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Football: Concussions and Character

Football players are back on campus at Saint John’s, thus signaling the official end of summer.  The imminent start to the football season has also raised perennial questions about football player safety, particularly around the issue of concussions.

Image of brain in human headThere was a little controversy recently at the Atlantic Coast Conference media days when University of North Carolina head football coach Larry Fedora said “he doesn’t believe it’s been proven that football causes the degenerative brain disease CTE and [he] offered a passionate defense of [the] sport.”

In this controversy, I found the medical issues, while important, less interesting than the defense of football Fedora gave.  He argued that to significantly change the nature of the game or to give up on the game altogether would lead to “the decline of our country.”

Fedora elaborated, saying:

A few years back, I had an opportunity to ask a three-star general, I had a question for him. I said, “What is it that makes our country, our military, superior to every other military in the world?” He was like, “That’s easy. We’re the only football-playing nation in the world.” He said, “Most of all of our troops have grown up and played the game at some point in their life at some level, and the lessons that they learned from that game is what makes this [nation] great.”

Denise McAllister, commenting on the controversy agreed, writing:

Fedora has a point. Throughout human history, contact sports have been a means to strengthen men to protect their homes, clans, tribes, and countries. Through rough play and facing the power of other men on the field, men were trained to be warriors — a clear advantage for any community that wants to develop strong defenses.

Young men were knocked around in game-playing to toughen them up for life as well as war. There wasn’t much concern about their welfare because the scrapes, bruises, and broken bones were deemed a necessity. Of course, past generations didn’t have the benefit of science to show the long-term effects of these activities, but I would wager that even if they did, those generations wouldn’t change their behavior. Contact sports had an important place in society.
….
Moms and dads in the suburbs who are pushing to end football at all levels or keeping their kids from playing any risky sport don’t experience the daily struggles and physical threats faced by past generations. They enjoy the luxury of flaccidity. They don’t value football and its risks because they have experienced no need of the particular lessons taught by football. They’re so removed from hardship that they don’t even see the value of climbing trees.

Regardless of whether one finds these national defense arguments persuasive, I would argue that Fedora and McAllister make a valid point about tradeoffs that is important to remember.  Life is filled with risks.  Once one makes the decision to get out of bed in the morning, virtually every decision afterward has risks.  Playing football is such a decision.

As a Division III institution, Saint John’s University’s football program does not have the public relations or economic impact most Division I programs do, but our players face the same risks of injury that other college players do.  Every player, possibly with input from parents or physicians, must decide whether the potential risks of short or long term injury—the costs—are more than offset by their love of the game and all it gives them—the benefits.

I certainly know Johnnie football players who have expressed concern about letting their sons play the game they themselves did.  By implication, these same Johnnies might have made a different decision for themselves if they had had current medical information available when they played the game years or decades ago.

But I know a lot more Johnnie football players who not only do not regret college athletic choices but would not change them for the world, and they delight in their young sons’ and current Johnnie players’ love of the game.

Gagliardi on the sidelines

This thought experiment is made more interesting at Saint John’s because of John Gagliardi’s forward looking practice methods that minimized the risk of injury in practice decades before that became fashionable.  Johnnie football alums with full information about CTE risks might rightly calculate the risk of injury to their younger selves or their sons or current Johnnies as relatively low because of John’s choices then – and growing influence now – but game day contact and injuries remain a risk under any practice regime.

These Johnnies, who would relive their football days in a heartbeat, argue that beyond their simple love of the game, football and John and Gary (Fasching) taught them life lessons that continue to pay off for years and decades after they hang up their helmets: teamwork, graceful losing, magnanimous winning, courage, perseverance, etc. etc.  In short, football helped form their character.

Life lessons can be learned in many ways, but I think it is safe to say they can rarely be learned cost free.  Football has provided many generations of American boys and men pleasure and learning.  While there can be little doubt that playing football carries with it risks, especially of head injuries, that are real and far better understood than ever, those risks have to be set off against the real benefits football provides those who play.

Parents must make thoughtful and informed decisions for their sons, and young men must make such decisions for themselves, but each decision is personal and the answer is not obvious.

Concussions and character are inextricably intertwined in this most American of sports.

Football sidelineApproximately 175 young men reported for football practice in Collegeville last week.

SJU opens against UW-Stout on September 1.

Go Johnnies.

By |August 17th, 2018|Categories: Alumni|0 Comments

Loneliness, Men and Saint John’s

Loneliness seems to be in the news a lot recently, in both expected and unexpected places.

