Sipe: The Inner Game

What do surfing and Hermann Hesse have to do with the Cleveland Browns moving a football from one end of the field to the other? More than you might think.
The sun was going down over the Pacific Ocean in a blaze of glory, tinting the cloudless bright blue of the Southern California sky with a stunning expanse of pink, playing on the rolling surf, the spotless white beach, the palm trees, and the stucco houses of San Diego, subtly changing the colors of everything. A light, salty breeze filled the sails of a boat bobbing on the waves, and only the muffled roar of the surf and the cries of a few gulls cruising along the shore punctuated the reveries of the lone figure strolling barefoot on the beach, his sport shirt unbuttoned, hands in his pockets. It was Brian Sipe’s favorite time and place. He loved to paddle out into the waves with his surfboard early in the morning when the surf was up, climb on top of the board, and feel the primitive thrill of riding the crest of a wave. But in the quiet evening, the sea took on a different mood, and being close to it helped him relax, forget his problems, and sort out all the thoughts running through his head. And he was having a lot of thoughts today. As he watched the day fade away, he was thinking about where he would be a few months from now: on the football field at the Cleveland Browns’ training camp running the team through its practice drills under the watchful eye of the coaches. Fall had meant football for Brian for the last 13 years, and until last year, his first as a pro, he had been the center of attention, the star quarterback.

“I was experiencing things in football I couldn’t get anywhere else. In the game films, I would see myself ducking a blow from behind that I couldn’t possibly have seen or heard coming. I was reacting in an uncalculated way, out of some sixth sense.”

Now he was wondering if the sun might be setting on his athletic career. It had not been a good year for Brian Sipe. His accustomed quiet confidence had understandably started to slip. It was not his idea of a good time to languish on the bench while Art Modell and the Browns treated Mike Phipps, their starting quarterback and fair-haired young man, with kid gloves. It had been disappointing enough when the pros failed to draft him until the 13th round — after all, Sipe had been the nation’s leading collegiate passer the year before at San Diego State. Still, he figured he was good enough to play. But as soon as he had shown up for camp, he found himself stuck on the Browns’ cab squad, and this year looked like more of the same. So it was that the summer of 1973 found Sipe doing a lot of thinking about his future. He had just married his old high-school sweetheart, Jeri Frame, whom he had been living with the past few years. The writing was on the wall as far as his football career was concerned. Should he just accept it, or should he fight the long odds against him? Sipe, currently sidelined with a shoulder injury, looks back on that summer as the most important turning point of his career. When you ask about it, he shifts his slender, muscular frame, looks at you through dark eyes that reflect both an alert intelligence and a sensitivity and thoughtfulness uncommon in athletes you’ve known. The handsome features are set off by a neat moustache and dark hair falling over the back of his collar. He speaks softly with a hint of that certain Southern California twang you pick up on Beach Boys records. He chooses his words carefully, but with confidence and, perhaps, more fluency than he realizes.

He’s not used to talking about himself, especially with strangers, but he’s decided he wants to trust you, to be open about what he was feeling as his second season with the Browns approached.

“In the past,” he begins, “I had always been able to get by on my natural skills. I never really worked hard at it. I just let things happen, and I lived my life the same way. I was a good enough athlete so that I usually came out on top.” But those days were over. “I had never been challenged like the pros challenged me. I realized that everybody on the field had the same natural ability.” That got Sipe thinking about the 13 years he had played organized football, from the Pop Warner leagues on up. He had never enjoyed being stereotyped as a “jock,” and tried to put football completely out of his mind during the off-season. He told friends in college that “under no circumstances” would he consider playing pro ball. But here he was.

“I realized I had invested too much of my life in football not to make it pay off. When all my friends were going surfing, I was going to football practice. I finally decided that the in-between attitude I’d had for several years just wouldn’t cut it anymore. It was time to either get my head straight and play the way I was capable of, 100 per cent, or call it quits. I resigned myself, for the first time, to going back and really applying myself to football.”

