Christine M. Flowers: Men for all seasons: Why Vince Lombardi & Matthew Baxter matter
LET'S CONTINUE the conversation I started last week, the one that was (then ultimately wasn't) about sports.
In reading my comparison of Andy Reid and Charlie Manuel, some people understandably took me at face value and thought I was expressing a preference in coaching styles. There were emails along the lines of "football is more intricate than baseball" and "criticizing Reid is a sign you don't understand the science of game-day strategy."
I plead guilty to athletic naivete, even though my knowledge of the gridiron is probably above average. For a girl, that is.
Fortunately, there were enough readers who understood the real point of the column: the extent to which character is reflected in conduct, and the way that society responds to genuine and exceptional human beings.
Some people scoff at the idea that sports have anything at all to teach us about character. One of the online comments to my piece was a rather condescending description of football as "an exceptionally stupid sport" that's basically "nothing happening for a while, then a bunch of giant people jumping on each other."
I suppose that's one way of looking at it. Yet I think there's more poetry in Lynn Swann's gracefully arched arms than in that other "Swan" choreographed by George Balanchine - and the lessons imparted by Vince Lombardi to his adoring (and intimidated) players were as profound as many of Sigmund Freud's celebrated ruminations.
David Maraniss captured that principle in an essay in Esquire more than two decades ago:
"Lombardi was a Jesuit in his football instruction, as in most other things. Like St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, he believed in free will, that each man was at liberty to choose between action and inaction, good and evil, the right play and the wrong play . . . that was the point of his repetition and discipline - freedom."
I think Lombardi was a man who used football to glorify God by taking something he loved and raising it to a sublime level with innate talent. He looked at rules and accountability as a way to become better versions of ourselves, since having a choice, and then choosing wisely, builds character.
And, as Maraniss noted, the whole idea that winning was the "only" thing for him was only partly true. Lombardi looked at winning not as an end in itself, but as a process. As Robert Browning wrote, "A man's reach must exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for?"
So anyone who says that sports are an inconsequential pastime for shallow people might want to take a few minutes getting acquainted with Lombardi; or someone like Roberto Clemente, whose twin passions were baseball and public service; or Jackie Robinson, who taught the world that grace has no color; or Brian Piccolo, who proved that there are some spirits far too strong to ever be snuffed out by cancer.
And that brings me to the real point of this column. Last Thursday, a very good man lost his battle with cancer. His name was Matthew Baxter, and he was an immigration attorney in Philadelphia.
He was only 53, and the sorrow caused by his premature departure exceeds my powers of description. He wasn't a close friend since we saw each other only at an occasional conference or court hearing. But in the years that our lives blessedly overlapped, I learned some very important lessons about compassion, the power of laughter - and grace.
Baxter helped many people, starting with the immigrants who were privileged to have him working for them. His obituary mentioned an Afghan family so grateful for his having saved one member from deportation that it held a party in his honor. He probably saved more people than there was room, or time, for such celebrations.
He was brilliant, and gloriously generous with his knowledge. Even when he was in the hospital, he would spend his free time giving advice to other immigration lawyers who had only half his talent and experience.
And he'd add a joke, for no extra cost.
Baxter was a person of character. Like Lombardi, who believed that we all have free will and that how we choose to use it determines our ultimate value, Baxter turned his life into a masterpiece of service, dignity and grace by making all the right choices.
He'll be missed. But like the great ones, never forgotten.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.