How to Be Number Two

by Ann Cannon

Print Share

    BYU quarterback Blaine Fowler proves you can be a winner in second place.

    Although the sun is bright, the air is decidedly crisp. The mountains reigning over Provo, Utah, are robed in red and gold. It’s fall 1985, and the weather is perfect for a hayride, a mug of apple cider, a football game. On an emerald-green practice field, I watch a quarterback wearing a blue jersey take a practice snap from his center, drop back with his arm cocked, and hurl a football. He throws it over and over and over again.

    And then he throws it some more—even though he won’t actually play this Saturday afternoon when the stadium streams with thousands of screaming fans.

    Watching this athlete reminds me of when I was a teenager. More than anything else in the world, I wanted to be an actress. You know, Star of Stage and Screen. I used to memorize lines from plays like Romeo and Juliet and Our Town, then toss them off to the bathroom mirror. Sometimes I’d practice one of the three or four acceptance speeches I’d written during math class: “I’d like to thank the Academy and also my mother for believing in me.” That sort of thing. There was only one problem. I couldn’t get in a real play. I went to tryout after tryout, but Mr. Bound, our high school drama coach, never seemed to notice how talented, how charming, how special I was.

    So I worked harder and harder. I checked out library copies of the plays I knew he was producing. I worked on character interpretation and voice control. I practiced scenes with other students. I asked for advice. Surely if anyone deserved to be in a play, based on desire and determination alone, I did. But I was never selected to be in a play. Not even once. Instead, I got to sit on the front row and watch my best friend, a tall beautiful redhead, become our high school’s newest leading lady. My disappointment was so real I could taste it.

    All of us would like to have the starring role in some aspect of our lives—at school, on stage, in the mission field, on center court—and sometimes we’re told if we only work hard enough, pray hard enough, sacrifice hard enough, whatever we want will be ours. But the truth is that most of us will not stand alone in the spotlight. Most of us will be part of the supporting cast—the person who stands by in the wings or on the sidelines.

    I watch the quarterback take another snap, throw another ball. I know how much he wants to be his team’s starter, and I know how hard he works to make that dream a reality. I’m impressed. But I’m more impressed by how well he has played the demanding role of second-string quarterback.

    Say hello to Blaine Fowler—husband, dad, college student, public speaker, stand-up comic, and Brigham Young University quarterback. Blaine likes to munch chips and salsa, dreams of taking a trip to Europe with his wife, Brenda, and their son, Kellen, and says he wouldn’t mind being Dr. J. because “basketball is my favorite sport.” He insists strangers confuse him with Kermit the Frog, although friends know him better for his dead-on imitations of Mutley the Dog and other Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters. He likes to fish, ski, play the guitar, and read (his favorite books are Huckleberry Finn and The Lord of the Rings trilogy). And, of course, he just loves to throw the football.

    Maybe you’ve heard about Brigham Young University’s football team. In 1984, they were named national champions, the number one team in the United States. And if you’re really a sports fan you probably know a thing or two about the great quarterbacks the school has produced over the years. Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, and Steve Young all went on to play professional football after their years at BYU were over. And now there’s Robbie Bosco, one of the best ever. In the past two years, Robbie has won more games than any of the team’s previous quarterbacks.

    While Robbie continues to break NCAA records on the field, Blaine waits on the sidelines, perpetually ready for action.

    Blaine, of course, is disappointed, and he frankly admits his frustration: “I would much rather be playing, and I would be happier if I were.” And, in fact, he had no reason to believe he wouldn’t start at quarterback when he entered college. At his old high school in Elmira, New York, Blaine played as a freshman on the varsity football team. (He was only the second freshman in the history of his school to do so—his cousin was the first.) As a sophomore, junior, and senior he started at quarterback on a team that won the league championship all three years. As a junior and senior he made all-state. As a senior, he was named the state’s most valuable player. He was recruited to play football by Pittsburgh, Penn State, Boston College, Purdue, and Wake Forest but chose to go to BYU because he felt “really comfortable” there.

    But things didn’t work out exactly the way he wanted them to. Yet, in spite of his personal disappointment, Blaine doesn’t pout, doesn’t sulk, doesn’t bear a grudge. He seems to realize that although he cannot make a choice about playing on Saturday afternoons—that choice is made for him by other people—he can choose how he will react to the situation. His example can teach us all how to be the best supporting players we can.

