3 Leadership Lessons from College Football’s Opening Weekend


Labor Day weekend is a bittersweet time. As the sun sinks below the horizon earlier and earlier with each passing week, cooler temperatures and shorter days signal the pending end of summer. But as the seasons change, the leaves turn, and families head back to school, a new feeling is in the air. The feeling of an age old tradition, filled with passion, excitement, and pageantry.

Football season is here. The best time of year.

The opening weekend of the 2016 college football season did not disappoint, filled with surprises, upsets, and standout performances. But if we take a closer look, beyond the scores, highlights, and newswire headlines, we will find 3 stories—3 powerful, moving, extraordinary narratives—that provide brilliant examples of leadership and character for each of us to emulate in our own lives.

Great leaders live with persistence, patience, and presence—and we need not look any farther than three exemplary student-athletes to find examples of these leadership qualities.

PERSISTENCE: James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh

At the end of the 2014 season it seemed James Conner had the world in the palm of his hand. Not only did the skilled sophomore rush for over 1,700 yards and 26 touchdowns, with a stunning 6 yard per carry average, but he was named ACC Player of the Year and 1st Team all-American—the first Pitt running back in 27 years to achieve this high honor. It seemed James had the Midas touch—turning everything in sight to Pitt Panther gold.

Then everything changed.

In September 2015, during the first game of the brand new season, James tore the MCL in his right knee, causing him to miss the entire season. Rehab progressed, until three short months later, a far more serious setback came his way: cancer. Hodgkin’s lymphoma was the diagnosis. Months of aggressive chemotherapy were scheduled, but not without the Panthers’ star making a public vow—to beat the disease and see the field in the 2016 season opener against Villanova.

Leadership persistence is uncommon endurance in the face of struggle and difficulty. Leadership persistence is uncommon endurance in the face of struggle and difficulty. Whether in strength or in weakness, whether he or she “feels like it” or not, the perseverant leader possesses the ability to keep coming back with the best effort that can be offered on a given day. Some days, “best” might only be 50%—like the nightmarish mornings of illness James routinely experienced after aggressive chemo. Other days, “best” might be 80%. Maybe 90%. But regardless of what “best” is for that particular day, perseverance is the grit to give all of those percentage points and finish the day well-spent, hitting the pillow at night with nothing left to offer.

In May, 2016, James Conner fulfilled part 1 of his vow as he was found cancer free. This past Saturday James made good on part 2. Returning to the field for the first time in over a year, overcoming both severe injury and illness, James scored 2 touchdowns, en route to a 28-7 home win.

PATIENCE: Tyrone Swoopes, QB, Texas

For Texas-born Tyrone Swoopes, this wasn’t how it was supposed to go. 8-5, 6-7, and 5-7 in 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively is a far cry from the storied success the Longhorn faithful are accustomed to in Austin. Especially when you are the starting quarterback. Tyrone was in the hot seat, and the temperature was rising. Longhorn nation was calling for a change at the helm of the offense.

Just days before Longhorns’ opener against #10 Notre Dame, the change was made. Freshman Shane Buechele was named starting quarterback over the veteran senior Swoopes, an unpleasant start to Tyrone’s final hurrah in the burnt orange and white.

For leaders, patience is not just aimless waiting or being a passive bystander. Quite the opposite. Patience is purposeful preparation. And all the while, remaining in a state of constant readiness for an opportunity that could come at any time. Sometimes the opportunity comes quickly. Sometimes it is a long time coming. Sometimes it never comes. But a patient leader understands the journey of preparation produces more growth than arrival at the destination. The journey of preparation produces more growth than arrival at the destination.

Rather than taking what many would consider the most logical path—transfer to another school—Tyrone instead embraced his role as a situational running quarterback, continuing to prepare well each day. His patience caught the attention of both his teammates and head coach.

