Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell’s tears reminds us society is changing — for the better

Detroit Free Press

Abraham Lincoln cried when his rival, Stephen A. Douglas died. George Washington cried. So, too, did Dwight D. Eisenhower, both as they contemplated loss during war.

Walker Cronkite, the iconic anchorman, cried, on air, after John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  And Jon Stewart cried, also on air, the day his “Daily Show” returned after 9/11.

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Professional athletes have shed tears for decades, perhaps most famously when Lou Gehrig stood inside the old Yankee Stadium and told the crowd he was the luckiest man in the world.

Former Detroit Tigers manager, Jim Leyland, would cry during the telling of a story, or remembering a life hardship, for him or someone he loved. And while “A League of Their Own” unleashed the phrase “There is no crying in baseball” upon us, that hasn’t kept tears out of baseball.

NFL players cry during retirement speeches, or when holding a trophy, or when leaving a city — and franchise — they’ve loved. NBA players cry after playoff wins and losses — remember Isiah Thomas’ wrenching sob after the 1988 Finals loss?

Crying is cathartic. It is also revealing, showing joy, or gratitude, or sorrow, or pain. Dan Campbell revealed the last three when he cried during his postgame news conference Sunday in Minneapolis after his Lions lost again in heartbreaking fashion.

He was grateful for his players’ effort, sorrowful that effort didn’t get rewarded, in pain because the losing, well … sometimes the last-minute (or last-second) losing is just too much.

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“When you see your players give all that they have and you lose that way it’s tough,” he said, sniffling, voice cracking. “You know, you don’t want that for them.”

Video of Campbell’s tearful news conference have gone viral, in part because of the shock of such raw and honest emotion, in part because of society’s expectations for an NFL coach, at least society’s expectation for a winning NFL coach.

Bill Belichick doesn’t cry, not publicly, not after a loss in October. Sean Payton, Campbell’s mentor and the head coach in New Orleans, doesn’t cry, not in news conferences about games.

Andy Reid may cry, but, again, not as Campbell did. Tom Landry didn’t cry. Neither did Chuck Noll or Vince Lombardi or Bill Parcells.

They yelled. Or stood stoically. Or hid their expressions behind a laminated play sheet.

It’s too bad, truthfully, that Campbell’s tears are being held up against that standard by some. Why not hold him up against Dick Vermeil? Who cried like Leyland — often and unpredictably.

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Vermeil won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams. He took  the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl, too.

Why can’t Campbell be like that?

Why can’t he be like Juwan Howard or Tom Izzo? Both of those coaches cry. Why shouldn’t a football coach?

Is our view of masculinity that narrow? Because it shouldn’t be, and it isn’t for most the rest of society, especially now, and that’s a beautiful thing.

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The idea of the “strong, silent” type is a recent phenomenon anyway. On the scale of human history, it’s a blip. Literature is full of stories about medieval men crying as a sign of strength, about Samurai letting tears flow as an expression of vitality.

Only in the last century did that begin to change, as boys were encouraged to keep their tears to themselves and men were taught wet eyes symbolized weakness. Or softness. Or an inability to lead, because if you can’t control your emotions, how can you control a locker room?

Then again, maybe you don’t need to control a locker room as much as inspire and guide it? Whatever else you think of Campbell’s effort so far, he’s unequivocally done that.

Sunday’s game was the latest example. His team is undermanned at most spots. His roster lacks playmakers and difference makers. Yet he’s had these Lions close enough to experience heartbreak twice, three times if you count the loss to San Francisco.

I’d cry, too. All that work. This summer. This fall. This life, but not just this life, Campbell’s football life, a life he made himself by connecting and caring and prodding and believing.

He’s imbued that spirit into this team. He has absorbed the team’s spirit back into him. If his players ache, he aches. If his players show joy, he shows joy, as he did Sunday when his team took the lead with 37 seconds left after an improbable two-point conversion.

That kind of emotion can’t be shrink-wrapped and tucked into a cabinet. It’s there, always, and the form it takes when it rises from inside him depends on what’s happening.

For a moment Sunday, you saw jubilation. Then the Vikings moved the ball and kicked a long field goal and you saw pain.

Campbell didn’t hide it. Nor should he.

“Ultimately, we didn’t do enough to win,” he said. “But I was proud of ’em, and I love the fight they have in ’em.”

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You should love the fight he has in him, too.

Does that mean he will eventually win big?

Who knows? He’s coaching the Lions.

What we do know is that the tears won’t be the thing that stops him. Being yourself rarely is.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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