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A tricky balance: cool and emotion

Sports must be played with emotion to be of any compelling interest. When they are not, we get professional basketball in November or chess anytime.

Everyone celebrates emotion as a key ingredient to athletic success. So if a little emotion is good, a lot must be better, right?

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Wrong. Emotion can be evil.

This brings us to the Green Bay Packers vs. the Seattle Seahawks football game earlier this week. It was a contest over the top in emotion, mainly because Mike Holmgren, the former highly successful and popular Packers coach, took himself and his genius to Seattle this season. For this game, there stood Holmgren in perhaps the most meaningful sports facility in America - Green Bay's Lambeau Field where Lombardi coached and Bart Starr threw and victories piled up - looking downright silly in his blue-and-silver Seahawk garb. Holmgren is a green-and-yellow guy, these being the Packers colors.

"I'd be less than honest," conceded Holmgren, "if I said this was just another game." The emotion was in his eyes. For Green Bay, it was a difficult game to prepare for, since getting a grip on emotion and being able to somehow wrestle it to the frozen tundra is difficult.

That's why Packer coach Ray Rhodes told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before the game that his team should "not get too carried away emotionally."

Rhodes was on the right track. His players were not. Quarterback Brett Favre, routinely excellent, was indescribably awful. He threw four interceptions or maybe more; they happened so often it was hard to keep up. He fumbled. He made atrocious decisions. Why?

Emotion. Favre, who in many respects owes his starry NFL career to Holmgren's mentoring, was so worked up about playing against his former boss that he was singularly pathetic. Favre didn't forget how to play football in the week since he last played. What he forgot was that he needed to control his emotions.

This is asking a lot of Favre, whose game sometimes is wondrous because of emotion, and Monday night, was abysmal because of emotion.

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Far worse was the display put on by little-known Packer offensive tackle Earl Dotson. He had been folded, spindled, and mutilated all night trying to play against Seahawks star defensive lineman Cortez Kennedy and others. So Dotson was getting in an increasingly foul mood. Yet, he was too hard on himself. Kennedy, with three sacks and a forced fumble, makes almost everyone who tries to play against him miserable. Dotson was just another notch in Kennedy's belt.

Finally, emotion got the best of Dotson. After a play in the third quarter, he went nuts, shoving Kennedy. Then, once not being enough, did it again. Result: Dotson got his team penalized 30 yards and himself ejected.

Dotson let emotion rule his actions. The result was that his head-losing sealed his team losing.

What could Dotson have been thinking? Perhaps: "I think I'll shove Kennedy after the whistle because he's better than I am. Yup, they penalized me. Knew they would. OK, I believe I'll shove him again. Whoops, they penalized me again. Good for me. That showed him. I'm glad I could help my team at an important time in a difficult and pivotal game."

This had to be what Dotson was thinking or else he wouldn't have done it.

Too much emotion. Too much me, me, me.

Just as disturbing was that after Dotson was banished for his poor behavior, he walked past fans who wildly cheered him. What's that all about? Dotson had just torpedoed any remaining, albeit slim, chance that the Packers could win.

He selfishly had put self above the team good.

Earl Dotson could not have done a bigger disservice to his team, short of spraying the Seahawks with an AK-47. Yet, the fans clearly approved.

Why? The only possible explanation is that they, too, were emotionally wrought up. Hearts overwhelming heads typically leads to a poor result.

And so it is that emotion in sport wears different faces. It can come wrapped in sadness, as it has recently with the deaths of golfer Payne Stewart, in a plane crash in South Dakota, and one of pro football's all-time greats, Walter Payton, of illness.

It can come wrapped in motivation, as it does with teams fired up and players approaching the opposition with their eyes red and crossed and their ears back - but with their wits about them.

And it can come wrapped in self destruction, tied up with a ribbon of regret.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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