“I’ve never seen him throw attitude or a temper tantrum,” said tailback D’Onta Foreman. “I just see him go out there and work hard every day.” Head coach Charlie Strong echoed Foreman’s sentiments, calling Swoopes a “special person” for handling the situation the way he has.

And Sunday night, with eyes around the country on him and his teammates, Tyrone’s patience paid off. Number 18, fondly nicknamed “the 18 wheeler”, carried the ball 13 times for 3 touchdowns in the Longhorns’ primetime upset of Notre Dame, including the game winning score in double-overtime.

PRESENCE: Sam Foltz, P, Nebraska

Sam Foltz epitomized the term student-athlete. On the field, the former walk-on punter not only earned a scholarship on the Nebraska Cornhusker roster, but positioned himself as one of the program’s best punters ever. His career average of nearly 43 yards per kick ranked in the top 5 all time in program history, and Sam was named 2015 Big Ten Punter of the Year, as well as a 2016 Ray Guy Award candidate.

Off the field, Sam excelled in the classroom as a 5-time Nebraska Scholar-Athlete Honor Roll member, and was also recognized for his leadership, community service, and positive influence by the Nebraska athletic department. Sam completed his degree early, enrolling in graduate school where he hoped to further his studies in the field of agronomy, before a likely shot at making an NFL roster. Sam was a recognized leadership presence in the locker room, on campus, and in the community, known to live by three simple mantras that graced his Twitter profile: Dream Big. Work Hard. Stay Humble.

When I think of leadership presence, I can’t help but imagine the scene described in Acts 5:14-16 as the apostle Peter weaves his way through sick people, strewn in the streets of Jerusalem, seeking a miracle healing. The text says, “people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by.” While the passage does say all were healed, it doesn’t explicitly say whether a touch from Peter’s shadow was God’s chosen method. Regardless, the leadership implication is clear—Peter’s presence gave others confidence—both in him and in our great God.

A leader’s presence is a shadow cast daily. A leader’s presence is a shadow cast daily. Our shadow follows behind us, a faint silhouette, scarcely noticeable, seldom crossing our minds as we move through our day. So too the most minor actions—eye contact, a smile or warm greeting, putting the iPhone aside to offer full attention, knowing someone’s name, asking about another’s day—are the true defining moments of leadership that either establish or erode confidence in a leader.

It’s clear Sam Foltz cast a healthy leadership shadow. His leadership presence was a guiding force of both character and confidence for the Nebraska football program. Unfortunately, it would be missed all too soon.

On July 23, 2016, while serving as instructors at the nationally known Kohl’s Kicking Camp in Wisconsin, Foltz along with LSU kicker Colby Delahoussaye, and former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler were involved in a serious car accident as Sadler’s vehicle lost control on wet pavement and hit a tree. Delahoussaye survived the accident with minor injuries, but the crash claimed the life of both Sadler and Foltz. Sam Foltz was just 22 years old.

I believe undoubtedly a leader’s legacy is measured by his presence in his absence. A leader’s legacy is measured by his presence in his absence. And this past weekend, we saw the powerful legacy Sam Foltz left on his teammates and coaches.

During the first quarter of Nebraska’s 43-10 win over Fresno State, the Huskers took the field to punt…without a punter. In tribute to their fallen teammate, Nebraska took a delay of game penalty, leaving Foltz’s position vacant on the field, while fans and players from both teams rose to their feet in a raucous ovation. In truly classy fashion, Fresno State declined the penalty.

As summer turns to fall and the best time of year begins again, I am grateful for the start of football season. But more importantly, I am grateful for student-athletes who are model examples of leadership and character for us all. Great leaders live with persistence, patience, and presence—thank you James, Tyrone, and Sam for showing us the way!


I’d love to hear some of the lessons athletics have taught you…shout them out in the comments or tweet them and tag me @timhiller3. How have athletics impacted your leadership journey?

To learn more about our mission of building leaders through athletics, check out Next Level Performance and visit us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Photo © AP

Tim Hiller
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