Inspired by History Lesson

Newsday | Nov. 30, 2001
by Bob Glauber

So you must be wondering: What in the world is a picture of a 1915 shipwreck in the frozen waters off Antarctica doing here? And how could there possibly be a connection to a professional football team nearly a century later?

Don’t worry. The New England Patriots players were wondering some of the same things when coach Bill Belichick schlepped them down to an IMAX theater in downtown Providence one night during training camp last August. But by the time they had watched the 45-minute film detailing the almost incomprehensible story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s voyage, they understood.

“It’s a story that not a lot of people have heard about, but it’s one that sends so many good messages, not only to a football team, but really to anyone,” Belichick said. “I had talked to the team about how it’s going to be a long season, a lot will happen, and there will be obstacles along the way. When you see what they faced on that boat, you realize that your problems are small by comparison.”

The story of Shackleton is one of the most incredible feats of human endurance imaginable, even if it has largely been forgotten over time. The British explorer had hoped to become the first to lead an expedition across Antarctica on foot, enlisting would-be crewmen with this haunting advertisement in local newspapers: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”

Shackleton and his crew of 27 men never did make it to Antarctica, because their ship – aptly named “The Endurance” – became wedged in the ice and was literally swallowed up by the sea. They were 350 miles from the nearest land.

For five months, they camped on the ice, at first surviving on the rations they had brought along, but eventually they ran out of food. They were forced to kill and eat the nearly 70 sled dogs who were supposed to guide them across Antarctica.

Once the ice started to break up, they got into their three 22-foot lifeboats and spent seven days at sea before reaching a place called Elephant Island. It had been one year and four months since they had begun their journey.

But Shackleton and his men knew they would not be rescued from the island, because it was nowhere near any of the trade routes used at the time. The captain then made the decision to take four of his crew in one of the boats, retrofit it with a sail, and travel 800 nautical miles back to a whaling station on South Georgia Island, where Shackleton’s boat had left several months earlier. It was a journey that lasted more than two weeks, through gale force winds and temperatures so frigid that the men had to have their hands chipped away from the oars after their shifts were over. Two of the men nearly died.

Finally, after 17 days, they made it to the island. And still, it wasn’t over.

Shackleton realized they were on the wrong side of the island from the whaling station. But because two of his men were too weak to continue by boat, Shackleton and the two others walked to the other side over ice-capped mountains. They walked for 36 consecutive hours before reaching the station. There, the whaling station manager saw a man who looked as if he had just risen from the dead and said to him, “Who the hell are you?”

“I am Shackleton,” the captain replied.

The manager turned and wept.

Three days later, Shackleton made the first of four rescue attempts back to Elephant Island. At last, he and his small crew had made it, and the men on the island waved them ashore. Shackleton began counting. Two, five, seven, 10, 15, 23 – they had all survived.

At last, after 22 months, their unimaginable ordeal was over.

“The bottom line was how those guys held together and supported each other, and guys had to give up selfish things they wanted for the good of the group,” Belichick said. “I don’t think I had to amplify very much on that for the players to understand the theme.”

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady remembers being transfixed by the movie, a remarkable re-enactment put together by director George Butler, whose IMAX film and a longer, more detailed version are now being shown at selected theaters in Manhattan. It wasn’t difficult for Brady to take the lessons from Shackleton’s journey and turn them into a metaphor for the Patriots’ season.

“It was a triumph of the human spirit and the will to live and push on and be as mentally tough as Shackleton and his men were,” said Brady, who replaced the injured Drew Bledsoe in Week 2 and has retained the starting job, helping the Patriots to an unlikely 6-5 record. “Sometimes, you say to yourself, ‘Wow, this might be too hard, this might be too long, the weather’s getting too cold and I’m too hungry.’ But whenever you think you’ve got it tough, you realize that what we’re doing is pretty easy compared to what they had to go through.”

Brady thought back to the film yesterday and realized the lessons of Shackleton have even more meaning now for him and his team. “Here we are, getting later into the season, your body is more broken down,” he said. “It gets harder, the weather is colder, you’re not as sharp and focused, and you’ve got to be mentally strong enough to still be prepared and fight as long and as hard as you can.”

It’s a good lesson for the Patriots or any other NFL team. Come to think of it, it's a good lesson for anyone.

© 2001 Newsday

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