Cigna, the international insurance company, did a recent study that evaluated loneliness among Americans. National Public Radio reported on the study, noting that “Americans Are A Lonely Lot, and Young People Bear the Heaviest Burden.”  Business Insider also reported on the research, emphasizing how widespread the problem is: “Loneliness may be a greater public health hazard than obesity — and experts say it has hit epidemic levels in the US.”

Using sociological data from interviews with women who work closely with men, Men’s Health magazine specifically explored men’s mental health and found, according to one interviewee, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing [this] work, it’s that many men are extraordinarily lonely.”

The NPR podcast, The Hidden Brain , also explored loneliness among men using interviews and data from the ongoing eight decade long Harvard Study of Adult Development.  The podcast, suggesting at least one cause of male loneliness, was titled, “Guys, We Have a Problem: How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men.”

The reports on the Cigna study both made the link between emotional health and physical health.  The NPR story noted this connection and how it can affect the young:

Loneliness has health consequences. “There’s a blurred line between mental and physical health,” says [Cigna CEO David] Cordani. “Oftentimes, medical symptoms present themselves and they’re correlated with mental, lifestyle, behavioral issues like loneliness.”

Several studies in recent years, including ones by [BYU researcher Julianne] Holt-Lunstad, have documented the public health effect of loneliness. It has been linked with a higher risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. It has been shown to influence our genes and our immune systems, and even recovery from breast cancer.

And there is growing evidence that loneliness can kill. “We have robust evidence that it increases risk for premature mortality,” says Holt-Lunstad. Studies have found that it is a predictor of premature death, not just for the elderly, but even more so for younger people.

The latest survey also found something surprising about loneliness in the younger generation. “Our survey found that actually the younger generation was lonelier than the older generations,” says Dr. Douglas Nemecek, the chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna.

. . . .

“Too often people think that this [problem] is specific to older adults,” says Holt-Lunstad. “This report helps with the recognition that this can affect those at younger ages.”

Both of the latter two media sources also went beyond loneliness and linked men’s mental health to their physical health.  The Men’s Health article noted:

Our country is steeped in a quiet mental health crisis: the suicide rate for men is much higher than it is for women, having risen nearly 50% between 1999 and 2010, and men tend not to seek help for depression, due to the cultural stigma associated with mental illness.

In her book Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendship and the Crisis of Connection, Harvard researcher Niobe Way (not part of the Harvard study) attributes this in part to the absence of an emotional support system for men. Before becoming adults, Way theorizes, young men have extraordinarily intimate friendships with each other; but as they grow older, they are pressured into giving up these close ties and becoming stoic and independent, leaving them totally isolated and unable to speak with anyone about their struggles.

The Hidden Brain podcast quotes Robert Waldinger, the current director of the Harvard Development study:

[The Harvard Study has found] very strong connections [between mental health and physical health]. That was one of the surprising things that began to emerge in our data in the ’80s. We found that people who had warmer, closer connections lived longer, developed the diseases of middle age, those chronic diseases, less soon and had better health longer on average than people who didn’t have warm, close relationships.

These data on loneliness and its health effects among men and the young are important and worrying on their own, but I was also thinking about these issues when I had two recent encounters with Johnnie alums that were at odds with this conventional wisdom about men.

The first was with a group of alums from the 1960s, all past their 50th reunion. They had come together to celebrate a classmate and friend, not at a funeral, which might be the usual reason for gathering at their age, but at a small town celebration honoring this friend.  They came from some distance to be in his hometown, and they honored him for a life of successes and service. At the same time, they celebrated their almost 60 years of connection to each other that started at Saint John’s.  Even as their personal and professional lives had taken them far and wide and each had their own strong families, there is a tie that had remained important for them across both time and distance.

The second story was of a group of guys in their 40s who had all lived on 3rd Tommie short as freshmen.  They are in the midst of their own time consuming professional successes—literally from coast to coast.  They are also in the prime of child rearing years, with more activities and scheduling to contend with than any of them had ever experienced as kids.  Yet they are staying in touch, making a point to get together regularly, with supportive and loving spouses who encourage this little “cult of Saint John’s.”

One of this band had a life threatening health scare a couple years ago.  It was shocking for the young healthy man who had been an exceptional athlete, and it was an emotional jolt to his friends.  Each of his friends sprang into action—supporting him and his family individually and as a group.  The support has continued over the years and shows no sign of abating as the Johnnie’s health continues to be a challenge.  One of the group described how this event had made their bond even stronger and every one of these Johnnies fully expects the group to be part of his life until they shuffle off this mortal coil.

Those are but two examples of exceptional, yet completely typical, Saint John’s friendships.

