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Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Terrell Davis

I spoke to Hall of Fame running back Terrell Davis about his journey and best advice

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I recently interviewed Terrell Davis on my podcast, Thirty Minute Mentors. We spoke about Terrell’s journey and best advice on a range of topics. Here are some highlights and excerpts from our conversation:

Adam: What inspired your entrepreneurial journey and what have you learned from your experience as an entrepreneur?

Terrell: What inspired my entrepreneurial journey, co-founding the performance beverage company Defy, is that I wanted to have the same success in business that I had on the field. I think the journey is always much tougher than I imagine.

Adam: Can you describe the Super Bowl experience and your sharpest memories and best lessons from Super Bowl XXXII?

Terrell: We were bigtime underdogs playing a really good team in the Green Bay Packers. There was a lot that you can look around and say, “Wow, this is big.” But the mental part of planning and being on that level – that’s where the game was won. It’s won with the mindset. It’s how you think. I never allowed the thought in my brain to think anything other than we’re going to win this game. And I would visualize it. I would think about the game. I would go through a process where I can see scenarios of the game plan out in my mind before the game is even played. The problem is people start thinking about the negatives; they think about what happens if we lose. And to me, the champion doesn’t think like that. A champion and a winner is not thinking about the what if we lose. A champion is thinking about when we’re going to win this game. I don’t care what the score is. I’m constantly thinking about positives. We’re going to win this game, we’re down by 14 points. I’m only thinking about how great it’s gonna look when the news broadcasts a comeback. I’m not thinking about, oh, we’re going to lose this game. So going into that week, we felt confident. I felt confident. And yeah, people could say it was pressure, but to be honest with you, I didn’t feel it, because I never allow myself to get to a point where I’m feeling pressure. I will tell you there are moments that were challenging. I was challenged in the first actual pregame. I had one moment where I allowed myself to think about the moment and I almost passed out. I was hyperventilating because you think about the moment, you see the cameras, you see all the credentials, you see the signs, and then your mind tells you and you finally realize where you are. And you’re like, oh, wow. And then you gotta immediately have, you know, you got the two people, you got them two consciousnesses and they fight each other. And you gotta have the one who says, alright. You remind yourself you are here for a reason, you guys deserve this. You are prepared for this. And you have to edify yourself, you have to remind yourself how great you are, and how there’s a bit of a swag that you have to carry. I had to create this kind of alter ego guy on the field. Anybody who knows me knows that I do the Mile High salute. And part of that was the mindset of a soldier. So I tried to embody the mindset of a soldier when I’m playing football. And that dude, he’s a bad man. We have to embody somebody that we admire, for the qualities that they have, you know? That’s what I felt I needed to have to be a big time running back. And I embody that. And I really took on that character. And that’s why I did my salute, out of respect to the military as well, but it was more so that I want to emulate that. That mentality and mindset, as an approach to football.

Adam: We often see teams take a step back after winning a championship. How were you and your teammates able to continue to compete at that same level for another year and win another Super Bowl? And what advice do you have for leaders on how to keep their employees and their teams motivated after reaching significant levels of success?

Terrell: Yeah, it’s difficult because it’s human nature to get full. We got content and we stopped doing things that we used to, to go hunt and eat. And it’s just nature. So you definitely have to have a couple of people who are hungry who understand it. And those have to be your leaders. Those have to be the people that lead always say, you know, we have people who were leaders by inspiration, but we had leaders by perspiration. But we have people like me. If you’re working, we want people to watch you and just feel like, man, that’s contagious. Like, I gotta follow that dude. And we had those. We had myself, Shannon Sharpe, John Elway. All of our leaders were guys who set the tone for our team, our locker room, our coach, Mike Shanahan. And so we held the standard; our standard was, even at practice, we were not going to practice and have sloppy practices. We just couldn’t. We weren’t going to make it a habit, the way we practice, the way we went about doing everything. So we held each other accountable. If I went out there and had a bad practice, I was held accountable for that bad practice. We cared about each other. We just had a really good locker room. That was a gauge. You know, we had people who would love to be at work, guys who were committed to each other. I felt bad. And this is when you know you have a really good team – a football team or a team in corporate America – when something happens and you feel bad for your teammates, because you’re going to work harder to make sure you don’t disappoint them. We had that bond. We had that. I felt bad if I had a bad game I was letting them down.

