The poetry of “how you played the game”

An oft-quoted line, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” sometimes prompts the pithy but wrong response that whoever said it must have lost a game. The truth behind the line, which is actually a paraphrase, is that it carries wisdom even for winners. Especially for winners who aren’t winning off of the field.

Henry Grantland Rice did spend time as an umpire and referee, but the Vanderbilt University graduate is mostly known for writing an estimated 67 million words across 22,000 columns and three books of published poetry. Living from 1880 to 1954, he was recognized as an authority on sports, as the producer of sporting event motion pictures, and as an influential writer of descriptive prose. He often described athletes in heroic terms: Notre Dame’s “Four Horsemen” backfield was called that because of his writing. Since 1954, the Football Writers Association of America has awarded the annual Grantland Rice Trophy.

One of his poems, “Alumnus Football,” is about what happened to a star college football player after he left the field. It praises striving despite difficulty:


Bill Jones had been the shining star upon his college team,
His tackling was ferocious and his bucking was a dream;
When husky William tucked the ball beneath his brawny arm
They had a special man to ring the ambulance alarm.

Bill had the speed — Bill had the weight — the nerve to never yield;
From goal to goal he whizzed along while fragments strewed the field;
And there had been a standing bet — which no one tried to call —
That he could gain his distance through a ten-foot granite wall.

When he wound lip his college course each student’s heart was sore;
They wept to think that Husky Bill would buck the line no more;
Not so with William — in his dreams he saw the field of fame
Where he would buck to glory in the swirl of life’s big game.

Sweet are the dreams of campus life — the world which lies beyond
Gleams ever on our inmost gaze with visions fair and fond;
We see our fondest hopes achieved and on with striving soul
We buck the line and run the ends until we reach the goal.

So, with his sheepskin tucked beneath his brawny arm one day,
Bill put on steam and dashed into the thickest of the fray;
With eyes ablaze, he sprinted where the laureled highway led —
When Bill woke up his scalp hung loose and knots adorned his head.

He tried to run the ends of life — when lo — with vicious toss
A bill-collector tackled him and threw him for a loss;
And when he switched his course again and crashed into the line,
The massive guard named failure did a two-step on his spine.

Bill tried to punt out of the rut— but ere he turned the trick
Rick-tackle competition tumbled through and blocked the kick;
And when he tackled at success in one long vicious bound,
The full-back, disappointment, steered his features in the ground.

But one day when across the field of fame the goal seemed dim,
The wise old coach, experience, came up and said to him:
“Old boy,” spoke he, “the main point now before you win your bout
Is keep on bucking failure till you’ve worn the lobster out.

“Cut out this work around the ends — go in there, low and hard —
Just put your eye upon the goal and start there, yard by yard;
And more than all— when you are thrown — or tumbled with a crack—*
Don’t lie there whining — hustle up — and keep on coming back.

“Keep coming back for all they’ve got and take it with a grin
When disappointment trips you up or failure barks your shin;
Keep coming back — and if at last you lose the game of right
Let those who whipped you know at least they, too, have had a fight

“You’ll find the bread-line hard to buck and fame’s goal far away,
But hit the line and hit it hard across each rushing play;
For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name —
He marks— not that you won or lost— but how you played the game.”


Want to learn more about Grantland Rice? Here’s the first of a 52-part video on him:

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