A rare commodity: keeping one's cool



Kyle Boller played so poorly last Sunday, he likely cost himself his job as starting quarterback of the Ravens. But the composure he summoned after the game - acknowledging his errors, praising his teammates and opponents - was as inspiring as his previous three hours on the gridiron weren't.

The French call it "sangfroid" - composure in the face of adversity - and it seems a rare quality these days in the realm of big-time sports, or big business or politics for that matter.

Character has been a rare commodity in pro sports in Baltimore the past year, to put it mildly. And Boller's locker wouldn't necessarily be the first place to go looking for some. But there it was a week ago.

Boller faced a gantlet of microphones and notebooks with reporters wanting to know how he felt about blowing another game for the Ravens. He threw two costly interceptions and fumbled the ball while scrambling, without even being hit. He looked as anxious as if it were his first game as the Ravens starter, not his third season. It has been like this many Sundays, although this may have been the most ugly, bordering on tragicomical.

And yet, after the game, Boller found a composure that eluded him on the field at Mile High stadium. Questions from the media didn't agitate him. He didn't point fingers, except to lavish praise on his teammates and on the Denver Broncos. He seemed disappointed in his performance but not despondent. He may have stunk it up on the field, but afterward exhibited grace under pressure - what Ernest Hemingway defined as courage.

"They did a great job. ... I had two interceptions and fumbled the ball. I can't turn the ball over," Boller told a cluster of reporters. "I'm going to make mistakes. I am human. If I can limit that [turnovers], I'll do my best. ... My offensive line did a fabulous job. ... Denver, that's a good defense there."

On the surface, at least, Boller's personal gifts might lead one to presume he's led a charmed 24 years and wouldn't be equipped to deal with adversity.

"Jesus in cleats," the college newspaper called him at the University of California. His contract has at least seven figures; his girlfriends have hourglass figures. And yet, publicly at least, he has taken a Category 5 storm of criticism in stride. For all the kids watching ESPN, it's too bad his on-field bumbling and stumbling got the airtime and not his postgame performance.

"Sometimes, the only thing you can salvage from colossal failure is your dignity. You can at least walk away with that," said Kevin O'Keefe, president of the Baltimore office of Weber Shandwick, which counsels companies on crisis management. "[Boller] showed a lot of maturity for a relatively young man. You contrast that with corporate America, where sometimes the CEO doesn't see something as a personal failure on his part, but that everyone around him has let them down. That leads to bad scenes."

Leaders who maintain dignity under immense attack and pressure are among history's greatest heroes: Lincoln, Gandhi, King, Mandela. Others find a voice in crisis, such as Rudolph Giuliani, whose tone of resolve and fortitude after Sept. 11 was more inspiring than his mayoralty before that.

Lou Gehrig's speech in Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, two years before he succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is one of the most celebrated moments of class under duress. "For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got," he told the crowd, "yet today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."

Grace in the face of personal failure is a different challenge, but also rare on the public stage. It's easier to find the opposite: political leaders, executives, even clergy, refusing to acknowledge a failure.

Concerns about legal exposure, real or imagined, increasingly forbid "owning up." Egos are often the major obstacle. A King Kong-sized example is expected to be on full display next month at the trial of Kenneth Lay, the unabashed former chairman of Enron Corp.

Some sports journalists last summer contrasted the general fan forgiveness toward Jason Giambi, the Yankees slugger who publicly apologized without admitting to steroid use, to the bitter reaction toward the Orioles' Rafael Palmeiro, who famously wagged a finger at Congress and emphatically said he'd never used steroids before testing positive for them.

Sandy Hillman, chief executive officer of Baltimore advertising and public relations agency Trahan, Burden and Charles and a former aide to William Donald Schaefer, said Sunday's obituary of Sen. Eugene McCarthy recalled for her a politician remembered more for his conscience than for his defeat.

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