Sports Psychology Special Feature to JohnFMurray.com – July 26, 2011 – By John F. Murray, PhD – Every now and then I insert a fun article, music video or photo album to the site at JohnFMurray.com, and this one fits the bill precisely, especially since the NFL lockout is over and our sport is back. The effort is usually well received as a refreshing break from more usual mental coaching angles designed to help NFL teams or other athletes win, or the more serious commentary on news or mental illness that is often sought by major media outlets. So here I go again, throwing caution to the wind, and sharing what I consider a fascinating personal story given my passion for and involvement with NFL players. It’s just one more example of how small the world really is and how we are all so closely connected and we might not even know it. Since I also love time travel and learning about the past, this sort of fits into that genre too!
We Americans usually prefer to look forward rather than back into the past. After all, our country is only 235 years young, and most of our ancestors left horrible circumstances in hopes of finding a better life. Rarely were these early years as an immigrant filled with prominence and comfort, and more often our arriving great-grandparents struggled to exist in a world of minimum wage sweat shops, dangerous coal mines, and noisy factories. Yet as inquisitive, determined and proud people, we often rose quickly in this land of opportunity, and more quickly than others at the bottom rung of society in so many other countries. In fact, it is not at all surprising for the son or grandson of a peasant coal miner in this American system to go on to own a multi-billion dollar company, gain international acclaim in the arts or sciences, or in the case of Bill Polian to become the most successful and respected executive in NFL history from a history of Irish immigrants in NY City. Another fellow that Polian does not yet know (that fellow is me) went on to get the first PhD in his family’s recorded history of some 400 years, and works today as a sports psychologist to NFL players and others.
Bill Polian built three Super Bowl teams in Carolina, Buffalo and more recently Indianapolis. He apparently did it with remarkable insight and well oiled management skills, and he has received many NFL awards for his accomplishments. I first heard of Polian in the late 80s and early 90s as a wild Miami Dolphins fan because I was jealous of his ability to find great players like Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas to terrorize my beloved team. So I had heard of him, and knew about his skills, but to me he was like “my team’s nightmare come true” and never in my wildest imagination would I think that guy would end up being my cousin! He didn’t wear aqua and orange … so he couldn’t possibly be related …. but I am wrong, I found out recently that my enemy was all along my cousin! (Note: Polian is not really and never was really my enemy and I have not even met or talked with him yet).
Like Polian, I love the NFL and have consulted at the highest levels including to NFL quarterbacks and coaches as a licensed clinical and sports psychologist. Before all this, I conducted my doctoral dissertation on the Florida Gators football team that won the national title in 1996. I even wrote my second book this year on the Super Bowl and have probably contributed to over 300 stories on football in the general media in the past 10 years. So it truly amazed me when I discovered that this mega NFL influence and talent evaluator and I are third cousins! What is even more amazing is that Bill Polian does not even know this yet, or perhaps he doesn’t want to know it, but why? It’s great trivia! Maybe nature is indeed stronger than nurture and we share a rare football passion and football player evaluation gene or something!
Well into his 60s and having already achieved fame and fortune for his talent in finding the right players for his teams, what need would a guy like Polian have to give the time of day to a newly discovered cousin sports psychologist dubbed “The Freud of Football” by the Washington Post who is the author of a book that quantifies mental performance in American football called “The Mental Performance Index: Ranking the Best Teams in Super Bowl History.” Tom Flores wrote my forward and he told me that he plays golf with Polian and loves him. Lesley Visser wrote the epilogue of my book, and she knows everyone in football and is the only female in the pro football Hall of Fame. Still, I’ve never even talked with my cousin the NFL genius!
I’m actually pretty good with communication. I sent Mr. Polian a nice letter telling him of my interesting discovery and even spoke with his secretary at the Colts team headquarters on two occasions. I wished him well in a Christmas card to the team in December, 2009 when the Colts were getting ready to make a move in the playoffs (and would eventually play the Saints in the Super Bowl) and this year I sent him several signed copies of my new book when it came out. I am a little puzzled that I have not once heard back from Polian about whether he liked the book or not, and he has never once even commented on my fun family discovery even though I had sent him a chart of our ancestral connections.
