This I Believe

Burk, Joseph William


  • Joseph Burk tells of a moment during a football game when his coach made him understand that he could do anything he wanted if he desired it enough and was prepared to work for it.
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And now, This I Believe. Here is Edward R. Murrow.
This I Believe. It has been generally accepted that character is built not only on the playing fields of Eaton but the neighborhood sandlot too. Somewhere, perhaps, judging by recent, saddening revelations of scandal, we’ve struck the wrong balance between the sandlot and the stadium. But it can be swung even again by the fighting, honest hearts of such sportsmen as Joseph W. Burk, a Philadelphian, former national sculling champion, Sullivan Award winner, now crew coach at the University of Pennsylvania. If you doubt it, listen to his beliefs.
Nearly twenty years ago, on an autumn afternoon, a sorry-looking bunch of University of Pennsylvania football players trooped into the locker room at Franklin Field at halftime. I was one of them. We were down, losing the game. We sprawled out on the dressing room floor, nobody saying much, everybody keeping his thoughts locked inside him. Near the end of the rest period, the coach took a piece of chalk and diagrammed a few new defenses on a portable blackboard, then came the usual pep talk.
But one remark the coach made started a sort of chain reaction in my own mind. Maybe it was not so much what he said but the honest sincerity in the way he said it that struck me.
“Any one of you fellas,” he said, “can do anything, can attain anything you want, provided you want it badly enough and you think it through.” Those words weren’t original, but somehow they penetrated that atmosphere of defeat and sank into my mind. The thought that everything is within the grasp of an individual had never occurred to me before.
As it turned out, we didn’t win that game. But that single statement won for me a new insight on life. Every year since, the truth of it has become more apparent. As I size things up, I find naturally that some attainments require less thinking and less desire. Others demand years of continued and concentrated hoping, praying and action. Many times the effort does not seem worth the price and that becomes a matter for the individual to decide.
And I admit the decision is a difficult one, because there is often no way of telling how much energy a given objective requires. In my mind that doesn’t alter the fact nothing is really out of reach: only a man’s thinking holds him back.
In those sports I’ve engaged in where speed comes from hard labor, I can testify that limitations are self-imposed: a record-breaking time of one day becomes a stepping stone years later. I think an individual’s sights are raised as he looks ahead to the next target. Most of us, I believe, are inclined to underestimate our innate powers, mental and physical. Yet the field of sports is full of men who by ordinary yardsticks should not have excelled. There are more unorthodox champions than there should be, by the rules.
Why? In my opinion, these men have been outstanding solely because of that intense desire to reach the top. Often their road was made steeper by the fact that they were neither physically qualified nor had the most efficient form. But the very fact that the road was more trying built up an inner strength and resolution that carried them over the crest.
The hardest road to real achievement is usually the surest, and vice versa. The athlete blessed with natural ability is frequently cursed with an equal lack of determination. Attainment of a degree of perfection comes so easily to him that he never has cause to develop that deep-seated, burning desire that must drive him on to his goal. Of course, the higher the goal, the grater the price.
This simple trend of thought has the power to put the world, in a manner of speaking, at our feet. We rarely learn these things from books alone. In my case, it was the matter of the plain, earnest words of a football coach reaching the ears of a downhearted kid.
That was Joe Burk, University of Pennsylvania’s crew coach, who sticks to the old-fashioned idea that to really win, you learn to follow the rules of the game.