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The Drive: In Praise of Doug Baldwin and Efficacy

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NFL: Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A few years back whilst the mass media was very smitten with professional athletes supporting social justice causes, Doug Baldwin and members of the Seattle Police Department met in the Seahawks team facility in Renton for a conversation. He had this to say of his meeting:

“I don’t want to share who it was with or what it was about (referring to the SPD meeting), but it was a learning experience. The reason why I don’t want to share what it was about is because it’s not about being political. We’re just trying to learn. … It’s not really a publicity stunt or something we want to give publicity to because we’re working diligently on solutions.”

I admired Baldwin for saying it but I admired Baldwin more for it being true. Baldwin seemed to genuinely believe he had a responsibility to work toward change but he understood how easily good intentions poorly executed can be hijacked by others to work against the very cause he was supporting. When one cares deeply about something, whether it be family, or a cause, or a movement, or a belief, or a necessary battle of any kind, protecting that family, furthering that cause, building that movement, living that belief or winning that battle is the ultimate expression of that deep care. Any person who puts themselves before what it is they love and profess to care deeply about is either ignorant and being exploited or a hypocrite.

The flash of the self-aggrandizing person has long blinded the media. The flash of the newly great, the novel, the circumstantially great and the appointed great have long blinded the media. Just recently, Kyrie Irving suffered the indignity of failing to be as good as his reputation. Dozens of young men newly drafted will suffer a similar if less public indignity. At its best and worst the media serves its audience, and at our best and worst, we are tired of old greatness, hungry for new names, new possibilities, new dilemmas, new anything. This fatigue of the established but great desire for the novel is seized upon and amplified by the media. It is sunshine for saplings and a invaluable force for newness and change, but it is a lie making mechanism as well, treating saplings like great oaks and great oaks like snags.

Baldwin was not drafted. Through his first three seasons at Stanford he made only seven starts. Though he was a starter in his final season and led the Cardinal in receiving yards, he was not invited to the NFL Combine. His former head coach at Stanford, Jim Harbaugh, became the 49ers head coach in 2011 but San Francisco did not use any of its 10 picks to draft Baldwin. Only John Schneider took much interest in him. Seahawks fans know this stuff. We maybe think: how lucky our team; or: how stupid the other 31, but sometimes I think: had it been any other way, Doug Baldwin would not be Doug Baldwin.

He had some superficially good pro pay numbers, superficial because numbers posted during a pro day are so notoriously exaggerated as to be almost worse than fake. Baldwin had been a pretty good prospect out of high school, but so are hundreds of young men who will never even play one down of NFL football. The process by which NFL teams evaluate and then draft talent has its holes, its blind spots, but it is not wildly inefficient. Baldwin was not very flashy, not very promising, and would not stick in Seattle because his flash or promise earned him patience, but only if his efficacy made him indispensable.

The essential meaningless of the cause of a sports team is in many ways its highest virtue. It is cause, affiliation, struggle and goal abstracted of any greater meaning. I am a Seahawks fan, but mostly because of place of birth, and yet I am chauvinistic, jingoistic and even fanatical in my partisanship. The essential meaningless of sport is part of why we use it as metaphor for the greater human experience and our shared culture. It is, in part, why progress in sport often precedes progress in that shared culture. Ideas incompatible with winning steadily lose over time. Freed of the obscuring and often deranging qualities of real causes, real struggles, real affiliations, and real goals, sport can feel more true, more simple, more honest, and more natural. It is human rather than human culture. It is science rather than technology. It is play masquerading as work and work masquerading as play.

Baldwin possessed exceptional footwork. Much of what else we can praise about Baldwin’s talent can be traced to that exceptional footwork. The crossover moves he used to put defensive backs in the spin cycle, that was a product of his footwork. The route running, the ability to improvise a route during a scramble drill, the separation which made him so highly targeted, so reliable converting the first, were expressions of his agility, his footwork.

He was also what we might call “fearless.” The rate at which he converted targets into receptions always hovered around a stellar 70%. It is a helluva thing keeping your cool when someone or someones want to blow you the eff up, but Baldwin always had a surplus of deep conviction. He was every bit the happy warrior. He thrived feeling that happy anger which seems to fire the very greatest of champions. It is funny to see the rise of the phrase “Let’s go.” It has been around so long and yet seems to be especially indicative of something many people are feeling right now. I read it as a call for maximum effort, maximum commitment, maximum clarity, and maxing out every utilizable virtue and vice in pursuit of a cause. That was Doug Baldwin. He lived let’s go yet let’s go is too corny to capture how he played and how he lives.

For a few years of his life Doug Baldwin was a football player. As a football player, there’s no one you’d rather have on your team, no one you’d least want to compete against, because Angry Doug was going to come at you full bore every down and humiliate you that one, two, three times you didn’t match his intensity. It was a thrill cheering you on, Doug. May you succeed in whatever else you put your effort toward. Because when a man has the kind of heart and soul, the kind of conviction and willpower, to meet the sacred needs of his sacred ideals with every last proton of effort, you stand back, wish them wisdom, wish them a heart of mercy, and wish them long life and lasting efficacy.