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Irons in the fire: A link in the chain

Paul Marchant for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 January 2020
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Back in the day, when I was a fair-to-middling high school football player, I did my best to take heart in a phrase our coach often used in his efforts to get the most out of our small-town team.

It’s a phrase I, as a fair-to-middling high school basketball coach, have occasionally borrowed in my own feeble efforts to inspire the sons and daughters of the cowboys, dairy farmers and migrant workers who make their homes in the high desert of southern Idaho’s Oakley Valley. The phrase is this: “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

When I was a high school junior, our football team, on the strength of a stout senior class, was good. Really good. I think we spent most of the season ranked number one or two in the state’s polls. We went through the first half of the season wondering what it would be like to have another team score a touchdown on us. Ultimately, our season ended in the state semi-finals, where we lost when we tried to win the game with a two-point conversion in overtime.

It was during this season the “weakest link” mantra was seared into my brain. Now, I’m a lot more Uncle Rico than I am Patrick Mahomes, but I wanted to believe it – and I tried, as a member of the team, to work as hard as I could to make sure the part of the chain that was me didn’t snap and break the chain.

Here’s the thing, though. I didn’t really believe or fully buy into the chain-inspired hype. You see, I didn’t find my way onto the field during games all that much during that season of my junior year. The senior class was one of the biggest in the history of the school, and that big class was loaded with some big, stout, surly lads. My role was mostly to serve as practice fodder for the guys who did the work and gained the glory in the games. I was pretty sure I may have been one of the weakest links in the team chain. I was also reasonably sure my absence or presence had very little to do with whether or not my team won or lost any of the games on our schedule.

And you know what? I may not have even been the weakest link on the team. Maybe I was somewhere in the middle, but that team was still going to steamroll pretty much everybody we played, and it had nothing to do with me. Nope, I never could really come to terms with that weakest link nonsense, at least in terms of being a member of that football team.

But I can’t argue the idea as a form of motivation for a high school sports team, as long as the team isn’t made up of a bunch of deep thinkers. If the girl who occupies the end of the bench and rarely sees any playing time on the basketball court figures out that she can loaf during sprints at the end of practice, what’s the harm in that? From certain perspectives, maybe there’s no harm. But here’s the rub. It all hinges on perspective or vantage point or point of view – however you choose to frame the semantics.

My mediocre abilities as a scrawny third-string running back on a juggernaut rural high school football team probably actually had little effect on the outcomes of any games that team played. So does that blow up the whole weakest link theory? Time, experience, multiple successes and even more failures tell me no. I’ve perhaps changed my tune, and my perspective has most certainly shifted in the decades since I failed to become the reincarnation of Gale Sayers.

You’re always going to be a link in a chain, even if you don’t understand or recognize your part in that chain. And every chain links to another chain. I’ve always been fond of the saying, “No man is an island.” It’s something I often preached to my kids, mostly inadvertently by things I have said or done.

All too often, what I’ve said or done has had a negative effect on my section of chain. Instead of strengthening the chain – whatever chain it may be – I’ve ended up smashing a link with a 12-pound sledge. But experience, both good and bad, has proven I’m always linked to someone besides myself and, if I choose to be a weak link or a strong link, somehow or other, someone else will eventually be the recipient of the results of that choice. So, in the end, I’m afraid I must report that you’re probably better off buying into the weakest link hocus pocus, even if coach never puts you in the game. end mark

Paul Marchant is a cowboy and part-time freelance writer based in southern Idaho. Follow him on Twitter, or email Paul Marchant.

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