I love sharing a good mystery, so I thought it was time to share this trivia. Maybe he’ll read this and realize that I was never some grovelling fan or ailing coach seeking employment with the Colts by trying to play the family connections game. For 12 years now I have been professionally satisfied and fully engaged in working with some of the best teams and athletes in the world, and while it would be phenomenal to help any team win a Super Bowl with my rare skills in an emerging profession, I considered this story more worth telling since we are both so obviously interested in elite football player evaluation and talent development. Maybe we’ll meet for coffee or lunch some day and laugh about this and how busy he has been with the Colts, or how his secretary never gave him the messages, but as I type away this article, that day has not come yet and I’m not sure it ever will.
How did I discover the connection between Murray and Polian? It started as a favor to my mother. My mother’s brother was about to celebrate his 80th birthday at a big party in New Jersey and my mother wanted to surprise him. For almost 100 years, my mother and her brother had no idea about the whereabouts of their maternal grandmother, my great-grandmother, Catherine Tiernan. It was as if she had simply disappeared while my grandmother was still a child, and they did not know if she had died in the Spanish Influenza of 1919, went missing, or had experienced something so shameful that family had covered it up. It was a major family mystery, but my mother knew I was good at research, having completed two masters degrees and a PhD, and she was confident that when I put my mental skills to work I usually get good results. I did.
I put my thinking cap on, subscribed to Ancestry.com, and posted a note about the whereabouts of my great-grandmother. A few days later I received an email from a law librarian and genealogy buff in California who had been searching in vain for my grandmother, Natalie (Catherine Tiernan’s daughter) and had all the information about Catherine! He told me that he was my third cousin. This led to a six hour phone conversation and some amazing sharing. We helped each other with each other’s mystery! When I told this librarian about my love of NFL football and NFL consultation work, and my upcoming NFL book, he told me that Bill Polian, the famous executive with the Indianapolis Colts, was my third cousin. I have since verified it to be 100% true from several other sources.
The following shows how I am related to Bill Polian, President of the Indianapolis Colts:
1. Bernard V. McLaughlin (1833-1892) married Julia Mullaly (1830-1895) and two of their children were Julia McLaughlin (1868-1899) and Bernard S. McLaughlin (1858-1905). Julia and Bernard S. were brother and sister.
2. Julia McLaughlin married Joseph Tiernan (1858-1886) and they had a daughter named Catherine Tiernan (1886-1916), and Catherine is my mother’s long sought after grandmother and my great grandmother!
3. Bernard S. McLaughlin married Johanna Stokes (1867-1895) and they had a son named Joseph J. McLaughlin (1891-1951) who married Cecilia A. Casbay (1895-1976). They had a daughter named Bernice Julian McLaughlin (1915-1997).
4. Bernice Julian McLaughlin married William Patrick Polian Sr. (1907-1995), and William is the father of Bill Polian of the Colts. Thus, Bill Polian and I are third cousins once removed!
Presidents Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt are often referred to in American history as cousins, yet they were distant 5th cousins. Third cousins are much much closer, and the fact that my grandmother was Bill Polian’s second cousin makes this even more compelling. The timing is a little asynchronous historically, as Bill is now in his late 60s and I am in my late 40s, but the facts remain true. I am not too far removed to the greatest talent evaluator the NFL has known. I discovered it by accident and with luck thanks to another third cousin who loves ancestry research and does it well.
I do not expect anything from Bill Polian, but it would be fun to meet him some day. I was the one who reached out, not he. I sent him a copy of my football psychology book, told him about the family connection, and wished him well in the Super Bowl. Whether he ever read my book or not is unknown. If not, he is missing a direct fun challenge that I gave him in the book. It is a a challenge that would help improve the landscape for all pro athletes by removing a ridiculous stigma about psychology in sports that keeps teams from getting better, and keeps players from getting help when they need it.
Anyone who is interested in my new NFL book, and the challenge I proposed to Mr. Polian, can find it at amazon.com at the following link.
I sincerely hope you have enjoyed this fun article from the world of sports psychology!