That commitment was the key to Sipe’s future in pro football — although the Browns, obsessed with redeeming their heavy investment in Mike Phipps, tested Sipe’s patience and resolve for another three years. After another season on the cab squad, Sipe moved in behind Phipps and was in and out of the lineup. “It was rough to sit and watch Mike for four years, when I always felt I could be more effective than he was. I used to tell myself, ‘Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there’s more to it than it seems.’ But the few times I got a chance to play convinced me that wasn’t true. Not to take anything away from Mike, but whenever he did something right, it was always, ‘Well, it’s about time.’ He was forced into a situation where he really had no out. But people have always told me why I shouldn’t be playing. Whenever I do something well, it’s always a pleasant surprise, which takes the pressure off me.” Conversely, Brian Sipe has always responded to a challenge, and he finally got the one he had been waiting for in the first game of the 1976 season, when the snake bitten Phipps was badly hurt. Phipps returned briefly later in the season, but by then his time had clearly run out, and Sipe’s had finally begun.

Under his leadership, the Browns startled the football world by winning eight of their last 10 games. Nevertheless, people still wonder whether Brian Sipe is for real. He’s not especially big or fast by NFL standards, and he doesn’t throw the ball as hard or as far as other quar¬terbacks do. He’s not a spectacular player, but somehow, he just gets the job done. Followers of the game know by now that he fakes well, passes with accuracy and mixes up his plays to good effect. But there’s more to it than that. It has to do with Sipe’s unique approach to the game of football, the kind of person he is, and what goes on in his head — his “inner game,” if you will. It all started at San Diego State in 1971 and ‘72, when Sipe was rewriting that school’s passing record book. Like most campuses in those years, it was a lively spot.

“It was an exciting time,” he recalls. “So many minds were being changed, and people were opening up to the new ideas being formu¬lated. I was just like everybody else; I was aware of it and affected by it.”

Besides his constant athletic activity and the usual social life, Sipe was reading Siddhartha and other works by Herman Hesse. For a time, he lived alone near his beloved Pacific Ocean, where his quiet sunset walks helped him get a handle on all his confusing thoughts. The football program at San Diego State was in a state of upheaval. Under coach Don Coryell (now head coach of the NFL St. Louis Cardinals), the team had developed a pro-style passing offense in order to deal with its big¬ger, better-funded opponents, and often upset them by lopsided scores. The Aztecs were the toast of San Diego, outdrawing the NFL Chargers at many home games, but activist student leaders found the sport “irrelevant’’ and did their best to dismantle the football program.

The student council hacked away at its funding and cancelled pre-registration privileges for athletes on scholarship, once sticking Cor¬yell’s starting center with calculus and Japanese (both of which he promptly flunked). Sipe felt the pressure to justify his involvement in football. Sympathetic to many of the activists’ principles (though not necessarily their methods), he wanted to reconcile football with his personal goals. “I wanted to be taken seriously,’’ says Sipe of those days, “and I felt that athletes were not. I wanted people to see that there was more to me than their stereotype of a ‘jock.’ It wasn’t something many people wanted to be hung with at the time.”

For this reason, he refused to cut his hair when Coach Coryell asked him to, and, more important, he began to understand why football mattered to him. “Students all around me were telling me football was irrelevant,” he says. “I always felt like saying, ‘You’re right, it’s not relevant to you, but it’s important to me, because I’m playing it. You don’t derive the same benefits from it.’ “I’ve always felt that in order to understand myself,” Sipe explains, “it was important to put myself in situations where I had to fall back on my instincts. I want to stay close to nature and to my animal in¬stincts, and surfing, snow skiing, almost any sport, keeps me in touch with that. “I realized I was experiencing things in football I couldn’t get any¬where else. I would do things and not understand them until later, when I got a chance to watch the game films. For example, I would see myself ducking a blow from behind that I couldn’t possibly have seen or heard coming. I was reacting to things in an uncalculated way, out of some sixth sense. That ex¬perience made football relevant to the rest of my life.”

At the same time, Sipe found that he could turn his fascination with Eastern mystic¬ism to his advantage on the football field. From the first time he received special recognition for his athletic exploits, as early as the age of eight or nine, he found his notoriety more distracting than gratifying. “When Brian was in elementary school,” recalls Martin Sipe, his father, “he brought home a tennis trophy one afternoon. That was the first we had even heard that he played tennis. He was the only 11-year-old on San Diego’s world championship Little League team in 1961, but he wouldn’t wear the jacket they gave him. He just didn’t want that kind of special attention.”

