During my first season with the Bucs, things started to turn around for us, and we entered the 1997 season with high hopes. In the opening game, at a critical moment when we were trying to protect a slim lead, Hardy Nickerson, our defensive captain and a team leader, received an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for getting into an altercation with a 49ers player after the play had ended. I was livid. We spent a lot of time trying to help our young players understand that they couldn’t get foolish penalties and expect to win big games, so I brought Hardy to the sidelines and asked him what happened.
“He disrespected me,” Hardy said. I was dumbfounded. I asked him if he knew that we were in the process of building a team based on poise, character, and accountability to each other. As a team captain who had been with a winning organization, Hardy more than anybody knew what I meant as I reminded him of that. I asked him if he was willing to sacrifice the team—and our goal was winning—simply because his individual honor had been challenged or an unwritten code had been broken. I loaded the question to make sure that he got my point and to give him a chance to get back on board—quickly—so we could get him back out there. Instead, his answer shocked me.
“That’s all fine until someone disrespects me.” That was a defining moment for both of us, I believe. Hardy and I met later that week, and he came to appreciate where I was coming from when I explained that his attitude wouldn’t work for a member of our team. As for me, it was one of my first glimpses into this psyche of respect and disrespect. If Hardy Nickerson, one of our most experienced and veteran player—a bright, thoughtful graduate of UC-Berkely—thought this way, it was probably far more entrenched in the rest of our young men than I had realized.
Respect is not a right.
A lot of people seem to believe that respect is a right, something they are entitled to upon birth. Instead, we need to recognize that respect is something you earn because of your character. I think, also, that we tend to confuse respect with fear. “I will make him respect me,” I hear guys say all the time.
Are you respecting the right things?
My power, my position, my stuff, my bling—these are the sources from which too many guys think respect comes. I’m concerned that when we do show respect, we’re not even respecting the things that we really should. A generation or two ago, we respected honesty, being a good provider for your family, being involved in civic organizations and church, or being a good worker in any honest occupation. In my family, we also respected men for simply being good uncles. All of my uncles were interested in and supportive of all of us kids.
Treating others with respect.
When Art Rooney Sr. was alive, he lived on the north side of Pittsburgh. As the owner of the Steelers, he would walk to the stadium every day, and people always looked out for him and his house, even as the neighborhood got rougher and many others moved out. Mr. Rooney never moved but continued to treat everyone the way he always had. Mr. Rooney knew everyone in our organization, from stars like Terry Bradshaw to the bottom-of-the-roster guys like me. He knew the secretaries and the cleaning staff by name, and he made it clear that they were all important to the success of the team.
Similarly, the people of Pittsburgh knew that he cared about them and their well-being and that the Steelers were a community trust, cared for by the Rooneys. What he demonstrated day after day at the office, in his neighborhood, and the larger community of Pittsburgh was an authentic and sincere respect for all those whom his life touched and who touched his life.
One year, the sanitation workers in Pittsburgh went on strike. As I recall, trash was piling up everywhere around the city except in front of Mr. Rooney’s home. As it turns out, some of the workers were picking up his trash on their own. They didn’t have to do it. They just wanted to pick up the trash for a man who had always demonstrated a caring interest in them and so many others. A man who had shown them respect.
True respect starts with the way you treat others, and it is earned over a lifetime of acting with kindness, honor, and dignity.