The Right Perspective | GUEST OPINION

Another football season is upon us already, and with it the latest story of a heroic figure who depends on a severely challenged person for inspiration and grounding. Did you see the recent profile of Bill O’Brien who is the new head football coach at Penn State, a program disgraced by scandal and decimated by NCAA sanctions?

You might think the job of rebuilding a once proud program, coping with the complex emotional legacy of a storied predecessor, and focusing his players on the future might be stressful. But Coach O’Brien and his wife Colleen “face daunting challenges every day that have nothing to do with scholarship restrictions, a bowl ban or reviving the sullied reputation of the Penn State football program” according to newspaper accounts. Not least among these challenges is that their 10-year-old son Jack wakes up every morning with a seizure that can be brief or require a trip to the emergency room, often the first of many seizures depending on the day.

Jack has a rare genetic condition that interferes with his brain’s capacity to send motor instructions to his body. His movement is severely limited and Jack spends most of his time in a wheelchair or “commando crawling on his belly.” How has his son’s condition affected the career trajectory of this Ivy League educated coach who worked his way up to become a protégé of Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, calling plays for Tom Brady in last year’s Super Bowl before accepting the rebuilding job at Penn State?

“In a way, it was one of the best things that ever happened to us,” Coach O’Brien says. “It added so much perspective to our lives. We figured out what was important, and it brought us closer together and put in perspective the importance of football.” Jack’s parents focus on the many things he can do rather than his limitations. They sound like proud parents anywhere when they brag about “his resilience in the face of his daily seizures and the way he smiles and rubs his belly in excitement when he sees his mom and his brother, 7-year-old Michael. Colleen O’Brien beams,” the article continues, “when talking about Jack’s smile, his love of fire trucks and his calm demeanor.”

How can this be, that a child with such severe challenges seems to enhance the lives of his family rather than diminish it? Granted, professionals like the O’Brien’s probably have the financial wherewithal not to be crushed by cruel cutbacks to public funding and the constant fight for essential services that so many families face. Yet “one of the best things that ever happened to us” is a theme I often hear from parents across the socio-economic spectrum.

Diversity brings perspective, a crucial yet preciously rare ingredient required for human growth and happiness. This is certainly true for families like the O’Brien’s, but social scientists are increasingly demonstrating the power of diversity in larger social contexts like companies, universities, and even cities and whole countries.

The logic is simple. In the words of Scott Page, professor of complex systems, political science, and economics at the University of Michigan, “the right perspective can make a problem easy.” Dr. Page illustrates this point with story after story from the discovery of DNA to the way the British cracked Nazi secret code during World War II to the phenomenal success of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream products. In each case, it wasn’t genius that caused the major advancement so much as simply a different way of seeing things that opened new possibilities.

Coach O’Brien could certainly attest to the value that Jack’s different way of seeing things brings to his own life and work. “At 42, the man has already fought bigger battles than what he’s facing at Penn State,” says a fellow coach who has worked with O’Brien. “And he’s won those battles.  He’s a devoted husband and father and has shown the principles instilled in all of us.”

The perspective Coach O’Brien derives from Jack’s unique way of experiencing the world has made Tom Brady a better quarterback, helped propel the New England Patriots to yet another Super Bowl, and will now be a factor in rehabilitating one of the most storied college football programs in history.  Jack has also clearly taken the O’Brien family to a deeper place of love and connection to what really matters.

Like all people, Jack has great inherent value to contribute. His story is yet another compelling example of why it makes sense to engage and include people of all abilities in our schools, workplaces, and communities.

Tom Everill is President and CEO of Northwest Center. Contact him at inside@nwcenter.org.


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