Rocket Science, Johnny Football, and The Worm: How to find ‘balance’ as an athlete

Dennis Rodman was the definition of eccentric: ‘unconventional and slightly strange’. Trying to describe a man like Rodman with just one word, however, would be an injustice to his greatness, not just as a basketball player but as a human being. 

If you’re reading this, I’m fairly certain you know the bullet points: Bad-Boy Pistons, crazy hair, A-list celebrity dating resume, unlikely friendships (i.e. Kim Jung-Un), etc. The highlights are fun to talk about, but most of Rodman’s legacy is seen as somewhat of a ridiculous side-plot in the Michael Jordan story. What’s neglected about Dennis Rodman and his unconventional approach to the game of basketball is his awareness as a human being and true understanding of balance within his own life.   

The ultimate testament to Rodman’s antics is the (in)famous story told about the 1998 NBA Finals in The Last Dance, in which he missed practice after Game 3 against the Jazz. In the middle of a potential second three-peat for the Bulls, Dennis took a field trip to go play Pro-Wrestler with Hulk Hogan. On any other team in history or for any other player, this likely results in a swift contract termination and raises severe question marks about the future. For Rodman and the Bulls? It was just another day. 

It was for this reason that Rodman and the Bulls were such a good fit for each other: Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan understood that for them to get the best out of Dennis Rodman, they had to let him do his thing. People today try so hard to be balanced in their lives. We spend so much time balancing our lives that, in order to stop and smell the roses we have to do some unpleasant task to ‘earn it’. This was not Rodman’s attitude, and I think there is great merit in understanding his perspective on life.

 Dennis Rodman was a great basketball player, an exceptional rebounder, an all-time spark-plug for more than one NBA dynasty, but his single greatest quality may very well be his self-awareness. For Rodman, basketball was always an escape from the struggles in his life but it wasn’t the only thing that he enjoyed. In order for Dennis to bring that energy, that tenacity to the court every single night, he had to be able to express himself in other ways outside the game of basketball. That’s why the wacky fashion, loud hair colors, and off-the-court activities were so vital to his success, he was able to create a balance in his life that worked for him. It’s not about balancing the good against the bad, it’s about finding an equilibrium among the things that bring you the most happiness and fulfilment in your life. 

Unfortunately, not everyone can be Dennis Rodman, nor should everyone try to be. Attempting to emulate a Rodman-esque lifestyle is hardly sustainable for any athlete, nonetheless a professional one. He is unique in his ability to compartmentalize his life, as evident by all the young, potential superstar careers we’ve seen squandered at the club or by failed drug tests over the years. Let’s take a look at, for example, Johnny Manziel. 

Before he ever took the field for Texas A&M in 2012, Johnny Football was arrested in College Station with a fake ID after getting into an altercation at a bar. Fewer than 6 months later he was thrust into the Heisman conversation and national spotlight again after upsetting #1 ranked Alabama, then became the first freshman to win the Heisman in December. After winning the Cotton Bowl that season, Manziel made a splash on instagram by posting a photo with a stack of cash at a casino that was later deleted. Instagram wasn’t around when Rodman was taking 2-day vacations to Las Vegas, but the modern media likely would’ve been more receptive to a ‘casino-ballin’ instagram from Dennis than they were to then 18-year-old Johnny Manziel. 

As much as Rodman’s off-court actions helped him find balance, Manziel’s antics threw his balance off a cliff. It’s hard to tell whether the downward spiral of his career fueled the defamatory media narrative or if the media narrative itself was detrimental enough to his character to cause the spiral. It’s likely a combination of the two, with some other factors sprinkled in. 

The sad part about it is, if you go back and watch tape of Johnny Football in college, the dude was straight up running circles around entire football teams with the poise of a Greek god. He became a Heisman trophy winner using his raw talent alone, not having to worry about the intricacies and details of professional football because he was simply that good at college football. 

Rodman, like Manziel, had exceptional athletic ability that was more than able to separate him from college competition, but what Rodman had that Manziel didn’t was the awareness and growth mindset to evolve as an athlete and a student of the game. Once they became professionals, Rodman took great strides forward in all aspects of his game as Manziel took several steps back. Rodman hit the film room with the meticulousness of a war general, while Manziel hit the clubs like he brought Cleveland its first Super Bowl. In his first two seasons in the league, Rodman played 159 out of 164 games and averaged almost 10 rebounds per game, while Manziel struggled to play in half of the Browns 32 NFL games. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you the biggest difference between these two eccentric stars, but it could help.

On the opposite side of the personality spectrum there is an actual rocket scientist, Josh Dobbs, who can’t relate to Rodman’s and Manziel’s chaotic lifestyle, but can relate to high levels of success coming from balance in his life. Dobbs was a student-athlete in the truest sense of the word, taking 18 credits a semester in order to graduate in three years while also racking up the fifth most wins in Tennessee football history. Not only did he take a full ⅓ extra course load than the rest of his team as the starting quarterback, those extra courses he was taking helped him earn a degree in one of the only things in the world that is actually rocket science: aerospace engineering. 

Josh Dobbs at his externship with NASA in February 2020. Dobbs graduated from Tennessee with a degree in aerospace engineering and is now a backup quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

While not every student-athlete will have the chance to date Carmen Electra (Rodman) or work at NASA (Dobbs) while also playing in their respective sports’ professional league, there are plenty of opportunities to find success that fall somewhere in between these two extreme cases. The cautionary tale of Manziel’s short-lived football career is just one of many examples of athletes struggling to find balance in their life. It is, however, important to understand the parallels between his story and Rodman’s, and the lessons to be learned from when they stopped being parallel. 

Great players and coaches tend to copy the best things they see from others at the top of their craft in order to maintain somewhat of a power balance in their sport, with varying degrees of success. You don’t have to be one of the greats to adopt this philosophy, it can be applied to all aspects of life and sport in order to create a balance that works for you as an individual and helps you write your own book.

Everyone wants to take a page out of Michael Jordan’s book. His hard work, dedication and passion for winning. And they should, rightfully so. Perhaps it’s not so bad to take a page out of Rodman’s book, a page out of Dobb’s book, and even maybe a page out of Manziels. Be careful with your page selection, the wrong balance may take you from a best-seller to a bust. 



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