Stay disciplined: a lesson from Super Bowl XLIX

Stay disciplined: a lesson from Super Bowl XLIX

By Douglas Yeo

Readers of The Last Trombone know that I am a football fan. My wife and I are season ticket holders to Chicago Bears football. When we lived in Arizona from 2012-2018 after my retirement from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, we had season tickets to Arizona Cardinals and Arizona State University football. And during my long career in Boston, we attended many New England Patriots games. Football is a big part of our lives.

The Super Bowl is the culmination of the National Football League season and this Sunday, February 12, 2023, millions of people around the world will tune in to watch Super Bowl LVII between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles. We’ll be watching, too.

Incredibly, I have attended three Super Bowls. In 2002, I attended Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans. The Boston Pops Orchestra was engaged to play the pre-game show and national anthem for the game—this was the first Super Bowl after the 9/11 attacks so the game’s halftime theme was changed from a New Orleans Mardis Gras them to a patriotic theme. Hence the Boston Pops, “America’s Orchestra,” performed at the game. Patriots owner Robert Kraft gave each member of the orchestra a ticket and we were all thrilled to see our team win the game against the St. Louis Rams. I wrote about that unforgettable experience on my website HERE.

In 2020, I attended Super Bowl LIV in Miami. I won a contest sponsored by the Chicago Bears—it was an essay contest and in 100 words, I had to answer the question, “Who would you take to the Super Bowl and why?”—and my son-in-law, Chad, and I had an unforgettable time together at the game, where the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers. I wrote about THAT unforgettable experience on The Last Trombone HERE.

In-between those two memorable Super Bowls was another game, Super Bowl XLIX, held in Glendale, Arizona on February 1, 2015. The game was between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks. Thanks to the kindness of a friend in Boston whose family had a couple of extra tickets to the game, my wife and I got to attend Super Bowl XLIX. Having been Patriots fans for over 30 years, we had a rooting interest. The game was held in the Arizona Cardinals’ stadium and our seats were five rows from the field on the Patriots’ goal line. Little did we know how that goal line would become so important in the game.


My wife, Patricia, and me at our seats before kickoff at Super Bowl XLIX.

In my trombone teaching, I speak frequently about the need to be disciplined and focused in one’s practice and performances. We will be at our best if we focus intently on the tasks at hand. If we make a mistake, we cannot let a mistake distract us from the next thing. Frustration over a mistake only causes more mistakes, so remaining disciplined in the face of challenges is critically important for success. I use football metaphors in my trombone teaching all the time—just ask my students. Here is one of the examples I use when I talk about the need for discipline and maintaining focus. Let’s go back to Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona and pick up the story (with apologies to readers who might not understand American football, but I hope you can stick with me to get to the point of this article at the end). . .

The game went back and forth with the Patriots and Seahawks exchanging the lead several times. You can see a chart with every play from the game on Pro Football Reference by clicking HERE. With 2:06 left in the fourth and final quarter, the Patriots took the lead, 28-24. Then, the Seahawks got the ball and began driving down the field. They needed a touchdown (6 points) to win the game; a field goal (3 points) would not be enough. All of us in the stadium thought the Seahawks would win after Seahawks wide receiver Jermaine Kearse made an acrobatic catch for a 33-yard gain. That was a catch that embodied the ideals of focus and discipline. I still don’t know how he made that catch.


Jermaine Kearse’s acrobatic catch at Super Bowl XLIX. Photo from an article in the Seattle Times.

With the ball on the Patriots 5 yard line with 1:06 left on the game clock, the Seahawks handed off the ball to their star running back, Marshawn Lynch, who gained 4 yards. With the ball at the 1-yard line, we—along with, I expect, every other person in the stadium—assumed that Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson would hand the ball off to Lynch once more and score a touchdown. But with 0:26 seconds left on the game clock, Wilson threw a pass to Ricardo Lockette. And the pass was intercepted by Patriots safety Malcolm Butler at the 1 yard line. Nobody could believe it.


Malcolm Butler intercepting a pass by Russell Wilson, Super Bowl XLIX. Photo from an article by LWOS (Last Word on Sports).

This was, of course, a disaster for the Seahawks and an unexpected reprieve for the Patriots. It was a stunning turn of events. With victory in their grasp, the Seahawks gave the ball back to the Patriots.

But the game wasn’t over.

After the Patriots took a time out, the game resumed with 0:20 to play. However, the Patriots had a problem. With the ball on the 1 yard line, the Patriots had to run a play and advance the ball. The possibility that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady could be sacked in the end zone—thereby giving the Seahawks a safety (2 points) was very real. The Seahawks had a superb defense. If they had gotten a safety, they still would have been behind the Patriots by 2 points, but the Patriots would have to punt (rather than kick off) the ball to the Seahawks, and with one timeout left and what would have probably been a short field, there was a possibility the Seahawks might be able to kick a long field goal and win the game in dramatic fashion. It was a long shot, but it was possible.

What happened next? Patriots quarterback Tom Brady came up to the 1 yard line and started his snap count. And then another unthinkable thing happened: Seahawks player Michael Bennett jumped offsides. That was THE ONE THING the Seahawks could not do on that play. THE ONE THING. But the Seahawks did it. The offsides penalty gave the Patriots 5 yards, and the ball was placed at the 6-yard line. Then, on the next play, the Seahawks were penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct when Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin punched a Patriots player after the play—clearly he was frustrated by the dramatic turn of events of the last few seconds—and the game was over. The Patriots won.

Michael Bennett was not a disciplined player. One can ask the fair question: why was a player (Bennett) who had been called for more offsides penalties in the whole National Football League during the season even on the field for that play? Bennett’s lack of discipline cost the Seahawks a chance to win the game. Sure, it was a long shot. But they had a chance. Until Bennett jumped offsides.

There, in the course of just a few seconds, we saw a remarkable display of focus and discipline from Jermaine Keare. His catch epitomized focus and discipline. Then we saw another remarkable display of focus and discipline by Malcolm Butler when he intercepted Russell Wilson. But then, we saw a terrible lack of discipline by Michael Bennett (offsides) and another lapse of focus and discipline by Bruce Irvin (unsportsmanlike conduct).

The lesson in all of this? It’s not over until it’s over. Staying disciplined in our tasks, whether playing football or performing a concert with a trombone in your hand, will give us the best possibility to have a great result. Even when you think that things are going badly, you still may have a chance at redemption. When you’re taking an audition for a symphony orchestra, never assume your audition is over because you miss a note. Because unbeknownst to you, maybe everyone else at the same audition missed the same note. Stay focused, stay disciplined. Most people who reflect on Super Bowl XLIX remember the decision by Seahawks coach Pete Carroll to have Russell Wilson throw a pass from the 1-yard line rather than hand the ball off to Marshawn Lynch as the defining moment of the game. And, in many respects, it was. But there was more to the story, and the Seahawks missed a chance—a chance—to win the game when Michael Bennett jumped offsides. His lack of discipline was the real story about the Seahawks loss.

Stay disciplined. Keep working until the task is done. Completely done. It’s not over until it’s over. If you want to be there when the confetti falls for you after you win, you have to be disciplined and focused until the very end. That’s a lesson for all of life.


My wife, Patricia, and me as the confetti fell to celebrate the New England Patriots’ victory at the end of Super Bowl XLIX.