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Sports in Real Life

Oct. 22, 2008
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Oh captain! My captain!

This glorious elegy was written by Walt Whitman for his slain leader Abraham Lincoln. While captains in sports weren't instrumental in freeing the slaves, and they didn't spend much time presiding over a civil war, they were often responsible for bolstering the psyche of a team and improving winning records.

Surprisingly, few teams today in sports have a captain, whether officially, temporary or honorary. It's normally an honor bestowed upon a player who embodies or exemplifies the qualities desired by teammates, management or owners. Thurman Munson of the Yankees was a prototypical captain. Munson was a tough, no-nonsense catcher who put his heart into every play. This was a guy teammates tried to emulate and didn't want to disappoint. If they didn't play hard, it was their ass, regardless of their superstar status. .

Nolan Yonkman, a defenseman with the Milwaukee Admirals, serves as the captain of the team. Yonkman says traditions in hockey tend to embrace the concept of a captain, perhaps even more than other sports. "I think it's a little more noticeable in hockey," Yonkman said. "Jason Varitek wears a big 'C' on his jersey. I don't think it was a big tradition in Boston before him." Paul Konerko of the White Sox is also an official captain of his team.

Interestingly, Yonkman had watched the final playoff game with the Devil Rays where the commentators mentioned Varitek's captain status. They went on to say how he was a throwback player who cared more about the team than his personal gain. It was those comments which piqued my curiosity and desire to find out if the whole captain thing was still around, if it had the same cache as it may have decades ago. When Lou Gehrig captained the Yankees, you can imagine what kind of clout he held over the overall disposition of the team, even with the zeppelin-like presence of Babe Ruth hovering about.

"With hockey they do have the letter, 'C' as that's the only guy allowed to talk to an official," Yonkman said. "It's also an honor, part of a leadership thing. This is a nod from the coaches and has a lot of presence in the dressing room."

A captain is proffered more than a little respect from players for his leadership qualities, his proclivity to stand up for his teammates on and off the ice. Helping a player when he' sin a slump or having an off day or off year.

"The Packers will rotate captains," says Tim Van Vooren of Fox Six Sports. "Some NFL teams have standing captains. The coach will make a player captain if they're visiting their hometown for a game. Other times it's a defensive player or offensive, special teams depending on the situation." Van Vooren says sometimes it's a no-brainer as in Favre's situation. "The Jets made Favre a captain right away," he said.

Last year the NFL made a point of emphasizing the importance of team captains, officially acknowledging them with "C" patches on their jerseys and recognizing the leadership captains provide. NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson said in a statement released by the league. "A perfect example of the benefit of this kind of communication is that the players themselves suggested the concept of re-emphasizing the team captains."

Sometimes management will bestow the captaincy on a player, sometimes the players will vote. However it transpires, Yonkman says you don't want to turn it down. "Obviously it's an honor. My coaches know what I'm about and we tend to be on the same page."

Yonkman says egos tend to take a backseat in regards to who is selected and how it sits with the rest of the team. "If you're a team player, it shouldn't matter. We're all in for one goal. It doesn't change who I am or what kind of player I am. There's a little more on my shoulders."

You have leaders on teams in official capacities, and more informal. Jeter is the ostensible leader of the Yankees, Kobe Bryant with the Lakers. They know who they are and what they mean to a team. When Robin Yount was with the Brewers, there was little doubt he was a captain, even though he is said to have possessed a quiet demeanor in the locker room. Being a captain doesn't necessarily mean you have to rant and rave and throw your weight around. Yount did most of his talking with his bat and glove.

Sometimes the guy in place is so good, there's no need to switch it up. The Milwaukee Wave made Michael King captain for more than a decade before he retired.

Lance Allan from WTMJ television says some clubhouses function better with a leader or strong voice without the benefit of a tip of the cap by being named a captain.. "With the Brewers, Jason Kendall had a large voice," Allan said. "Kendall was more of a sounding board for the manager and some of the older players. He serves as an example for the younger players."

Allan is quick to point out the smart money is also on Ryan Braun, not just because of the big contract, but his confidence and swagger. After the Red Sox series, Braun felt comfortable taking the point in criticizing the way the team played. That seems to be captain material.

"He's certainly the emerging voice," Allan said. On most teams a player will grow into that role, but Braun seems to have avoided the Christmas rush and just seized the title for himself. "He has earned it. It's been a short amount of time, but I honestly don't think it's too early for him. It's not official, but they gave him the contract, he has his pelts on the wall."

Somewhat synonymous with the quarterback position comes the moniker of captain. No other player is as involved with the total psyche of the team as is the quarterback. "With football, it's almost inherent of the position," Allan said. "He's the guy in the huddle that gives the other guys confidence. That's the way it has gotten in the NFL."

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