Thoughts from Dr. Joe: The value of spirit

I was sitting in the bleachers at La Cañada High School watching my daughter Sabine cheer for the freshman football team. I was working hard trying to maintain my focus on “The Heart and The Fist,” a book by Eric Greitens, a humanitarian and Navy Seal. His character was compelling as he spoke of the importance of personal spirit, hustle and hard work.

I read each paragraph and often surfaced for a moment’s contemplation. During one such occurrence my eyes focused on the movements of a young man mingling with the players on the sidelines. He was not dressed in pads and helmet, but wore an LCHS football jersey, No. 29.

He was smaller than the other players, but there was something special about this kid that made him standout among the larger players. I watched his every move. He was running up and down the sidelines distributing water, towels and a pat on the back, and he did so with a skip in his step. I saw a defined spirit in him, a certain exuberance, which, according to Emerson, “Is the mother of all effort and without it, nothing great was ever achieved.”

He took his job seriously. What I found most remarkable was not what he did, but how he did it.

“Who is that kid?” I asked my daughter Simone.

“That’s Nate Coppinger,” she said.

In the Marines, I had an uncanny skill for recognizing the extraordinary. When selecting replacements for my platoon, my litmus test was not deciphering the strongest, toughest, or most tactical. Instead, I sought those who were most spirited and enthusiastic, those who were self-possessed with initiative. You can teach the tactical scheme of battle but you can’t teach exuberance. My methodology worked and produced stellar Marines who were generally defined as spirited.

I continued to read the “Heart and the Fist” and occasionally glanced at Nate as he gave his all to his teammates and coaches on the sidelines. Apparently Nate has a dual role on the team: He is both a cornerback and water boy. Often society evaluates the contribution of others in a hierarchical paradigm: Those who score the most points are afforded the most luster. To our loss, we overlook lesser-defined roles.

It is my experience that the person who does his job regardless of the social significance attributed to it moves society forward. Teddy Roosevelt defines this person as, “The man in the arena.”

Nate Coppinger is a kid I’d want in my foxhole. Give me a team of such spirited boys and I’d win CIF.

In the end, we are responsible for the kind of person we have made of ourselves. We are never just what we are. We define ourselves by what we bring to the moment. Aristotle insisted, “We become what we are as persons by the decisions that we make of ourselves.” Throughout the game, Nate gave value to his duties by being spirited. This is the man he will become.

I continued to read Greitens’ thoughts and consequently found the hook to my meandering words. He tells us that all men have ambition and, according to Abraham Lincoln, “… there is no ambition so great as that of being truly esteemed by your fellow men, by rendering yourself worthy of their esteem.” I have followed this precept throughout the challenges I have experienced and assure you that it is the golden ticket.

Spirit and enthusiasm are values that propel us toward our highest levels of involvement and achievement. I see a bright road ahead for No. 29.

Greitens’ book gave me the inspiration I needed. I put the book down and got back into the game.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at

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