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Pro Football Hall of Famer Ray Didinger speaks to Lower Merion football squad

Ardmore >> The Lower Merion High School football team hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1992, but on May 8 the LM players received a real morale-booster from a special visitor – one hour with Pro Football Hall of Famer Ray Didinger, who spoke to the team about the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, and the essentials of football teamwork and leadership.

Didinger’s visit to Lower Merion High School was hosted by Mary Brown, sponsor of the 11th Annual Lower Merion Co-Ed Youth Football Clinic slated for May 20 at Arnold Field.

Didinger, who has covered the Philadelphia Eagles since 1970, told the LM players, “I always thought Knute Rockne had the best explanation for what makes a winning football team. He used to say, ‘I don’t play my 11 best, I play my best 11.’ In other words, everybody works together. He was saying, ‘If you want to come down here and be the superstar, you want everything to go through you, you’re not playing for me. What we’re going to go, we’re going to do collectively.’

“I think the Eagles are a great example of this. In the Super Bowl, were they a more talented team than the Patriots, having to play a backup quarterback, a backup tackle, and a backup middle linebacker? No, but they won because they played as a team. They played entirely selfless and that’s really hard in today’s professional sports, with all the money these guys are making, millions of dollars, it’s hard for guys not to think selfishly. They played with a mentality that you guys in high school are expected to play with – very team-oriented, very unselfish.”

Didinger said a perfect example of this unselfishness was the Eagles’ mid-season trade for Jay Ajayi.

“At the time, the Eagles were 6-1, and were really rolling, and Howie Roseman had an opportunity to get Ajayi, who had sort of fallen out of favor in Miami,” said Didinger. “The other running backs, LeGarrett Blount, Corey Clement, they know immediately that this guy’s going to play, which means fewer touches for them. This changes team chemistry, and look, you guys know that team chemistry is a fragile thing. The first game Jay Ajayi plays for the Eagles, he breaks off a 46-yard touchdown run, the longest touchdown run the Eagles have all year, he comes back to the bench, and who’s the first guy to hug him? LaGarrett Blount. The culture of this Eagles team was selflessness, with great internal leadership.”

The emphasis on team play is why Didinger’s favorite sport to watch – and cover – is football.

“Look, I’ve been covering every kind of sport there is for 50 years, but people always ask me what’s my favorite sport and I say football – for that very reason, it is the consummate team game,” said Didinger. “Nothing happens because of just one individual on a football field – if someone makes a great catch, someone has to throw it, if someone breaks a long run, someone has to block – and if you’re going to succeed, you have to succeed as a group.”

Didinger talked for a few minutes on the definition of team chemistry.

“I can’t write you out a definition of what team chemistry is, but I know it when I see it, and you saw the Eagles have it in an extraordinary way this season,” said Didinger. “Can the Eagles have it again this year? I don’t know. Because even though a lot of the same people are coming back, people change over time, and their priorities change.

“But if you guys really want to understand where winning begins, what you learned watching the Eagles up close and personal this past season is a great place to start. At the beginning of the season, I thought they’d win maybe nine games – in no way, shape or form did I think they were getting to the Super Bowl. They didn’t get a lot of breaks this season, and they sure as heck didn’t stay healthy, but they just rolled right through the season.

“When [head coach] Doug Pederson told the media that Carson Wentz was injured for the rest of the season, you could kind of hear a groan through the crowd, and he said, ‘I want to make this clear – our season’s not over. Losing Carson is a terrible blow, but we don’t have the best record in the NFC today because of one player, as good as he is.’

“And then he pointed down the hall to the locker room and said, ‘That’s a good football team in there, and we will rally around Nick Foles.’ And it was said in such a powerful way that it flipped people’s perceptions of the Eagles’ situation. I was not starting any parades when Doug Pederson was hired as Eagles head coach; but he won me over with the way he handled this season.”

To Didinger, the “Philly Special” play in the Super Bowl defined the 2017 Eagles’ championship squad.

“When Nick Foles came to the sideline and suggested the play, you could see that Doug Pederson looked surprised, but then said, ‘OK,’” said Didinger. “The play had only been around for three weeks, but Doug Pedersen had instilled a confidence in these guys that, ‘We can do this,’” and they had the belief and the guts to run it on Sunday.”

During the question-and-answer period, one of the Lower Merion players asked Didinger what separates a winning team from a losing team, and the Pro Football Hall of Famer responded, “You’ve got to have talent, good coaching and team chemistry – guys sacrificing for each other.

“You players who will be seniors next fall, you might not realize this but a lot of the underclassmen are looking to you. I believe the best leadership is the kind that comes from the group, and if your best players are hard workers, someone joining the team will see that and think, ‘How can I be anything else?’”

Didinger spoke to the team at length about leadership, and used many examples from this year’s Eagles squad.

“When the Eagles lost games this past season, they didn’t blame anyone, they just soldiered on – guys would stand up and say, ‘Blame me, it’s my fault,’” said Didinger. “That’s characteristic of good teams, whereas on a bad team, there tends to be a lot of finger-pointing at others. You would hear Jason Kelce taking personal responsibility for poor play, and now he’s the best center in football. If you look at the film from this season, you can see that he really was outstanding.

“A lot of the Eagles’ leadership this season came through Carson Wentz in only his second season. He was the hardest worker on that team – he was the first guy in the building [Eagles practice facility], and the last to leave. He was a pro from Day One. He’s got the ‘It’ factor – the players will follow him. When Nick Foles would come off the field, the first person he went to would be Wentz. I think [Wentz] is going to be fun to watch.

“Carson Wentz and Nick Foles are different personalities, but they’re both good leaders. After the Eagles won the Super Bowl, they asked Foles if he thought he might be starting next year, and he said, ‘Carson’s the quarterback,’ which I thought was classy and genuine. Then, when Michael Barkann asked Nick about the Philly Special, which Foles had suggested to Doug Pederson on the sideline, Nick didn’t take all the credit, like he could have, by saying it was his call. He said, ‘Well, Coach and I talked about it on the sideline.’”

At the end of Didinger’s talk, the Lower Merion players were grateful.

Lower Merion senior Deion Davis said, “His talk was really helpful, I learned about the true meaning of playing football and being a leader – that even when Carson Wentz went down, the Eagles didn’t give up. And even though we haven’t been a winner lately at LM [for football], we can’t give up either.”

LM junior quarterback Matthew O’Connor said, “I thought his talk was great, learning about how teams work. After his talk, I got to ask him about how three good offensive coaches [Pedersen, John DeFilippo, Frank Reich] worked together last season.”

“I thought it was a great talk about the role of leadership – it takes a lot to be a leader, said Lower Merion junior middle linebacker John Trainor. “It was interesting to hear how the Eagles went from being a bad team [in 2016] to a Super Bowl winner.”

NOTES: Before his talk at Lower Merion High School, Didinger briefly spoke to a reporter about his recent workload for the new Eagles Encyclopedia to be published in September, which will include the entire 2017-18 Super Bowl championship season. For the new volume, Didinger had to produce 51,000 words in three weeks (about 2,500 words per day), by March 15 so the book would be ready by September. Everything in the earlier versions of the Eagles Encyclopedia (bios, records, etc.) had to be updated too. “It was the toughest deadline I ever had,” said Didinger.

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