The Saint John’s network is rightly famous for the professional connections it provides to graduates, but this network, or maybe more aptly, this brotherhood, is important to Johnnies in other ways that are not as often remarked upon.  While I have no definitive empirical data to support this contention, my gut and experience tell me that the holistic experience at Saint John’s provides most Johnnies with deep emotional connections that often last a lifetime; connections that are fundamentally different than those developed at most other colleges and universities.  I have had the rare opportunity and gift to see these friendships in my role as President, and I have lived them with freshman friends from 3rd Mary (and a Tommie interloper!) over 40 years.

As I have reflected on Johnnie friendships and talked with others about their experiences, I think there are at least three unique aspects of the SJU experience that contribute to these lifelong bonds.

  1. In the woods.  Collegeville is beautifully isolated.  We have woods, prairies, lakes and each other.  We do not have the distractions of a big urban area, or a university like the “U” nearby or the easy temptation to head home for the weekend.  We fully expect to live a residential experience on campus and know that our friends and classmates want that same kind of experience.  From the first weeks of freshman year, we are making a literal commitment to be there for each other, and that provides the basis for building long and strong relationships.
  2. All men.  Of course we love the Bennies and most would not have chosen SJU without knowing they would be in our classes and part of our social lives, yet for most Johnnies, often within the first year, we also come to appreciate our single sex campus and dorms.  We do not need to put on airs or show off for the women who live down the hall or upstairs.  At its best, we live in a fraternity—“the state or feeling of friendship and mutual support within a group.”  It is a brotherhood that provides the rare opportunity to develop deep emotional and spiritual ties.
  3. The monks.  Johnnies also have rare role models of male friendship living just down the hall or upstairs.  We have faculty residents, most of whom are monks who have made an exceptional life choice to commit to a community of men for spiritual and emotional reasons.  We observe them up close and at a distance as they enjoy the joys of deep male commitment to their community and to this place.  Observing it becomes both completely normal and powerfully affecting.

Each individual Johnnie friendship and every tight SJU group will have their own unique history and dynamic, but I think in each story there is likely there are elements of the physical place, our single sex setting and the Monastic community that are foundational to these relationships.

Aruba Johnnies jump into poolThe impact of Saint John’s on our emotional lives starts in Collegeville as young men grow into adulthood.  A preternaturally wise and thoughtful 2018 grad put it this way: “I think men in our society often have a problem socializing and getting past the issues of masculinity and connecting emotionally with other males.  I think Saint John’s is this weird, strange, unique place in the middle of nowhere where you can connect emotionally with other males, where you can develop emotional maturity, and you can become the best version of yourself.  In the middle of nowhere, in the woods, you can form these friendships that last a lifetime, and you can become a true version of yourself, you don’t have to put on a face, you can be friends with people and experience life in a very real way.  Saint John’s has transformed my life in more ways than I could have ever imagined.”

Ideally, as graduates emotional lives grow and develop, those Saint John’s friendship remain central, both in the day-to-day of life and at times of challenge or crisis.  Johnnies see each other through, to the very end of life.

In exploring the emotional lives of men as they grow and age, the Harvard study asks participants a surprisingly simple question, “If you were alone, who would you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or afraid?”

I believe that for very many Johnnies, the answer would certainly be, “Another Johnnie.”

By |June 7th, 2018|Categories: Alumni|0 Comments

You Are Our Brand

I regularly tell students that in many of the circles they will travel after they graduate, and even during their undergraduate years, that when someone learns they are a Johnnie that this knowledge will bring with it assumptions and expectations.

Almost always those expectations will be positive and prove helpful to the Johnnie.  The specifics vary by individual and situation but non-alums or parents have told me on different occasions that Johnnies are smart, hard-working, creative, modest, loyal, thoughtful, ethical, fun, spiritual, kind and just..good..guys, among other things.

I don’t tell young Johnnies this to swell their heads or pump them up, but to remind them of two things:

  1. The many graduates that have gone before them have established a reputation for Saint John’s and Johnnies that they benefit from, and they owe these previous generations a debt of gratitude.
  2. They, the young men in my audience, are, or soon will be, the Johnnies in the world that must live up to that reputation and maintain it as a sacred trust for the generations to come.

I was reminded of this first point when I received an email that was making the rounds on campus recently.
A friend of a Johnnie had written a touching tribute to his Johnnie friend on why he loved and respected him and on how the Johnnie had come to help the writer appreciate what happens at Saint John’s (and Saint Ben’s.)

I have taken the liberty of hiding the writer’s identity and editing his words slightly to preserve his anonymity.  I have also called his friend simply “Johnnie,” as I know that the true Johnnie in question would modestly prefer to remain anonymous.

I also think that the writer could be virtually any Johnnie’s friend and the subject could be any of thousands of Johnnies.

