I was minding my own business when the phone rang.
It was my boss.
“I’m going to challenge you right now, these eight hours, for greatness,” he said.
Oh, no. Not this. Anything but this. He obviously had watched the Bears-produced video of coach Matt Nagy trying to motivate quarterback Mitch Trubisky to play better in the second half against the Jets last Sunday. It was very inspirational stuff, football-wise. Bears fans ate it up. And now here it was coming over my phone, almost word for word. I had been afraid of just this sort of thing. Every employee with a boss should be afraid now.
I took a deep breath.
“It’s just a sports column,’’ I said. “I write a zillion of them a year. Let’s not make every one of them out to be a Super Bowl that goes into overtime.’’
“I’m sorry. What was that?’’ he said, his voice rising.
“Greatness,’’ I said. “Yes, sir.’’
“You got me?’’ he said, which is exactly what a fired-up Nagy had said to a very willing Trubisky.
I did get him. I saw a rose-tinted future unfurling before me, before all of us — a future with team-building exercises, uplifting slogans taped above our desks and denim shirts with the name of our company stitched above the pocket that we could wear like a calling card at the airport.
It won’t be enough that we do our jobs capably anymore.
Thanks to Nagy, now we’ll have to want to run through a wall for our bosses. They’ll say, “Jump!’’ and we’ll say, “Watch me jump higher than Russell Westbrook!’’ Even if your job is something as mundane as reading utility meters, it will be the case.
“Let me ask you a question,’’ I said. “Nagy knew he was mic’d up when he talked with Trubisky, right?’’
“What did you think he was going to say with the camera rolling? In that situation, any coach with any sense is going to instantly become Daniel Day-Lewis. They can’t help themselves. Did you see the way Nagy put his arm around Trubisky and spoke into the earhole of his quarterback’s helmet? Did you hear the fervor in his voice? One couldn’t help but think of Mel Gibson pumping up the troops in ‘Braveheart.’ Do you think Nagy really talks like that in the middle of an NFL game? Maybe there’s a future free agent who will remember that video and say he wants to play for such an encouraging coach. This is simply about building a brand!’’
“This is about excellence!’’ my boss said.
Excellence. Hmmm. Let me think about that. He wants excellence from me for tomorrow’s newspaper.
“OK,’’ I said finally. “I’ve got the Joe Maddon-has-overstayed-his-welcome column, the McCaskeys-will-never-win-another-Super Bowl column and the baseball-is-still-filled-with-steroid-users column. Which one do you want?’’
“I want greatness!’’ he said.
“Can you be more specific?’’
“I want to see it come out of you right here!” the boss said, again mimicking the Nagy speech.
What was about to come out of me could have involved a bucket and some sawdust, just like when I was in grade school. But I could almost see the belief in his eyes through the phone. Neck veins bulging. The whole thing. Nagy clearly had taken my boss to another level.
Why couldn’t I be like everybody else, I asked myself. Why couldn’t I get on board, play ball, be a team player? Maybe I had been wrong all along, and the true believers had been right.
“Yes, sir,” I said, perking up to the idea. Perhaps there was hope for me.
“You take this thing over right now!” my boss said, which is what Nagy had told Trubisky to do after that mediocre first half against the Jets. And you know what? Trubisky played much better in the second half, especially in terms of throwing accuracy.
It dawned on me: Maybe this was my second half!
But then I thought about my natural cynicism. There isn’t a storage facility big enough to hold that. I tried to imagine myself starting the Wave, which is the Costco in-bulk version of enthusiasm. It was like imagining myself levitating.
Some professions lend themselves to the kind of rah-rah stuff that goes on in locker rooms. Go to a sales convention, and you might find a college or professional sports coach who has been hired to exhort the audience to get out there and sell more storm-water draining systems. Or plywood. Or mattresses. It doesn’t matter. They just want to see greatness come out of you right now! A word to the wise: After the speech is over, don’t stand by the doors when the stampede of galvanized peddlers heads out to make a sales call.
Other professions, such as journalism, aren’t quite built that way. At the first hint of a “rah,’’ we reporters file a Freedom of Information Act request, sure that something nefarious is going on behind the scenes.
“Please don’t ‘challenge me to greatness,’ ’’ I told my boss. “My wife did that once, and I was in therapy for a year.’’
I heard a gurgling sound on the other end of the phone.
“You OK?’’ I said.
“Rick,” he said, “sometime, when the team is up against it . . .’’
Please, no. He’s not going to . . .
“. . . and the breaks are beating the boys . . .’’
Wasn’t there a meeting he should be at? A training session? An icebreaker activity?
“. . . tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gip . . .’’
“You’re breaking up!’’ I shouted into the phone.
Silence. A long silence. And then, like a train starting to move, he began to talk again.
“You got me?” he said.
There was no quit in him, sort of like Sylvester Stallone in “Rambo: First Blood Part II,’’ which Nagy will probably show his team before the game against the Bills.
“I got you,’’ I said, defeated.
“All right, here we go,’’ he said.
I know. That’s what I’m afraid of.