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Minnesota Football: “Row the Boat” was made for this moment

P.J. Fleck’s mantra is more than a gimmick to me

Iowa v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

“Row the Boat” — and P.J. Fleck, in general — inspires a lot of mockery.

And I get it. Mockery is a tenet of college football, especially between rivals. I will never stop making fun of Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst and his wardrobe of crewneck sweatshirts, and I hold out hope that one day Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz will find a blue fairy willing to grant his wish to become a real boy worthy of his father’s love.

Fleck has the high energy of a self-help guru and a motivational mantra to match, inviting people to ridicule him as a charlatan peddling a gimmicky life philosophy that serves no real purpose other than to attract a lot of attention. He’ll be the first person to tell you that he, his personality, and his style aren’t for everyone, and I find that self-awareness endearing.

To be clear, I abhor self-help gurus. I vaguely recall taking a chance on a self-help book many years ago and not being able to get through more than a couple chapters. I imagine there are a lot of people who find value in the Self-Help aisle of Barnes & Noble, but I am not one of them.

But there is something about “Row the Boat” that has resonated with me — perhaps because it was introduced to me through the lens of college football — and, at the risk of sounding like a Kool-Aid-drinking denizen of Flecktown, I’d like to explain why.

I think I speak for everyone when I say it’s been a rough year.

For me personally, I’ve been working from home since mid-March. I haven’t seen a coworker in person in at least five months. I rarely leave the apartment other than to go to the grocery store. We don’t go out to eat. I used to go to the movie theater at least every other week, if not more, but movie theaters have been closed for nearly as long as I’ve been working from home. We’ve made one trip back home to visit family, but did so with a great deal of anxiety. We’ve had one wedding and one funeral, and attending both came with feelings of guilt, knowing the risks. And now comes the news that this will be the first fall of my life without Big Ten football.

More than anything, I feel like I’m running in place a lot of the time. We’ve essentially been asked to put our lives on hold, even though the clock continues to run. Time feels like sand slipping through my fingers. There are days that go by that feel like a day unlived, because we’ve been separated from so much of what makes life fulfilling. It’s led to a lot of depression, and I’ve struggled to find the motivation to complete even the most mundane tasks at times.

Admittedly, I feel worse when I remind myself that 10 percent of Americans are currently unemployed and more than 160,000 people have died from COVID-19, with thousands more hospitalized. The challenges I’ve faced pale in comparison to the hardships the pandemic has created for millions of Americans. I think this perspective is important, but I also don’t want it to lead people to neglect their own mental health. Your feelings are real and valid, and suppressing them without addressing them is only going to allow them to fester.

I think back to what first inspired Fleck to develop his mantra: The death of his newborn son due to a heart condition. I’m not a parent, so I can only imagine what it was like to welcome a child into the world and share the briefest of moments with them before having to say goodbye as you hold them in your arms. The pain and grief from that kind of loss has to be overwhelming to the point of feeling like paralysis. How do you move on from that?

Fleck’s solution was to live in the present. He could not change the past, and he had no way of knowing what the future would hold. When he has discussed the origins of “Row the Boat” in the past, he has described it as a choice between putting your oars back in the boat and keeping them in the water. You can either stop or you can move forward.

And in a lot of ways, 2020 feels like rowing a boat. There is so much uncertainty in the future. People talk about a “return of normalcy,” but it remains an open question whether even a degree of normalcy is attainable in the near future. And looking back on the past, the last five or six months have been among the most devastating in our country’s history. It can be difficult to come to terms with all that we’ve lost, not knowing for certain how much of it we’ll ever get back.

“Row the Boat” focuses on what you can control — the energy you bring to your life (“the oar”), the sacrifices you are willing to make (“the boat)”, and the direction of your life (“the compass”). You can roll your eyes at the use of the oar, the boat, and the compass, but they are symbols that hold actual meaning. And at a time when there is so much going on in the world that is beyond our control, it feels like a good time to remember that living a joyful life means not letting the circumstances dictate your behavior. You can’t always control the circumstances of your life, but you can control your perspective and how you react to those circumstances.

I’m sure there will be those who mock this article as the insane ramblings of a true believer, and I’ll be ridiculed at least once for being a brainwashed cult member. But I’ll end with this: At a time when it seems like the country is on fire and that having hope for the future feels like a fool’s errand, I appreciate that I can look to a source as unlikely as college football for a reminder not to let the weight of the past and the uncertainty of the future stop me from living.

I just have to remember to keep rowing.