A Hard Head Meets a Blocking Sled

Gary C. Harrell
8 min readDec 12, 2023

(Originally published in February 2014, this missive has been modified for current use.)

[Photo Credit: Hadar]

When I was in junior high school, I tried out for tight-end on the football team. Now it might be important to acknowledge that any year that I played football, whether before or after that time, was done so under duress. I was not interested in the game, per se; I was only interested in appeasing my two fathers, both of whom, to this day, believe that football is God’s sport. I, on the other hand, harbored a far less favorable opinion of it, and I could have cared less about the triumphant spectacle of one’s favor team skillfully crossing into an endzone.

We had two-a-day practices in the weeks before the classes started, and on one particularly hot afternoon in August, Coach Coleman took a group of us players to the backfield on campus. There, he introduced us to the blocking sled, an intimidating piece of equipment on which two torso-shaped, high-density foam pads attached to the metal pedestals of a rugged chassis. The goal for us, Coach Coleman explained, was to learn to use our mass to power through the oncoming force of the man on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. He said, “When you hit this pad, you’re going to keep your head up!” I remember those words well. Unfortunately, while I heard them, I really was not listening to them.

When it came to my turn, I was standing next to Clay Chauvin — a good guy, an ambitious guy, and a much better football player. We both got down into a three-point stance, and the coach, standing on the chassis of the sled, shouted a snap count. At the second “hike”, Clay and I lunged forward.

Having not listened, I went in helmet-first, but Clay plowed his arms and chest into the other pad. The laws of physics took over at that point. Because Clay applied more force to one side of the sled, when it moved, it did not do so evenly; it spun to the left, and I lost my footing quickly, falling between the pads and slamming my helmet into the sled’s metal crossbar. I did not get hurt, luckily enough, but that split second made for a lasting memory.

It is also probably worth mentioning that any love I had for football — and, admittedly, there was little — vanished in an instant.

After practice, Coach Coleman took me aside. He studied the wide scratch on my helmet without saying a word for several moments, but when he returned the helmet to me, he had a lot to say. “Your problem is you are too smart. You think you don’t have to listen to anybody, but if you don’t want to get hurt, you better start.” Coach Coleman insisted, even though his tone was benign, “You don’t know everything already.” And shaking his head with disappointment, he walked away from me. If I am not mistaken, in fact, he actually never spoke to me again.

That stupid moment happened in the late 80’s, and I had not thought seriously about it often enough. Back then, I now concede, I was a dumb and prideful kid. I felt like I could do anything that I wanted, any way that I wanted, and for that, there would have been few, if any, real consequences.

On the other hand, if I did not want to do something, I found every way to express my disinterest in it. Consequently, at the time, I did not even give much credence to the advice from football coaches. But today, being a different man, I kind of wish that I had not just heard Coach Coleman’s last words to me, but that I had really understood what he was trying to tell me. It probably would have saved me a lot of trouble on the football field, back then, and later in life, as well.

# # # #

“Hey…I’m proud of you.”

That was how an exchange of text messages began between me and a friend on an unexceptional night in February of 2013. At first, I smiled, because it was always humbling to hear confirmation that I am doing something right, but then, I sat back for a moment, realizing that I was unsure of what my friend was talking about. So, I asked. As it turned out, the text message was prompted by my response to a long email that he sent me, just days before. My colleague wrote: “[For] being you and being willing and open to options. Thought you should hear it.”

Without going into too much detail, my colleague had taken serious exception to how I was handling a situation in my personal sphere of influence. Though the matter did not affect or involve him, and though he knew his unsolicited opinion really should not have carried any significant influence, he penned a rather long email to me, wherein he took great pains to point out how wrong I was and, at the same time, to offer a different approach. Had it not been for that email — well, let’s just say that the version of this subsequent missive would not have happened.

