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Just Keep Climbing: How a champion coach and NFL quarterback worked through self-doubt


For those standing at the bottom of a mountain, it's tempting to look at those at the top and assume their ascension was always pre-determined. That were no false steps taken, no luck required and, most of all, no moments of self-doubt.

Those that reached the top of that mountain look down and, if they're being honest with themselves, know that to be sheer lunacy.

Hear it from two who reached the top in their own respective climbs.

Take Paul Mainieri. Mainieri has been a Division I head baseball coach consecutively since 1989, with six seasons at Air Force, a dozen years with nine NCAA Regional appearances and one College World Series trip at Notre Dame, and now nine seasons and counting with four College World Series trips and one national title at LSU.

But, before he was one of the most respected coaches in college baseball, Mainieri was an anonymous coach at an anonymous NAIA school in south Florida. Louisiana-Lafayette turned him down for their head coaching opening. His wife, Karen, worked as a flight attendant, and the couple and their three young children lived with Paul's parents.

“That was one of the times in our marriage when Karen was discouraged about coaching,” Mainieri told The (Baton Rouge) Advocate. “I said, ‘If I don’t get another job next year, I’ll consider getting out.’” The stock market was to be his next career if baseball didn't work out. “I didn’t really want to do it," he said.

A quarter-century later, that time is but a happy memory now. "It's crazy," Karen Mainieri said.

And then there's Tony Romo. An under-recruited kid from Burlington, Wisc., Romo played at FCS Eastern Illinois and entered the NFL through the side door that the janitor forgot to lock at night.

He signed with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2003, then sat behind the likes of Quincy Carter, Chad Hutchinson, Drew Henson and a 40-year-old Vinny Testaverde. Heading into training camp before the 2004 season, Romo sat fourth in a three-man game of musical chairs, behind Carter, Testaverde and Hutchinson.

"I'm sitting there and obviously I'm not really wanting to get into the numbers game," Romo said on a recent podcast with The Village Church, via the Dallas Morning News. "I'm not a rocket scientist but one, two, three and I'm four. It just doesn't look as solid, but you don't want to think that way. The problem is you can't help it."

"I remember sitting in my hotel room right there and I was so pent up with anxiety and everything was just coming to a head and it was like, 'I can't take it.' It was just so much. My whole life felt like it was on this moment.

"That's when I sat in bed and I just prayed to the Lord, and this was a very defining moment for me. I was like, 'If I'm not meant to be the quarterback here or play quarterback in the NFL, that's fine. Then I'm going to go back and be a really good assistant golf club professional back in Burlington, Wisconsin.'"

As we know now, it was indeed meant to be. Carter was cut that August for what would later be revealed as a failed drug test, allowing Romo to return was the team's third-string quarterback. He didn't see the field until the middle of the 2006 season, taking over for an injured Drew Bledsoe, and still holds the Cowboys' starting quarterback job today, 34,000 yards, nearly 250 touchdown passes and one $100 million contract later.

Romo and Mainieri faced down their moments of self-doubt, and chose to put their nose down and keep climbing. Yes, they worked hard. That goes without saying. But so did others around them. Whereas others may have chosen to turn around for safer footing and easier breathing, these two choose to acknowledge their self-doubt, stay on the mountain and wait for their break to find them.