For me, it was the eyes.
Or maybe the feet, always trending forward, but sometimes in an indirect way.
Or the hips, shifting at improbable angles, defying gravity.
No, it was definitely the eyes that always stood out to me each Sunday afternoon.
When legendary NFL running back Barry Sanders broke through the Detroit Lions’ line of scrimmage and was about to attack the defensive secondary, that’s when you, as a football spectator, stopped breathing. You would hold your breath, similarly to when Michael Jordan was in the open court, or Tiger Woods was about to line up a putt at the Masters. And Sanders’ wide-open eyes had the look of a predator who had found his next meal and enjoyed the chase.
Standing on the sidelines this past Sunday, Sanders no longer has the look of that predator from 20 years ago. Even in rooting on his former team in the NFL playoffs, the look of the hunt in his eyes has given way to the twinkle of middle age amid undying respect from long-time football fans. But seeing him, nearly a quarter century past his retirement, triggered the nostalgia.
While I was watching the Lions-49ers NFC Championship game, I was staring at my hands. If I had a mirror, I’m guessing my face would have been a mixture of confidence, confusion, and reminiscence.
I was holding my acoustic guitar, a model I purchased around the same time Sanders was making linebackers look silly, and trying to find the muscle memory in my fingers to play a song I had learned and performed many times over the years. But years and years ago.
My father, a bona fide actual musician (I just pretend to be one), recruited me to play a small show next week, and he wanted me to play this one song. It’s not a hard song, but it’s not an easy one, either, and it’s built upon decades of nostalgia and longing. And to play it right, and to play it well, you have to summon both the technical skills, as well as the wisdom of musicianship, to do it properly. And I used to be able to do this, but now my fingers were failing me. Maybe if I flipped the guitar upside down and tried to play it with my left hand.
Bob Mermelstein, currently the CFO of Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, built his career in corporate America at several various spots in Pittsburgh. He could easily be continuing that trajectory today, even as, as he says, “I’m beyond normal retirement age.” There are still companies to be built, profits to be made, and executive suites to impact.
But Mermelstein allowed that nostalgia for corporate life to subside and traded it in for a better version. As he tells CFO reporter Adam Zaki, he longs for what is ahead and can leave behind what has passed:
“The biggest difference I’ve seen since is that while for-profit and nonprofit employees can be passionate about what they do, employees of nonprofits are emotional about what they do ... They live and breathe our mission ... it’s not just a job or career. They work to achieve a lifelong dream of doing something good.”
Nostalgia is a powerful thing, something that makes us human and connects us with others, even if those points of connection are as fleeting as unexpectedly high-fiving a stranger sitting next to you in the Silverdome, or singing along to a musical memory with a group of people you may never see again after you leave the concert hall.
But what Mermelstein demonstrates is that the next chapter of a career, no matter where you may be, can bring a deep sense of fulfillment and purpose that reinvigorates while keeping the nostalgia in its proper place of meaning.
This kind of growth is worth reflection and emulation.
(Layla, since I know some of you were wondering.)