Doing Better: Aspirational Lessons From the NFL’s Joseph Ossai

Published: Feb 5, 2023  |  

Public speaker, comedian and entrepreneur

Illustration by Nikki Muller

Football. It’s just a game right? Supposedly.

But if it’s just a game, why am I loudly cheering on a team that’s not my team—and why am I standing half the distance to a perfectly comfy couch?

If it’s just a game, why do I have any investment in the high-paid players battling it out for an even higher-paying Super Bowl prize?

If it’s just a game, why do I tune in weekend after weekend and some Monday evenings?

Part of football’s spectacle is due to players blitzed with praise, preference, and pay for physical prowess (yellow flag for alliteration).

Seasonally, I watch superhumans pass as mere mortals, making one-handed diving catches on the field then rushing to give the shirt off their back to the needy from [insert charity here], while intercepting our attention with their symmetrical 6-pack abs that can’t even be replicated in Photoshop. Meanwhile, I warm the bench with an inability to catch a glove while wearing it, failure to see a ripped stomach despite eating the same commercially-suggested sacks of Doritos® and being insured by USAA.

Another part of the game’s allure is seeing those mere mortals—as I’m told they are—as examples of what the human body can do with play calls of good genetics, intense training, high-calorie meals, and being insured by USAA (yellow flag for repetition).

The other part of the allure is best captured by General Douglas MacArthur: “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields, will bear the fruits of victory.” Meaning: on-field experiences provide off-field skills.

The things athletes hash out in training, scrimmages, and games reap benefits long after the play clock has expired.

The wonderful thing about professional athletics (and your awkward nephew’s tee ball games) is we can watch as the competitors develop (although your nephew might never blossom into the MLB superstar your sibling insists he will be). Our seat in the stands also provides a chance to Monday morning quarterback (or Tuesday morning, if you stayed up for some Monday night Heavy Action) our own actions.

Take last week’s Bengals-Chiefs game. Winner plays the Eagles in the Super Bowl. The score is tied.

The Chiefs have the ball. It’s third down. There are 17 seconds remaining.

Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City quarterback, sprints with the ball toward the sideline. Joseph Ossai, the Cincinnati defensive end, is in hot pursuit. 

Mahomes runs out of bounds.

Ossai finishes his diving tackle, unnecessarily making rough contact with a 15-yard penalty, enabling a Chiefs’ game-winning, final-seconds, 3-point field goal. Final seconds of the game for the Chiefs. Final seconds of the season for the Bengals.

Ossai is an easy scapegoat. He’s young (22 years old), he’s new (two years in the NFL), he’s green (16 games in the NFL).

That one play was the last in a sequence of events that’s sending the Chiefs onto the Super Bowl and the Bengals back to Cincinnati. It’s the most recent play in the turnover of plays that puts the game-winning points on the board.

And here’s why football is more than a game, and why MacArthur was spot on (except for choosing the Army as his branch of service—Go Air Force!).

In the media inquiry after the game—you say “press conference,” I say “interrogation”—Ossai could have lateraled the blame.

He didn’t. He signaled fair catch and took accountability for his actions.

This young, inexperienced scapegoat emotionally accepted his role in the play, the game, and the outcome saying, “I was in full chase mode and… I knew he was going for that sideline. I didn’t know how far out of bounds we were. I’ve got to learn from experience and I’ve got to know not to get close to that quarterback when he’s close to that sideline. I’ve got to do better.”

“I’ve got to do better.” Damn.

I’m three decades Ossai’s senior (stop doing the math!) and this kid playing professional football, making way more than I ever will, articulates a lesson that he’ll bring back to the field next season. More importantly, I will bet my annual income (because I don’t have a lot to lose) that “I’ve got to do better” will echo in his head off the field as well.

“I’ve got to do better” has already been resonating in the echo chamber of my skull.

I may not be in “full chase” of a worldclass quarterback like Mahomes (State Farm-insured, bath-bomb-loving stud that he is), but there are everyday experiences I can learn from and opportunities to do better everywhere.

Those experiences and opportunities are coming at us left and right like a hungry defense chomping down on a quarterback snack. By maneuvering in the pocket and seeing the whole field, we open our eyes to lessons and skills we miss if we push in frustration during full chase mode.

And life, like football, is a team sport. We have a team supporting us. We have pass protection. We have linebackers. We have sports bras.

Zac Taylor, Ossai’s coach (well, he coaches all the Bengals), had Ossai’s back on the sidelines right after the play, reminding him to keep his head held high, that the outcome of the game is a cumulative effect of all the plays, not just that one.

B.J. Hill, Ossai’s teammate, had his back in the locker room, combo blocking the press. In zone coverage, Hill stood by Ossai while reporters peppered him with questions. And when Hill didn’t like the coverage coming at his teammate, he stepped it up to man coverage, shielding Ossai from unnecessary roughness.

Taylor’s and Hill’s words ran interference on an unproductive downward spiral of negative self-talk. Their support prevented lines of questioning that would merely be journalistic taunting.

Taylor’s and Hill’s backing and Ossai’s willingness to accept responsibility and pledge to do better are why I stand in my living room, shouting at a TV, cheering on a team I have no vested interest in and cheering on a player from the losing team.

Thank you, Joseph Ossai, for showing people twice your age and then some (seriously, stop with the math!) that we can all do better, whether it’s on the game-day fields of friendly strife or other-day fields of fruitful victory.

Point after article if you got my word plays. Two point conversion if you laughed out loud. And if any of my jokes were incomplete receptions—let me know: when it comes to my writing game, I’ve got to do better. 

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