A pro athlete doesn’t age well. His knee tears, his elbow frays. His passion contracts as his age swells. If he makes it to 35 playing ball, he’s had a great career. But then what?
The cheering stops, the camaraderie disappears and very soon, playing golf and driving your kids to school is all you have to do. A life of defining who you are by what you do is over before you reach middle age. It happens to almost all of them. It happened to Brian Kinchen.
Kinchen played 13 seasons in the NFL. He worked the league’s fringes as a backup tight end and long snapper for four different teams. When it was over, after the 2000 season, he didn’t know what to do with himself.
“He felt incomplete,” says author Jeffrey Marx. “Brian was a guy whose affirmation as a man was totally dependent on his performance in athletics. He never felt he received the affirmation from playing in the NFL he’d been seeking.”
And then the New England Patriots called, in December 2003. They wanted Kinchen to snap for punts and place-kicks. He went from teaching the Bible to seventh graders at a private school in Baton Rouge, La., to winning a Super Bowl ring. The calendar said the trip took seven weeks, from the final month of the regular season, through the playoffs to the Big Bowl. Kinchen will tell you it was the journey of his life.
Marx has written a book about it. Marx is a veteran at mining the deeper meanings of sports, having written the bestseller “Season of Life” in 2004. The new effort is called “The Long Snapper” and if you read it, you’ll find yourself asking some core questions about what matters and what doesn’t.
I don’t like sports books that deal only with sports. Give me a sports book that stretches the genre. Michael Lewis has done two, spectacularly: “Moneyball,” the business behind the business of the small-money Oakland A’s; and “The Blind Side,” the story of current NFL rookie tackle Michael Oher and the rise in relevance of the left tackle in the NFL. Both books entertained and informed.
The Long Snapper” is like that. (It also makes being an NFL long snapper seem like being a demolitions expert in Baghdad. But we digress.) Brian Kinchen went on a seven-week football odyssey in 2003, unlike any in the history of the NFL. If that were the whole story – teacher returns to win Super Bowl! – it might have made a Disney movie, but not a book.
“The Long Snapper’s” weight comes from the other game Kinchen plays, the one with his spirit. He joins the Pats thinking a return to the game will validate his life. He leaves after the Super Bowl with a new definition of success. It’s not at all what he believed it to be.
“We as a society have arrived at some fairly destructive definitions of what it means to be a successful man: How much money you have, what car you drive, how big your house is,” Marx said Monday. “This book is an exploration of the real differences between success and significance.”
Marx tells the tale with simple eloquence. Kinchen does well initially. Every snap is clean. As the Patriots prep for the Super Bowl, Kinchen starts snapping footballs like he’s Wild Thing from Major League. It gets so bad, Kinchen calls Pats’ personnel guru Scott Pioli in the middle of Super Bowl week, to tell him he can’t go on Sunday.
Even as he’s talked off that ledge, Kinchen spends Super Sunday praying, literally, for a blowout Patriots win, or anything that will keep him off the field in a critical moment. Naturally, New England wins on a last-second field goal. Kinchen’s aim is true.
It was only after the win, when Kinchen was making the rounds back home, flashing his Super Bowl ring, that it occurred to him, as Marx writes, “Having that ring did not make him any more complete than he’d ever been.”
Who you are means more than what you do. Even in pro sports. Maybe especially in pro sports. Brian Kinchen is back teaching school to seventh graders.
Jeffrey Marx will be at Joseph Beth Booksellers in Norwood at 7 p.m. today to discuss and sign “The Long Snapper.”