KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — On some practice fields across the country, one of the worst things a football player can be called sounds like something out of a young-adult novel or a television show on The CW.
Pity the guy who’s labeled an “energy vampire.”
The reference actually comes from “The Energy Bus: Ten Rules To Fuel Your Life, Work And Team With Positive Energy,” a self-help book more and more teams are studying along with their playbooks.
The book offers lessons on staying positive and avoiding “energy vampires” who will “suck the life out of you and your goals and vision if you let them.”
“You don’t want the negativity,” current Buffalo Bills and former Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins said. “That’s one thing that no team needs or no one needs in their life. I think if you read the book, it will help you out.”
Plenty of coaches agree.
Tennessee’s Butch Jones and Washington’s Chris Petersen each had players read the book during the offseason. Jones also had the book’s author speak to the team this summer. Jones and Petersen joined a fraternity that also includes Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith, Georgia coach Mark Richt and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney among others. Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst gave a copy of the book to the school’s entire athletic staff.
The book’s popularity among sports teams has surprised its author, Jon Gordon, a former Cornell lacrosse player who said he didn’t have sports in mind when he wrote it. He figured businesses would be his target audience. Now he’s regularly speaking to teams and exchanging text messages with coaches and players in various sports.
“I never imagined the book would be used by all these teams like it is,” Gordon said.
The book, which came out in 2007 and was written in 3 1/2 weeks, is a fable about a man struggling in his job and marriage whose car gets a flat tire, forcing him to take a bus to work. The bus driver’s positive attitude helps him turn his life around. It has sold close to a million copies worldwide, according to Shannon Vargo, associate publisher for Wiley, which published the book.
Petersen had his seniors read the book, believing it resonated with young adults trying to figure out life.
“That’s one of our core components that we believe, that you can’t do anything well in life unless there’s a lot of energy that comes with it,” Petersen said.
Gordon believes the book’s popularity among coaches started with Smith, who was a defensive coordinator on Jack Del Rio’s Jacksonville Jaguars staff in 2007, when the team read the book and made its last playoff appearance. Gordon spoke to the Jaguars that season, and he now talks to Smith’s Falcons teams every year.
Richt used it in 2011 when Georgia rebounded from an 0-2 start to reach the Southeastern Conference championship game. The book eventually made its way around the coaching grapevine.
“I’m not Mr. Sunshine and Pollyanna guy,” Gordon said. “I hate when people write about positive thinking and put it in that framework. The kind we’re talking about is not that kind. It’s the kind that deals with a team that’s overcoming adversity and negativity and challenges with mental toughness.”
Tennessee has incorporated the book in a variety of ways. Jones carries a microphone with him at practice and occasionally calls out players by name and warns them against being “energy vampires.”
“It’s definitely motivation,” Tennessee center Mack Crowder said. “You never want to be called out over the intercom.”
Periodically at team meetings, Jones also asks players to say “what’s the word on the front of their bus” that they’ve made their personal mission. They’ve chosen such words as “consistent,” ”grit” and “desire.”
Jones himself went with “focus” because “I have to focus on the process of making this football team better every day.”
“That book really helped me, especially during training camp because it got a little hard but perception is everything,” Tennessee defensive end Corey Vereen said. “I might be out there hurting, but if you look at it a certain way, you see how blessed you are, how some people aren’t playing the game right now.”
Swinney had Gordon talk to his Clemson teams each of the last three years and has used “The Energy Bus” as well as “Training Camp,” a Gordon book that came out in 2009. Watkins read the book while at Clemson and is a big fan.
“It’s really about the mental and the physical standpoint of life and keeping yourself calm when going through hard times, good times, no matter what,” Watkins said. “You just always want to seek positive energy not only [for] yourself but whomever you’re around. Because if you’re positive, everybody else is positive.”
Gordon said the book works best for coaches who already are preaching the power of positive thinking.
“Believe me, I don’t want to take credit for any of it,” Gordon said. “I don’t think it’s me. I don’t think it’s the book. It’s the coach that reinforces the vision and reinforces the message. And then if a team says, ‘OK, we’re not going to allow negativity to sabotage our team,’ that’s when they have success.”
Jones, who has one of the youngest teams in all of college football, hopes the book’s themes help Tennessee end a string of four consecutive losing seasons. It already is making an impact in one respect.
“Sometimes someone will even come up to me and say, ‘Coach, you’re too quiet. That vampire doesn’t have you, do they?'” Jones said. “It’s kind of just been a rallying cry. It’s a catch phrase that makes its point.”
AP sports writers Robert Baum, Pete Iacobelli, Charles Odum, Eric Olson and John Wawrow contributed to this report.
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