We were really good at focusing on what’s in front of us. We had just won a Super Bowl, so we knew that people were going to look at us differently. Every game we played in 1998 felt like it was a playoff game. Not necessarily to us but we were getting teams who we felt like they were a given. And normally, you know, we play a team, we started where I’m down third quarter, fourth, where we could see him quitting. Well, that wasn’t the case in 1998. And we had a coach that was really good. You talk about incentive, that motivation, really good at making football fun. Mike [Shanahan] would also do things like – we’d have scheduled practices, and so our minds said, we got pads on, we’re going to go practice. As we walked out to practice, Mike was like, “What are you guys going with pads?” Things like that endear you to your leader. You’re like, man, this dude – he understands it. I love Mike Shanahan. I think he was one of my best coaches and the admiration I have for him because he was open to dialogue. It was all about a collaborative effort. If he did something he brought the leaders in and asked this question about, “Hey, what do you guys think about this? And I’m thinking about, you know, maybe having padded practice on Thursday, just a few things. What do you guys think?” And we would be like, “You know what, Mike? Yeah, I think that’s good. You know, our team needs it because last week, we weren’t tackling well.” And so you throw pads on. He knew what buttons to push all the time. He knew his newest players, so there was a personal element to it. When you talk to players and you know about their family and you care about them, that’s huge. I [would] through that brick wall for him because he was a leader that I respected. There was honesty there. There was a person who was trying to do everything that I saw him doing. I was always trying to improve. I was trying to get you to think about why he’s asking you to do things, and it was always for the betterment of the team. He never took a hard line. It was no accident we won 46 games in a three year span, and two championships. Did we have talent? Yes, we did. But we also had to get rid of some talent and people who just didn’t fit what we wanted to do. If you only cared about numbers, then you really weren’t going to be our team.

Adam: Can you describe your relationship with Philip Lindsay and what goes into being an effective mentor?

Terrell: Philip grew up in Denver and was watching me when he was growing up. I didn’t realize that he had actually bought my autobiography and would use that book and highlight certain paragraphs and certain quotes. He showed it to me and… that was pretty cool. I never thought of myself as being a mentor or role model, but I guess we all are. And by way of modeling, people are going to watch you and they want to model what you do if you’re doing something that they respect. So in that light it’s cool and I welcome that. We talk on the phone and text, but I try not to be a guy that calls and is a micromanagement type – “hey, you should be doing that.” But his story kind of resembles mine, and a reason why I allowed him to work number 30 or really gave my blessing – I know he could have worn it, but he wanted to get my blessing, so I blessed him and said go for it – I thought he really represented what number 30 was about. And it was about the underdog. It’s about the person who defied the odds, a guy that wasn’t supposed to be in the league, but took advantage of it. And he represents that; what he’s doing, he’s got the mentality right now that he is still feeling like people don’t respect him. And I said, “That’s good. You gotta keep that. Don’t ever lose that. Because the minute people start patting you on the back and telling you how great you are, then sometimes we lose that edge because we start to believe that and then we don’t work as hard.” And he’s still working hard to prove that he is that. He’s still being disrespected. Just like Tom Brady. Tom Brady’s got a chip on the shoulder. And that’s great. I had that same thing. So he’s gonna be fine and he’s still doing his thing and he’s going to be. When it’s all said and done, I envision showing up at Broncos stadium and handing Philip Lindsay the ball off as the Broncos’ leading rusher. How cool would that be? And then one day I’d love to see him pass that number to somebody coming in that took that same path.

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