NFL training camps have opened, which means that coaches across the land are talking about finding or creating leaders of men. Good luck with that.
Here’s the problem with force-feeding leaders down teams’ throats: A coach can’t make a player a leader, and a player can’t make himself a leader. Sammy Sosa slapped a “C’’ on his uniform to let everyone know of his captaincy, but nobody really bought the idea.
Michael Jordan – leader.
Jay Cutler – not a leader.
That is not meant as a knock on the Bears quarterback. There’s no shame in lacking a quality that is so rare and so abstract.
The problem is the position he plays. Quarterbacks are expected to be leaders simply because the football is in their hands so much. But treating your offensive line to dinner once a week doesn’t make you a leader. Nor does being a rah-rah guy.
Cutler invited teammates to Nashville in the offseason to work out with him. Is that leadership? Sure. Does that mean players will follow him? No.
Which is probably the bigger point here: I can more easily tell you what leadership isn’t than what it is.
But sometimes leadership shines so brightly, it can’t be hidden. The best examples from Chicago sports, past and present:
Jordan, Bulls – Through sheer competitiveness and ruthlessness, MJ forced teammates to follow his lead. It wasn’t always pleasant. The winning was. Bulls practices were legendary because Jordan seemed to think every drill and every scrimmage was life or death. His leadership said, “Keep up, or else.’’ Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between tough love and tough luck.
Joakim Noah, Bulls – The highest compliment you can give Noah is that he cares. It shows on the court, where you can find him screaming in joy or anger. But Carlos Boozer screams, too, and a swarm of mosquitoes wouldn’t follow him. The difference is that Noah’s teammates know he cares deeply about them. His teammates, in turn, will do anything for him. You can’t fake genuineness. Also high on the Bulls’ list: Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier.
Mike Brown, Bears – Brown was a great safety and an even better leader. Whatever profession he might have pursued in life, people would have looked to him for guidance and inspiration. Football player, florist, burger-flipper, it wouldn’t have mattered. Football was important to him, and if it was important to him, teammates decided maybe it should be important to them. When he said the Bears were “terrible’’ after a 2005 game that dropped them to 1-3, he apparently had an audience. The team finished 11-5.
Mike Singletary, Bears – Singletary was the perfect package deal. He was a wonderful linebacker, he studied hard and he had a preacher’s command of a room. The 1985 Bears were a team of characters, but it was the serious, deep-thinking Singletary who had everyone’s attention. No small feat. Also: Walter Payton, Dan Hampton.
Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks – He became the team captain at 20. Ridiculous, right? How can a 20-year-old kid tell older teammates what to do? He didn’t. He played hard all the time, the manic look in his eyes telling fellow Hawks how much every shift meant to him. He has been the driving force behind the team’s three Stanley Cups the past six seasons.
Brent Seabrook, Blackhawks — Seabrook sometimes can be ornery in the presence of reporters (I know, hard to believe), but he’s the vocal leader in the Hawks’ locker room. He’s the one pumping up teammates, and he’s the one settling them down. When Toews picked up his third penalty in a five-minute stretch of Game 4 of a 2013 Western Conference semifinal, it was Seabrook who skated to the box and told him to start playing like Jonathan Toews. In Game 5 against Detroit, the captain ended a nine-game scoring drought with a goal. Also: Chris Chelios, Stan Mikita.
Paul Konerko, White Sox – Here’s proof you don’t have to be loud and zealous to be a leader. Konerko let his work ethic and his numbers do the talking for him with teammates. They would rave about the hours of preparation he put in before every game. They would also thank him for taking the pressure off them by talking with media members every day during the season. He saw it as his duty.
Jim Thome, White Sox – Thome was with the Sox from 2006-2009, but people in the organization still talk about the effect he had on the players around him. He was nearing the end of his career and had to go through a long, intense regimen of stretches daily to trick his body into thinking it was 27 instead of 37. Younger players took notice. Also: Carlton Fisk, Billy Pierce.
Alfonso Soriano, Cubs – You’re groaning, aren’t you? The guy whom John McDonough and Jim Hendry overpaid? Yep, that guy. Despite the eight-year, $136 million contract, he was a consummate professional, and teammates had deep respect for him. In the dark transition years after Theo Epstein took over, young players such as Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro watched how Soriano prepared for his job. Some got it, some didn’t.
Gabby Hartnett – In 1938, a newspaper reporter wrote of Hartnett’s contagious enthusiasm: “He sparked the team into a winning streak. The big, red-faced catcher laughed, shouted, cajoled and sweated. He played each game as though 10 devils were after him.’’ Hartnett makes this list based solely on that description. Also: Ernie Banks, Derrek Lee.
I’m sure I’ve missed some great leaders. I’m surer you’ll tell me about it.