Now, playing in front of thou¬sands of people and under pressure from campus activists, Brian needed a way to prevent such distractions from interfering with his play, and found he could apply Eastern con¬cepts to help him focus his attention on the task at hand.

“I think I incor¬porate Hesse, my love of nature, and all those other things into football without knowing I’m doing it,” he says. “What it’s all about is quieting the ego and allowing things to hap¬pen naturally, without self-con¬gratulation or self-condemnation.”

Sipe, however, still couldn’t keep from blaming himself when the Aztecs lost five games in his senior year, the most in Coryell’s long career there. Considering the effects of the student council’s attacks on the recruiting program, though. Sipe’s was a heroic effort.

“I wasn’t playing with a bunch of superstars. I was playing with a bunch of guys who, under normal circumstances, never would have been there.” In this sense, it was a dress rehearsal for the challenge Sipe would assume with the Browns, another “thrown-together” team, four years later. And he used it to develop the inner qualities that, no doubt, helped him turn the forlorn Browns into a win¬ner. “Brian has an innate leadership quality,” says Jeff Atterbury, another quarterback who played behind Sipe at San Diego State. “Every good quarterback has to have it, and know what to do with it. It’s an inner strength that you pro¬ject, a certain charisma the other players look for and pick up on. Brian isn’t a ‘holler guy,’ but you can sense that he has things under control, that he knows his next move. He’s supremely confident.”

“What I always liked most about playing with Brian,” adds Tim Delaney, who caught many of his passes at San Diego State, “was his level-headed perspective on the game of football. In the pros, you have to make an existential decision to view football for what it is — a simple game that’s fun and worth¬while. Otherwise, you can get lost off the field, especially when the time comes for retirement.

“I always enjoyed Brian in the huddle because he was just Brian, not somebody who was playing the role of a leader. He demonstrated the same amount of control and pa¬tience in success and failure. And he had the ability to remove himself from whatever was happening at the moment and take the larger view, looking at the flow of the game and realizing that not every play will succeed.”

None of this, however, made it any easier for Sipe to make the deci¬sion to play professional ball. “My mind was going in so many different directions,” he recalls. “I never really pursued a major in college, because it was unfathomable to me that anybody could make that deci¬sion when there was still so much to learn about yourself and the world. I wanted to get out and find that out before I trained myself for a field. I pictured myself at the time living a life of one adventure after another — sailing the South Pacific, working in Alaska, hitchhiking around Africa, all kinds of crazy things. I really believed it then.”

He also worried about the burden that might be placed on Jeri as the life partner of a pro quarterback. But when the Browns’ offer came, Sipe surprised himself by “jumping at the chance.” Perhaps because he lacked any other career goals, it became a new challenge to see if he could play with the best of them. It took him a long time to prove that he could. And in the process, Brian Sipe has had to devote more time and energy to football than ever before — a commitment it hasn’t always been easy to keep. “Football is a departure from my own concept of reality,” he says. “I know it’s changed me, just like it’s changed Jeri’s life, and not always for the better. I lose touch with a lot of things during football season. It’s not an easy time for me.”

Sipe has made it a high priority to separate his personal life from foot¬ball and to avoid being shaped by his public image. Always a private person by inclination, he lives dur¬ing the season in a secluded cottage in 47 acres of woodlands south of Medina. Every night, after tucking in his one-year-old daughter Lani, he studies game films. Jeri, who teaches in a progressive private school in San Diego during the off-season, has her hands full with cor¬respondence and “keeping our lives together.”

A former cheerleader who met Brian in French class at Grossmont High School in San Diego, Jeri is more extroverted than her husband, who sometimes feels “we have too many friends.” Sipe pointedly avoids reading what the newspapers have to say about him or the Browns, no longer makes personal appearances and has to be talked into giving inter¬views — including this one. In the off-season, he returns to San Diego and, in his words, does “everything possible to avoid football.” He in¬sists that nothing will convince him to stay in the game, as a coach or in any other capacity, once his career as a player is over.

“After college,” he says, “what I was thinking about most was starting my life. That time has never come. Football has kept me in a state of suspended anima¬tion. My bank account is growing, but I don’t think I’m growing as much as a person as I would be if I weren’t playing football. I’ve given up fighting it — I’ve resigned myself to the way I am now, because I real¬ize that football is going to help me do what I want to in the future. But neither of us ever really pictured me as a starting quarterback in the NFL. I don’t think we’ll miss it very much when it’s over.”

