Don't lose crucial parts of 'the code'
Mark Schlereth [ARCHIVE]
February 17, 2014
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I've had a lifelong love affair with football. I was fortunate to be able to live out my childhood dreams. To play a game for a living and now cover the game I love and support my family, it's a dream come true. The game has meant a lot to me.

But for such an amazingly popular sport, there are aspects of it that I think many fans don't fully understand, and the Richie Incognito story has shed a negative light on some of those misunderstood parts of playing football and being on a football team.

Among the many things that I loved about playing football was sitting around the locker room with teammates and poking fun at each other with sophomoric slams, each one more ridiculous than the next.

But let me make this perfectly clear: I despise the stories of bullying that came out of Miami.

It breaks my heart that the good-natured ribbing that is a part of every locker room could get to a point that a young man felt his only option was to walk away from the game that he's worked his entire life to play.

I have great empathy for Jonathan Martin. I don't know all the inner workings of the Miami Dolphins locker room, but I do know the pain of being different, the sadness that accompanies not fitting in and the hopeless feeling of having no one to turn to, because it's part of my story as well.

My parents lovingly passed down the lessons of their lives so that my sister, Jana, and I may also teach our children the foundational principles of a life well lived. There was something else my father passed on, quite unintentionally, I'm sure: learning disabilities. My father is dyslexic, and so am I.

It was the first day of seventh grade, and one of my teachers was explaining the course requirements.

"Every day I will randomly select a student to stand in front of the class and read a current event from the newspaper," he said. That's when the panic set in.

I would have struggled reading Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham." Read from the paper? I had zero shot. Every day walking into that class was more miserable than the next; the anxiety of knowing my name might be next on the docket made it almost impossible to place one foot in front of the other. As I'd pass through the threshold, I would pray, "Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus, I beg you, please don't let this be the day my name is called. Amen." For several weeks, my prayers were answered, but then came that fateful day.

"Schlereth, it's your turn to read," he said.

"No thank you," I replied.

"Get up and read, now!," he barked.

"Please, please, no," I begged.

"Get up now or fail," he stated with conviction.

I arose, heart leaping from my shirt, cheeks so flushed they would make a rose wilt with jealousy. I walked to the front of the room. I stood for what seemed like an eternity but in reality was less than a minute and painfully tried to sound out words that were way above my pay grade. With each passing second and every stammered-upon syllable, the snickers from the class grew louder, until my teacher had heard enough.

"Sit down! You're stupid!" he proclaimed.

The class was bursting at the seams with laughter and a heartbroken boy slumped in his chair, tears streaming down his cheeks, puddling in pools of embarrassment on the table beneath him.

Have you ever been scared or embarrassed to the point of paralysis? Where do you turn when you feel you have nowhere to turn? In whom do you confide when it seems everyone is against you? What is the "correct" response in those situations? I had nowhere to turn and no fellow students or other teachers to support me or help me. I couldn't even turn to my parents because I felt like I had failed them. I was alone.

In a different setting, but one with many similarities, Jonathan Martin walked out. Looking back, I wish I'd had the courage to do the same. Maybe that would have brought the attention that my situation needed for things to be set straight.

The Code

I've heard a lot of current and former football players evoke "the code" in regard to Martin's departure from his team.

- Handle your business like a man

- Don't air the team's dirty laundry to the public

- Stand up for yourself

- Punch him in the nose

- Don't run out on your teammates

Many have said Martin has broken "the code" and will never be welcomed back in the locker room. What about "the code" that says we love one another? We play hard for one another? We set aside our differences and bond together as one?

What about that fraternity, that code?

The code of championship locker rooms, in which men sacrifice for each other, in which they consider others more important than themselves, in which they embrace -- not ostracize -- each other. That's the locker room I grew up in and the code I adhere to, and my football career is filled with examples of reaching out, and looking out, for teammates.

I was drafted in the 10th round, the 263rd pick of the 1989 draft by the Washington Redskins. I was a no-name, oft-injured center/guard from the University of Idaho. My college career was a mess, so riddled with injury that the university had retired me as a junior. "That's enough," they said and threw in the white towel on my childhood dream. After months of pleading (whining), they acquiesced and agreed to allow me to play my senior season. I was completely off the NFL radar.

Luckily for me, I had a teammate who wasn't. Marvin Washington was a 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive end and was chiseled from granite, and we were brothers. Every few days "Dirty," as he was known to his teammates, would call me to let me know when the next pro team would be at the facility to work him out. My phone rang 15-20 times, and 15-20 times I showed up to Dirty's workouts, introducing myself and asked for an opportunity. Marvin's generosity -- that's how I became a Skin!

Joe Gibbs was the head coach, and he set the culture of our locker room from the very first meeting of the year. As a rookie, I had a vision of what my first NFL meeting would be like. I was expecting fire and brimstone, some real Football 101, but what I got was the truth from a quiet, regal man.

"Welcome to the 1989 season, men," he said. "Today I'd like to give you some priorities for your life ...

1. Your relationship with God.

2. Your relationship with your family and teammates.

3. Being the best football player you can be.

"I guarantee you, if the first two priorities are not in line, you can't be your best on the field," Gibbs said. "Let's make it a great year. Break out with your position coaches."

That was it, and the tone was set.

Self-policing Professional sports are filled with unwritten rules of behavior, and...
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