Advice For College Students: Who you are Speaks Louder Than What you Do
by A Friend of a Johnnie

I received the list and it looked impressive.

It contained the topics being offered to student leaders at the upcoming Saint John’s University/College of Saint Benedict Student Leadership Seminar.

The voice at the other end of the phone was confident and articulate, crisp and engaged. It was the President of the Saint John’s University student body.

“We’ve had a speaker who had to cancel last minute (the conference is in one week) and we wondered if you might be able to speak in his place? Here are some of the topics we have so far: Goal setting and project management. Leveraging your leadership. Business leadership. Innovation. Managing a team. Building and marketing a brand. What do you think?”

Wow.

Knowing that this opportunity was in the works for a few days, I had the chance to rough out a speech in my mind. But it was quite different from the topics this bright young man was proposing. Oh, I think I could give a decent twenty to thirty minute talk on most of them, but these were more pragmatic, tactical topics. My sense of what young college leaders needed to hear was a bit more visionary.

So here is what I would like to say:

Saint John’s University in Collegeville, MN is barely an hour away from my home in Minneapolis. For years, my family has driven by it (largely unaware of the towering Abbey Church amidst distant forest) en route to a lake resort by Detroit Lakes or (years later) on my way home from college or my wife’s North Dakota family home. That was about as much as I knew of Saint John’s, until I met Johnnie.

Johnnie is my senior by about fifteen years. He is the physician who recruited me to my current clinical position, is one of the closest friends I have ever had, and is one of the wisest people I have ever known. He is a Saint John’s graduate. For seventeen years, I have known Johnnie, had lunch with him, gone out for beers, taught with him, exchanged towel-snapping humor and plumbed topics ranging from faith and politics, history and literature. And over the years, Johnnie has taught me a great deal about Saint John’s. When Johnnie begins reflecting on the university, it’s as if he just left the campus yesterday. The landscape in his language brings Saint John’s to life. From the cavernous Abbey Church and the buzzing Refectory to the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library and woodworking shop, from the Great Hall and the quadrangle to the Abbey guesthouse and the Stella Maris chapel on the lake. In Johnnie’s telling, these are sites of great fun and a little maturity, raw buffoonery and intense spiritual growth. I’ve heard gut-busting stories where close friends secretly removed the passenger seat from his car as he returned to it on a first date. And I’ve learned from how moved he was seeing a solitary twelve-year-old boy enter the empty Abbey Church at mid-day, pray for ten minutes, sign himself, then go about his day.

But the thing that has always stuck with me about Saint John’s University (and by extension, its sister College of Saint Benedict) is that culture matters. Clearly, different colleges draw different people to themselves, so there is a skewed (if I may say, impressively skewed) population of students who are choosing to go to Saint John’s. Notwithstanding the type of people who have chosen to attend Saint John’s, a college, if it is doing its job, is not simply meant to educate. It is supposed to form. And formation is not a matter of bestowing knowledge, but engendering wisdom. Even more than fostering skills and employability, college should forge character. Beyond offering facts that populate the mind, college should offer lessons that cultivate the soul. Saint John’s did that for Johnnie. Granted, his antennae (more than most of his contemporaries) were out for spiritual mentors, wise professors and enduring friendships. And he found them. My flaw was that I was a bit too stressed and utilitarian about getting into medical school to pay close attention to culture in college. While I had an excellent college experience, I will admit that at times superficialities eclipsed the transcendent. But for Johnnie, something in him incessantly looked for this substance and he found it. He found it at Saint John’s.

Since I met Johnnie, I have been to Saint John’s campus twice, my wife has participated in a spiritual retreat there and we have brought my young daughters to campus. I own a Saint John’s baseball cap and T-shirt and shamelessly plug the College of St. Benedict to my young daughters. And to this day, upon finding out that a person of particularly impressive and intriguing character (bright, witty, religious, deep, grounded) went to Saint John’s (or Saint Ben’s), I simply nod my head and say to myself, “Well, that makes sense.”
When I first encountered Johnnie (and ever since we have been friends), I have been impressed with what he has done, but I am moved by who he is.

The degrees, awards and accolades that will be granted to graduates from Saint John’s and Saint Benedict’s will be noteworthy and useful, but they will matter far less than the character into which each graduate has been formed. And the tactics by which you lead (while important) will matter far less than the integrity by which you live.

Who you are speaks louder than what you do.

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Each and every alumnus is our living and breathing brand, each and every day, in each and every interaction and a powerful example of our mission to the world.  Thank you, Johnnie.

By |November 14th, 2017|Categories: Alumni|0 Comments