Dear Mr. Welbourn,
I lack what you referred to in PA Radio 174 as a “mean streak”.
I’m not prone to violence and am soft spoken. In your years of experience, did you encounter football players who didn’t typically have a mean streak, but found a way to channel aggression for sport? If so, what was their solution? If not, what would you recommend for someone like me try to “find” a mean streak to improve performance on the field?
The trait of having a “mean streak” can be expressed in multiple ways. Traditional thinking labels these players as prone to violence. While true for some, others are different.
I found a statement Dallas Cowboys assistant coach Ernie Stautner made about Randy White.
“Say two boxers get together and want to spar. They both agree they won’t hit each other. But then they start sparring and one guy sees an opening. Pow! He hits you with everything he’s got. That’s a mean streak.”
I played with some of the best in NFL history and one trait separated the good from the great. They willed themselves to never lose. And if it did happen, it was as if the world fell off its axis and could never happen again. The nasty came from never accepting defeat. They trained, practiced, and lived to always win.
Will Shields is the nicest of guys and would give you the shirt off his back. That is, unless you drew the short straw, lined up against him, and wanted to make him look bad. He played good natured, but maintained laser focus…or so I thought. I watched Will handle the best in the NFL for years without even raising his voice. He never had to. He was so blessed physically – strong, fast and a great technician. He made it look easy. Then one day towards the end of his career, I saw him get beat on an easy play. That good nature was replaced with a darkness I had never seen. I watched Will beat this guy for the next hour and remind everybody why he is in the Hall of Fame.
On the other hand, I played with guys that liked violence. They were in it for the fight regardless of the score. Win, lose, or draw they wanted to punish their opponent. I was one of those guys.
In the immortal words of Rowdy Roddy Piper, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum.”
I loved the conflict, the physical fight, the battle. That is what I trained, and lived, for. Football was secondary. The fight is what got me up in the off-season to train and what got me excited each morning in-season to strap it up. I saw each play as wins and losses. The “mean streak” so many love to reference is just the finality of each play – a sense of urgency and anger coming to head on each play, counting victory as the number of battles won. The war is really inconsequential in the grander scheme.
The bigger question isn’t if the mean streak exists; we know it does.
Pro Football Weekly wrote, “Football is such a violent game, a player really needs to have a chip on their shoulder to succeed.”
And per a coach early in my NFL career, “Football is a violent game, played by violent individuals getting paid a lot of money to do violence.”
But is it a prerequisite for athletic success in football?
A nasty demeanor will only make up so much. If a guy can’t keep his feet and the game moves too fast, all the eye gouging and throat punching the world won’t help him. Conversely, a mediocre guy with a mean streak can play a punishing style of football, “elevating” his game to a level where he is competitive.
My advice, master your craft. Learn to play the game not from the periphery but entrenched. Train your body in the same manner. Harden and sharpen your tool so that it useful and efficient. And maybe your skill and play will be so high, you won’t have to rely on a “mean streak”. You can be the nice guy who shakes everybody’s hand as he jogs down the field to celebrate with his teammates.