone, so on. When I think of overcoming handicaps, I think of a girl from Devils Lake, North Dakota, by the name of Kay. She was a bowler. She went to Minneapolis and won a big tournament by bowling 300 – a perfect game – and had visions in her head of going pro after she finished school. Driving back from that tournament, she was in a car accident. It took them four hours to get her out of her car, and they had to amputate her right arm. She couldn’t walk for the next five years, but eventually tried again. After she began to walk, she learned how to bowl again, but now with her left hand. She eventually won the North Dakota State Championship with a near-perfect score of 295.

Most of us will go to our graves without dealing with the fourth hurdle, and it’s the most difficult. The fourth hurdle is the question, Who am I, where am I going, and what do I want from life? If you can’t negotiate that hurdle, life is going to be a failure for you.

FVasek: So how can we negotiate with that hurdle best?

DB: It’s pretty simple. When you get what you want and the world makes you king for a day, go to the mirror and look at yourself, and see what that person has to say. You might get pats on the back from others, but all will be bitterness and tears if you’ve cheated the person looking back from the mirror.

The greatest offensive basketball player in the history of the game – who happened to play at LSU – was “Pistol Pete” Maravich. He averaged 44.2 points per game! Not in one game – that was his average in his whole career at LSU! There was no three-point line at that time, either. His dad, Press Maravich, was the head coach at LSU before I was hired there, so I wrote both Pete and Press a letter saying I was sorry to have inherited the job under those circumstances and that I would love to be able to meet them someday. Pete and I eventually met in the weirdest way. We were playing on the road in Oklahoma on national television, and the day before the game our team had a little luncheon. I sent the team upstairs to prepare for a meeting, and as I was waiting for the bill, I got a tap on the shoulder. I turned around, and it was Pete. He was in Oklahoma to do color commentary for the game! So we talked a bit, but I said, “Pete, I’m a stickler for being on time” – thanks to Fr. Hogan – “and I’ve got a team meeting to get to, but why don’t you come and talk to them?”

When we walked into the meeting, I said, “He needs no introduction. He’s the best offensive player in the history of the world: Pistol Pete Maravich.” So Pete started by saying to the team, “I see a couple of you in the front row, and a few of you might be lottery picks, but don’t even try to break my record.” That caught me off guard, because I thought, “That’s really arrogant.” But he continued: “I had everything the world called success, but you know what I really had? I was miserable, frustrated, and disillusioned. I had fame, I had the best cars, I had the best women, and I walked around with $5,000 cash in my pocket for gambling money. But I was a miserable human being! One night in my home in Louisiana, I was up until 4:00 am, and I went into my bedroom and took out a spare pistol and put it to the roof of my mouth – I was going to kill myself. For some reason, I laid the pistol down and fell prone on my bed. I didn’t know how to pray, but I said, ‘If there is a God, I’ve spit at you, I’ve mocked you, I’ve made fun of you. I’m a miserable human being. Somehow, someway, please touch my life! I’ll give my life to you if you do.’” He said, “Guys, the sun didn’t dance and the sea didn’t part, but a peace came over my entire body. I was a miserable man until I took Jesus Christ into my life. Don’t make the same mistake as me.”

Pistol Pete and I remained friends after that. One day we were talking, and he said, “Coach, how is it possible to get so screwed up? All I could think about was chasing girls and drinking too much and having money.” I said, “Pete, I don’t have the answer for it, but I think I know a good place to start. The first Webster dictionary was printed in 1806, and under the word ‘success’ it says, ‘fortunate, happy, kind, and prosperous.’ If you look it up today, it says ‘attainment of wealth, fame, rank, and power.’ That’s not success.” He was such a great guy. He wasn’t a phony. He was a very good Christian, and unfortunately he died unexpectedly as a young man due to a heart condition.

We all have to face those four hurdles. You’re going to face them somewhere along the way, and if you face them rightly, good things can happen.

Some people are too hard on themselves. Some people beat themselves up, but when you do that, you’re demeaning yourself. There are eight billion people walking the earth right now, but the great playwright, Oscar Wilde, described all of us perfectly in one sentence: “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Keep that quote in mind as you move through life and negotiate the hurdles. This may all be spiritual stuff, but these are facts.

FVasek: Right – the biggest trial in my life will be conquering myself. Coach, thank you for taking the time to share some wisdom for your life and career.

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