It is no secret to most people who know me well enough that I can be a painfully stubborn person, particularly when I assume that I am right about something, or particularly when I have it in my mind to do a thing my own way. In fact, I can remember that my mom would always have to tell me that “[a] hard head will make for a hard fall on a soft ass.” Looking back, it seems funny just how those words turned out to be so right, and they run parallel to the ominous warning that the coach gave me.

Unfortunately, as I got older, I did not heed all the wisdom being imparted onto me by those people. To be sure, I did not turn out too badly, I must confess. After all, by the prime of my life, I had done some awesome things that — well, to be honest — even leave me, as the doer, pretty impressed. But I cannot help but wonder, even today, if the path to all of these things would have been smoother, had I just listened once in a while. Though it is not a bad one, would I have a better relationship with my Creator? Would I have seen some business opportunities a lot sooner, and acted on them? Could I have prevented damage to some friendships and relationships? Could I have avoided some of life’s other blocking sleds, or at least have been better prepared to meet them? And even better than those, should I have made some choices that would have changed my life a lot sooner rather than later?

Of course, I will never know those answers, but I guess there really is no better time than the present to start doing the right thing.

Arrogance is debilitating. It is not just a toxic mindset that can lead anyone in the wrong direction; it is a dangerous one that can alter our lives forever. “There are two kinds of pride, both good and bad,” wrote John Maxwell, the contemporary spiritual writer and leadership coach. “‘Good pride’ represents our dignity and self-respect. ‘Bad pride’ is the deadly sin of superiority that reeks of conceit and arrogance.” It is the latter of the two about which we should be most concerned. And as novelist Leo Tolstoy penned, “An arrogant person considers himself perfect. This is the chief harm of arrogance. It interferes with a person’s main task in life: becoming a better person.” Indeed, when we operate from a perch of arrogance, we do not easily open ourselves to learning, and when we are not learning, we increase the odds of our own failure.

# # # #

Often enough, we are well-served to examine our handling of almost everything with which we are involved, if only to determine if such matters are being handled properly or from a perch of arrogance. This is not an effort to be overly critical of ourselves, or to prove ourselves wrong — but it is definitely to make sure that we are righteous and sincere in our approach. And if we aren’t, then the examination affords us an opportunity to do things better.

So, have I learned anything for my own moment of introspection? Actually, I have. For starters, I am a bit of a control freak — a terrible control freak. In fact, that is probably the single, greatest reason for my stubborn nature; I want things my way, and I usually believe that most others are genuinely incapable of looking out for my interests. The other big problem is a penchant for dictating outcomes. After two decades of being the guy who built businesses and creating the roadmaps to make them successful, I became a little bit jaded. I have largely assumed that I could easily do the same things in so many other facets of my life, especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships, where, at times, I’ve admittedly given little regard to other people’s feelings or expectations. Consequently, all of that has culminated into a stubborn attitude — or, yes, an arrogance — that sets an expectation that Gary Harrell must have everything his way… Of course, that’s not a good attitude; I’m still working on it.

For me, life has been pretty good — no, pretty blessed. I have built great businesses and a positive reputation as “one of the smartest guys in the room”. I have been blessed with a talent that has made writing books a lucrative vocation, the gift to teach and speak before crowds of strangers, the opportunities to meet some of the most interesting and distinguished people of our times, and the privilege to travel to very cool places. But I have had to learn a few things along the way. Chief among them is the fact that none of this comes easily. It has taken a lot of work to build this life, and I fully believe that God has shown me more favor than I deserve.

What’s more, I have had to learn — and, yes, I am still trying to learn — that humility has a place. It may not sit atop a high, and albeit unstable, perch like arrogance does. But humility graces us with the ability to be teachable, to be empathetic, to be respectful, and to be conscious of the bigger picture. Humility has its place at the forefront of our lives as a lens through which we view the world. It reminds me that I don’t know everything, and that the arrogant and prideful tendencies of my hard-headedness have certainly brought me into the path of some of life’s big blocking sleds. Thankfully, though, I have been wearing my helmet, and humility has made sure that I listened to sage advice before I got myself hurt.