Although Sipe considers himself on excellent terms with his team¬mates and coaches, he has no close personal friends on the Browns. He feels that keeping off-the-field socializing to a minimum helps to keep his working relationships with the players simpler and more efficient. In the off-season, he enjoys working on the five houses he owns in the San Diego area, and after football, he may go back to school to study environmental design or architec¬ture. Besides surfing, Sipe loves ten¬nis, basketball and almost any sport that takes him outdoors. He also likes to relax with his guitar, but finds it difficult to make time for all his interests during the football season.

True to form, Sipe does not necessarily feel that having been a successful quarterback will always prove to be a point in his favor. “I don’t want to be part of anybody’s preconceived ideas about football players,” he says. “But the fact is that my having played football will always be taken into consideration in the future. It may open doors for me; it may shut doors. It may lead people to jump to conclusions about me, and I won’t particularly enjoy that. I’d rather be taken for myself. Even when I’m playing football, when I’m in the ideal frame of mind, I try to see it as just one part of my goal of being a good human being, an understanding person, at peace with myself and my surroundings. But you get acclaim for being a good football player, not a good person.”

So you see, Brian Sipe has not really changed that much from that quiet, self-assured 11-year-old who wouldn’t wear his Little League How does Sipe do it? The answers have less to do with his athletic skills per se than with a heretofore unexplored dimension of football that we might call, with a nod to the current best seller about tennis, the “inner game.”

There are no statistics to measure it and no method of diagramming it on a blackboard. Few coaches have found a way to teach it, and it’s useless as a ticket-selling ploy. Sportswriters only make passing reference to the “intangibles.” Only athletes know such experiences directly, and few talk about them. “I haven’t figured out the secret of success in this game,” admits Brian Sipe. “Some days I’m right there — I’m seeing everything, every throw is right on target, I’m completely in control. I don’t have time to think about what’s happening. In fact, if I thought about it, that would interfere with my performance.

I want to be able to recreate those situations, to maintain that level of performance.” For Sipe, that means maintaining a healthy perspective on football, eliminating outside pressures and distractions, and becoming so focused on the game itself that instinct takes over and things happen naturally, almost by themselves. The quarterback, in the language of Eastern mysticism, is “in the game, but not of it,” so that extraneous “noise,” both outward and inward, is filtered out.

But let Brian Sipe tell you about it:

On playing under pressure: What all football players have in common is the ability to function under pressure. What we’ve all been able to do, over years and years of practice, is to tune out the extra pressure when it comes to playing. With all the pressures and feelings directed toward us that could upset or distract us, we’re still able to operate. That, in itself, brings about a sort of insensitivity — which is good or bad, depending on your view of life. If we weren’t able to shut out other people’s feelings and problems, we wouldn’t be able to function at the level we do. It’s not uncommon for me to see someone’s feelings genuinely hurt by a ballplayer who’s not aware of what he’s doing. I do it myself, and it bothers me. I think the average person has trouble coming to grips with his fear of failure. All football players have that fear, but we’ve had to come to grips with it. That allows us to function, but it changes our personalities, too.

On competition: Competition involves the ability to abandon yourself to a specific goal. It’s best when it’s like war — although, of course, in football the boundaries have been prescribed, and the price isn’t so high. If you felt you didn’t have to win, it would numb the whole experience. To function at a high level of competition, the outcome has to be important, because that’s when the instincts are brought into play. If you were a mole and a hungry possum were to wander across your territory, you’ d do everything in the world to save your life, whatever it was. Your worth would only be as good as your ability to escape. For human beings, the instinct for survival was eliminated when we developed intelligence. I think that’s why we had to create competition. If you take away the necessity to survive, you take away direction and meaning from life, and you create I consider competition healthy, but all around me I see unhealthy competition. There’s no place for intimidation. It’s healthy when it’s recognized by all parties involved, and nobody is being victimized by it. People who are competitive with other people who don’t want to be competitive are deriving satisfaction from attaining a goal the other person is willing to concede them. In pro football, we’ve all agreed to be highly competitive — that’s what we’re there for, that’s what we thrive on. We’re vying for the same result on the same level. When people say football is too competitive, I would tell them it’s not too competitive for football. It’s too competitive when people take what they learned on the football field and try to apply it to other situations where all parties haven’t agreed to compete.

