Tomorrow, the Chargers will play their final game of the season, effectively closing the door on an era that most will remember as mediocre at best.
Tomorrow, conversations will revolve around change. Tailgaters will lament “what could have been” and fans in the seats at Qualcomm will speculate about the next head coach. Tomorrow is a means to an end. Nobody really cares about a game between two disappointing teams. Tomorrow is nothing more than a doorway to the future. Just get through this last game and wait for things to improve.
Tomorrow, my eyes will be on Takeo Spikes.
I remember my first interview with Spikes after he became a Charger in 2011. It was tough to not be intimidated. Spikes has eyes that pretty much see right through you. He stares at you, almost as if goading the question, and then he pauses before he answers.
Oh, that pause.
Chargers interns this year asked me if it was normal. “Am I doing something wrong? Are my questions okay?” … Because, see, that Spikes pause makes you doubt yourself. “Did I just piss him off?” … “Does he think I’m stupid?” … “Is he going to tackle me now?”
And then, after that pause, comes a deep, introspective thought. It’s always a sweet surprise. I don’t know why. Maybe because he’s so ferocious on the field, maybe because his neck is so large … People just don’t expect the well-thought out answer.
But his answers, like everything he does in his life, are given with effort. Every ounce of effort he has in his thick, sculpted 230+ pound body.
That’s all the guy knows how to do — give everything he can. Like most competitors, Spikes wants to win. He doesn’t want to do anything half-ass. If he’s brushing his teeth, his gums better be getting the most out of it.
It’s one of the things I like best about Spikes. Lots of guys give effort, but he tries to get the edge. He has the mental focus, the intelligence, to know how to bruise the other team physically and mentally. He spends extra time in the film room. He sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber. And most impressive is how IN-TUNE he is with his body. He knows exactly what nutrients it needs, how much massage and therapy, for maximum efficiency. He has devoted his whole life and his 15 years in the NFL to getting everything he can out of every moment on the field.
And in his mind, all that work, all that effort, all that determination, time and grit is worth it … because one day it would lead to the playoffs. And that would be a step closer to the championship.
Except when it doesn’t. And in Spikes’ case, it hasn’t.
15 years. Think about it.
Spikes came to the Chargers thinking it would provide a path to the playoffs. It was the best team for a man in the twilight of his career, the best choice for a Pro-Bowl player and a first-round draft pick, who has, simply, been plagued by bad teams.
Takeo Spikes, with more than 200 games played and 1300 tackles, who left Auburn University with the dream of going to the Super Bowl one day and who has devoted every detail to that cause, has never set foot in the playoffs. Every January has been empty of football. He doesn’t know what the 17th game feels like.
And he’s pissed.
He told me yesterday that the only therapy he has is between the white lines on Sundays. Nothing else clears his mind the way football does. He loves the game. He loves being a player. He loves sharing what he knows with young linebackers, evidenced by how instrumental he’s been to Donald Butler’s success.
Tomorrow, Spikes will probably play the final game of his career. It’s not likely he will play another season. He’s 36, and despite his best efforts (and success) to keep his body young, age and the brutal physicality of the game have caught up with him.
He knows it. The thought haunts him.
Spikes is the last to ask for anyone’s sympathy. This is a man’s sport. You know what you’re getting into when you sign up. But it doesn’t make it any less tough. It’s like a job, or a marriage, or a relationship that suddenly ends. There is emptiness.
It’s rare to find a player like Spikes. He leaves an impression on me. We formed a nice relationship these past few years — even golfing together, at one point — and I have always admired his work ethic and his honesty. The guy is FUNNY. He’s real. He isn’t afraid to call out a stupid question at a presser or to say he’s enjoying a few CABs (Cold Alcoholic Beverage) on a bye week. He tells you when he thinks something is horses**t. He leads by example and never shies away from talking candidly after games, even when it’s clear that the loss hit him hard.
His perspective on football is incredibly tough to come by, which makes him so valuable not only to his teammates, but to the media.
Myself, I have goals I want to achieve — goals that are not on display to the world, as they are with Spikes — and I’ve found myself writing his words down frequently as thoughts on LIFE, which we all know has so many parallels to the game of football. Here are a few quotes from his last presser that I particularly enjoyed:
“I’ve been playing for a long time and at the end of the year you always go back and say ‘if’. And I tell guys that I don’t like to be part of an ‘if’ conversation because I’ve never heard, or I’ve never had a bad ‘if’ conversation. Case in point is ‘if’ we had won just two more games, or ‘if’ this guy would have made that play. Personally, I don’t care to hear about that because in the beginning we all knew what we signed up for. So you never had the opportunity to go back and say ‘if’. ‘If’ can be anything that you want it to be. It’s a waste … If my aunt had a pair, she’d be my uncle. Know what I’m saying?”
“I like to play the game with people trash-talking because that gets me going and it gets me hot. So that’s the reason I like to play on the road. Nobody likes you. I was always told that if you’re doing something and everyone likes you while you’re doing it, you’re doing something wrong.”
So tomorrow, in between the roasting of an old head coach and the toasting of a new one, in between the speculating and the finger-pointing, keep your eyes on number 51, as he plays, one more time, in between the white lines that he loves.
There, my friends, is the meaning behind the meaningless game.