Winning without Competing


The kick was perfect.

The Carlisle Indians followed the ball’s flight with hungry eyes. Their bodies - childlike compared to the well-fed and muscular boys from Harvard - tensed up with anticipation. Smiles crossed their faces.

We know something you don’t.

The ball landed in quarterback Jimmie Johnson’s arms. The catch spurred the rest of the team into action. They swiftly huddled around teammate and guard Charles Dillon, moving with quick and bewildering precision.

In the midst of the chaos one teammate pulled out the back of Dillon’s jersey - the very same jersey that a few weeks prior had gotten elastic bands sewn into its waist - and Johnson stuffed the ball into it.

The boys from Carlisle Indian Industrial School quickly dispersed, all running in different directions, some hugging their stomachs as if holding onto the ball.

Dillon ran with his arms swinging freely. Though the largest of his teammates he had deceptively quick feet and was known to run a hundred yards in ten seconds.


His legs did not fail him. One by one his teammates were tackled by their opponents. The crimson clad players from Harvard bore down on every single player they suspected to be in possession of the ball, but for every body that fell, confusion rose.

Where is the ball?

Things became clearer when howls of laughter started emitting from the crowd. The spectators, 12 000 strong, had seen the suspicious hump on Dillon’s back and slowly started to realize the nature of the ploy.

Exhausted, Dillon stumbled across the end line. Johnson quickly followed suit and in the most triumphant manner snagged the ball out from his teammate’s jersey and placed it on the turf.


The Hunchback Trick Play

There’s room for more than just competition on a football field.

It’s also a stage on which stories about triumph, retribution, treachery and more can be played out. On that day the Carlisle Indians told a tale of vindication - not because of points scored, but rather because of points proven.

Like the rest of their kinsmen they had experienced unimaginable losses. Whatever they were left with was the target of ridicule and discrimination.

Worst of all, they weren’t even considered potential threats anymore. They were regarded as prey, not predators.

It was an insult the Carlisle Indians refused to endure.


The «Hunchback Trick Play» was their way of saying: We will play your game, but we will do so on our own terms.

It was a display of wit and cunning that astounded the audience. Nothing in the rules prevented the play and though some thought of their success as being the result of a weakness in the rulebook, others saw it as a sign of the Carlisle Indians’s strength.

Public perception of the Native American somewhat changed that day.

Four years prior, in 1899, renowned sports commentator Charles Chadwick had written «The redskins are always easily open to any kind of surprise,». One can argue that he was talking about more than their proficiency on the football field.

After the game, however, it seems as though he had a change of heart.

The poor Indian, so often sized up as deficient in headwork, has at last earned the right to be considered as something more than a tireless, clumsy piece of football mechanism. He is now to be regarded as a person of craft. He has added his quota to the history of strategic football. But where, outside of the columns of the Harvard Lampoon or the Yale Record, would anyone hope to see such a delightful combination of football with hide and seek, such a burlesque of strategy put forth in all earnestness?

Winning on Your Own Terms

Humans have a habit of turning most aspects of life into a competition.

At this point in time, few things seem to be off the table. Sport, career, wealth, looks, frugality, humility, spirituality - we’re prone to compare almost anything. If we had the means to measure how non-competitive we were, we’d put up a scoreboard while we were at it.

Health too has become a competition.

Your wellbeing should be proven by how you perform, and preferably by following certain rules.

  • You have to squat to a particular depth.

  • Your mobility is only valid if it looks kind of pretty.

  • You must prove your strength - usually by displays of gymnastics or powerlifting. If there are numbers that can be attached to your performance, even better.

  • You have to look a certain way.

There are many more.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with playing by the rules. A bit of friendly competition is not to be discouraged either and for some it might be exactly what they need. It’ll drive them. Keep them steadfast. Make them happy.

Be that as it may, it’s helpful to keep in mind the following:


Not all competitions and not all rules were made with you, your talents and your health in mind.


It’s tempting to imagine that everything most commonly done and pursued has gained it’s popularity due to it being the most efficient route for everyone.

That’s not always the case though, and a large part of the Carlisle Indians’s success was because they acknowledged this.

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The odds were stacked against them, the audience was cheering for everyone but them and they lacked both the stature and food budget of the players from Harvard.

But they were not discouraged.

Although these boys had been stripped of their names, and anything else that might have reminded them of who they were, they stayed true to themselves. Instead of conforming or assimilating, they looked at their situation and figured out how they could take advantage of it. In so doing, they didn’t simply play the game - they changed it. Rules were rewritten, strategies were adopted and the result of the cunning and integrity these boys displayed well over a hundred years ago can still be seen in how the game is being played to this very day.

What I personally found inspiring about this story, was how the game was played in such a way that nobody ended up being truly defeated.

At the end of the match, Harvard won 12-11.

Carlisle, however, had no loss to mourn. They had gained respect and restored dignity. They had been credited, publicly and for the first time, with intelligence. That was no defeat.

This is perhaps the most important lesson that Johnson, Dillon and the rest of the boys left for us.

By questioning and understanding the game and its rules, not just competing in a blind scramble towards the top, we can win in ways that not even those who wrote the rulebook could have foreseen.