On violence: I really have absolutely no fear of getting hit. I don’t have time to think about it. It takes all my time to perform on the level I do, and anything else I think about detracts from it. I’m unaware of violence when I’m involved in it. I’m aware of it when I’m on the sidelines, and particularly when I’m watching the films later. But because I don’t personally deliver any punishment, I’m oblivious to it on my job. It’s strictly a tactical game to me. When I get hit hard, my first thought is always, “Can I continue playing?’’ not “Oh my God, that big sucker hurt me.” I have no feelings about him at all. Most of the time, I don’t even know who hit me. I don’t care, unless I want to find out who he beat to do it, so I can give that guy some help on the next play. I’ve brainwashed myself. If I met the same guy in the alley, I’d be terrified, but on the football field, I don’t have the luxury of contemplating the danger. That may be why I seldom get hurt like this. I react like a drunk in an auto accident.

On the press: I learned a lot about myself watching Mike Phipps go through his experiences. I decided then that if I could eliminate outside interference, I could operate better as a leader. I don’t read the papers because I don’t want to be influenced by sportswriters’ opinions. I’m too aware that their job is to sell papers. I’m only interested in the other ballplayers’ feelings. I want to judge our relationship by our own contact, not by what’s said in the papers. I have stock answers to the questions sportswriters always ask. Sometimes I think I should just make up a handout for them and say, “Here, use this, because this is what you’re going to get.” Like everybody else, I’m influenced by what I read in the papers. Whether it’s true or not, I have a tendency to believe it, and I don’t want to. I don’t want to be somebody everybody else talks about. I just want to be a guy who walks into a place every day where he performs with 45 of the best athletes in the world. That’s excitement enough for me. I don’t want to be under a magnifying glass.

On the fans: I’ d enjoy it just as much if we didn’t play in front of a crowd. Sometimes I think I wouldn’t care if we went into an empty stadium and just settled it. Once, when Nick Skorich was our coach, he delivered a big lecture because somebody wasn’t wearing a tie on the plane or something, pounding away at the fact that we were “in the entertainment business.” That phrase really stuck in my throat. I realized he was right — for the fans, it is entertainment, and without them, we wouldn’t even be here, and we wouldn’t be getting paid what we’re paid. But to me, it’s not entertainment. My purpose is not to entertain anyone. By having that attitude, I’m able to perform at my best — and, in that way, to provide them with the best possible entertainment.

On success: You can come closer to becoming what you want to be by being yourself, by enjoying and actively manifesting your own special qualities, than by trying to be somebody else. I’ve always been intrigued with the idea that we’re all capable of being something greater than what we are. Everybody has the ability to excel — and not just in a small area, but in every area. You may not be capable of being a great NFL quarterback, but I have no doubt you can be a better quarterback than you would be if I took you out on the field today and had you run practice. If you spent a couple of years working at it and got as good as you thought you could be, you could still get better. It’s the limitations we put on ourselves, the ones in our heads, that prevent us from reaching our potential. I don’t think I’ve even come close to realizing my own potential as a football player, or anything else. I haven’t devoted my life to it, and I’m not even sure that’s what I’d want. If God appeared to me in the shower as a little guy in a baseball cap and said, “I’ve chosen you to become everything you’re capable of being,” I’m not sure I’d want to. Very few people have ever achieved that, and they’ll never be forgotten — Buddha, Mohammed, Christ, Mozart, Einstein, all the biggies. They didn’t have to be who they were. They could have been very ordinary people. I doubt that when they were conceived, there were any angels hovering over the bed. But they realized their full potential. And as rare as they are, that’s how rare it is for the average person to understand this whole concept. On the outdoors: For me, what getting back in touch with nature is all about is realizing that I’m part of it. I’ll never escape Mother Nature. No matter how much money I have in my bank account or how many games I’ve won or lost, she’s going to have the final say-so in my life. I can’t live forever; ultimately, I’m going to have to answer to her.

On Forrest Gregg: “He won’t tolerate mediocrity from us, and he doesn’t miss much. Because he was a good football player — he played on a championship team, and was all-pro at two positions — you have to respect what he says. When he asks us to sacrifice, you know he’s not asking for anything he hasn’t done himself. He’s lived it all. He knows what you n

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