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Don Yaeger’s Sixteen Consistent Characteristics of Greatness

I had the opportunity this morning to listen to Don Yaeger talk about the attributes of “Greatness.”  It was an exceptional presentation.  If you ever have the opportunity, I recommend listening to him.  He explained, primarily through stories, how greatness is a process, not a birthright.  According to Yaeger, greatness is available to all through mental, emotional, and spiritual discipline and “nourishment.”  Yaeger uses sports for his teaching points and as a former writer for Sports Illustrated, he’s made good use of his access to the greatest sports figures of our time to compile his materials. 

He presented what he found to be “Sixteen Consistent Characteristics of Greatness” that he’s seen in great sports figures. During his presentation, he expounded upon four of the sixteen points.   His first point is that “Great” people take failure or even coming in second quite personally. In explaining, “It’s personal”, he told of how he “scored” against Michael Jordan in a one-on-one fund raiser in Vegas.  Yaeger is one of only a handful of men who have scored against Jordan in this venue, though hundreds have tried.  Yaeger is no natural athlete.  For Jordan, defeat is unacceptable and Jordan truly hated the fact Yaeger scored.  The story is hilarious and the accompanying photo shows Jordan thoroughly disgusted at himself while Yaeger looks like a little kid on Christmas morning (see photo 18).  Yaeger also repeated Coach Krzyzewski’s explanation as to how this characteristic and Duke’s 40 point tournament loss to Virginia early in Coach K’s career was the beginning of greatness for him.   

To illustrate “Inner Fire,” Yaeger told the story of 5’7” Warrick Dunn.  He was raised by a single mother, who was shot and killed in the line of duty during Dunn’s senior year of high school, days after Dunn accepted a scholarship to play for Florida State.  Dunn became responsible for raising his younger siblings.  Yaeger tells the story of how Dunn went on to become one of most successful running backs in NFL history, despite his limited stature and despite being shattered by his mother’s murder.  Yaeger accompanied Dunn to the death row facility where Dunn confronted his mother’s killer on death row, and forgave him.  There was hardly a dry eye in the place after the story of how Dunn dealt with adversity.

Yaeger also talked about the final months of Walter Payton’s life as Yaeger hastily assisted with the writing of Payton’s autobiography when Payton was diagnosed with having at best a few months left to live. Payton devoted the end of his life to promoting organ transplants. Yaeger explained how in matters big and small Payton (and Dunn) lived the “Do Unto Others” characteristic, which truly made him Great. 

Coach Wooden mentors Yaeger, and from that relationship and teachings, from a Coach who won 10 NCAA Div I basketball titles in 12 years, Yaeger explained the importance of the value of associating with others and deciding with whom you will “Rub Elbows.”  This was probably the most challenging component of the talk. 

Regarding “nourishment,” Yaeger explained the importance of starting each day with a routine that focuses upon the positive, as opposed to starting the day ingesting a steady stream of negative newscasts.  Another encouraging point for starting the day in prayer and supplication before Christ and meditating on scripture.  Faith is one of the consistent characteristics of “great” men and woman.  “Belief” in a higher power ranks 3rd on the list.

Yaeger is on the speaking circuit and has a number of published books, to include a 2009 publication with Coach Wooden.  He’s worth checking out if you have the chance.