    1. Choose to keep a positive attitude. When things don’t go our way, we often take the course of least resistance and let negative feelings wash over us. Our disappointment can easily turn into resentment and bitterness.

      When I didn’t realize my dream of starring in school plays, I became extremely critical of the drama department. I criticized the productions and the people involved with them frequently and loudly. “Well,” I’d say, “everyone knows Mr. Bound has favorites.” Occasionally I attacked the intelligence of the participants: “Don’t you know they all have noodles for brains?” I’d ask. Contrast my feelings with Blaine’s: “It is not the end of the world that I’m not playing football. My dad has always said that football should be played for the fun of it. It’s not a business, and if it ever becomes that then you shouldn’t play it anymore. So I’ve always taken that attitude toward it. If I’m having a good time, I’m not going to worry about things. And I’ve had a good time at BYU.”

      Many people have commented on Blaine’s positive attitude, including a former English instructor who says that “Blaine is certainly no Pollyanna, but he does meet challenges happily and head-on.” Fellow teammate, Glen Kozlowski notes that “Blaine has always worked hard, kept his spirits up, and stayed ready to play whenever called upon.

      His positive attitude is perhaps best demonstrated by this advice he gives for New Era readers: “Always strive to be good at something. Don’t let others tell you you’re too small, too slow, too dumb, too ugly, or just not good enough to accomplish great things. The only one standing between you and greatness is yourself.”

      The truth is that while maintaining a positive attitude can be difficult—and it is certainly more difficult for some people to do than for others—we will be personally happier and healthier in the long run for doing it.

    2. Choose to contribute. There are so many ways I could have contributed to my school’s drama program, if I just had been willing. I could have learned about set construction, stage makeup, costume design. I could have helped my friend learn her lines. But I didn’t. If I couldn’t be on stage where everyone saw me, I didn’t want to be involved at all.

      It would have been easy for Blaine to just give up. But he didn’t. He works hard, giving 100 percent of himself all the time. Robbie Bosco, who calls Blaine a “friend, competitor, and teammate,” says that “Blaine is always ready to play.” BYU’s head football coach, LaVell Edwards, praises Blaine as both a person and an athlete, calling him an “unselfish player” who is dedicated to the welfare of the team as a whole. Quarterback coach Mike Holmgren is even more specific in his praise: “Blaine has sacrificed his own individual glory for the sake of team success. Blaine could have been the starter at a number of eastern universities but chose to stay at BYU, to compete for the quarterback position, and to contribute in any way that he could. His role is not easy, but it is essential to our team’s success.”

      Coach Holmgren is not being merely gracious when he says Blaine’s role as backup quarterback has been critical to the team’s success: any athletic team is only as good as its second- and third-string players. These athletes are the ones who push the starters in practice, who give them a run for their money, who force them to give their best all the time. It’s unlikely that Robbie or any of the starters would be as good as they are if players like Blaine weren’t pushing them from behind.

    3. Choose to remember the things that really matter. Perhaps both of the previous choices are made easier by knowing which things matter in the long run and which things do not. Football is not the most important thing in the world, and Blaine knows it. He says, “I realize that the family I have now is much more important than any football career I could have, and I realize that the Church is more important, too.” Blaine gives his father, Kirk Fowler, credit for his ability to put things into perspective. Of his father, Blaine says, “He always put his family first.”

      Gospel teachings help us keep things in perspective. Being cut from a team, losing a boyfriend, making a lower grade than you strived for—these are all real disappointments. They can even be overwhelming. But it helps to remember that they are also temporal—that is, they are disappointments of this world and they are disappointments that will pass with the passing of time itself.

    The practice is coming to a close now. The players begin taking off their helmets, shaking their heads. It makes no difference if they are first or second or third string—they’re all sore, they’re all tired. And in a very real sense, they’re all winners.

    Photos by Mark Philbrick

    Blaine spends hours at practice, knowing that he might watch the entire game from the sidelines. But he doesn’t complain. He’s “sacrificed his own personal glory for the good of the team,” says his coach.