Do you ever wonder what NFL football coaches say to their players during a big game? That’s the challenge for Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots and Doug Pederson of the Philadelphia Eagles, the men whose teams will compete this Sunday in the Super Bowl.
Perhaps they’ll turn to the words of a fictional counterpart. In the 1999 movie “Any Given Sunday,” veteran Coach Tony D’Amato [Al Pacino] delivers one of the greatest inspirational sports speeches, ever.
Pacino challenges his team to win the game “inch by inch, play by play.”
This is a football speech, in a locker room, at half time. For me, it’s also a speech about farming. And life.
Please hear me out on this and let me explain, the idea’s not as strange as it sounds.
Pacino’s character begins by calling the game “the biggest battle of our professional lives.” Then he makes an almost philosophical point: “You find out life’s this game of inches.”
The same is true for farming.
I farm about 1,500 acres in the south of England, growing a variety of crops: wheat, barley, grass, oilseeds [canola], peas, and beans. They become everything from bread, biscuits and animal feed, from beer to whisky, cooking oils and bird food! We also graze sheep on our land, grass and cover crops.
If winning and losing in football comes down to what happens “inch by inch, play by play,” then success and failure in farming also comes down to what happens “inch by inch, crop by crop”— as well as “row by row,” “field by field,” and “season by season.”
Back to Pacino: “In either game—life or football—the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us.”
Also true in farming!
Today we live in an era of precision agriculture, which means we can measure everything. It’s a slogan used in all successful businesses -including farming: “If you can measure it, you can manage it.” We drive tractors that rely on GPS satellites and use software that monitors our farms and all of their inches. Sometimes those inches are literal…other times, metaphorical.
In the spring, we have to wait for the right time sow seeds in the soil. If we plant too early, our crops will die in the frost. If we’re too late, they won’t flourish. Along the way, we have to apply exact amounts of fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide. We worry about moisture levels, heat waves, and high winds. At harvest, we stand or fall based on our yield.
The inches are everything, and everywhere.
More Pacino: “On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team … we claw our fingernails for that inch. Because we know, when we add up all those inches, that’s going to make the difference between winning and losing, between living and dying.”
Every time I hear that speech, it fires me up. It’s not just about football and farming. It’s about life as well.
The late Chuck Noll, the legendary football coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, put it this way: “If you want to win, do the ordinary things better than anyone else does them, day in and day out.”
It’s all about the inches.
I may be a farmer in the UK, but I’m looking forward to the Super Bowl in the US—even though the opening kickoff is for us the middle of the night.
American football isn’t yet a major sport in the UK, though several NFL games in London have played to large, sold-out audiences. I’ve been a fan for years and remember the heyday of the Chicago Bears and their defensive line as well as the passing attacks of the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers.
I enjoy watching the speed and skill of these amazing athletes, and the metrics and statistics used by coaches — and I prefer it to the game that Americans call “soccer.”
On Sunday, this English farmer will cheer for the New England Patriots. I’m impressed by the team’s long record of excellence, over many seasons. Whatever the final score, the result probably will come down to just a few inches on a handful of plays.
The same will be true for me on Monday morning, when I start another day and prepare for another year as a farmer who will win or lose, inch by inch.
Just as Pacino ends his speech to his players “Now, what are you gonna do…?” today the same can be said to us as farmers….