UCLA basketball coach John Wooden famously said that “the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” The observation occurred to me while watching the Super Bowl, and in particular the actions of two truly professional athletes.

With less than two minutes to go in the game and the score tied, Jerick McKinnon of the Kansas City Chiefs faced every running back’s dream: nothing but daylight between himself and the end zone. A touchdown in Super Bowl LVII would have brought him individual renown—kleos, as the ancient Greeks called it—and surely every muscle in his rigorously trained body wanted to break the plane of the goal line.

To do that, though, would have given the football back to the Philadelphia Eagles with time on the clock, putting the game in the hands of star quarterback Jalen Hurts. So Mr. McKinnon went into what the Chiefs aptly call “church mode.” He ran to the 1-yard line, took a knee and declared himself down, enabling his team to run the game clock down to a mere eight seconds and kick what became the game-winning field goal. By trading personal acclaim for team glory, Mr. McKinnon ultimately achieved far more kleos than a lone touchdown could have secured.

After the Super Bowl, perpetually even-keeled Mr. Hurts was asked to describe his emotional state after the heartbreaking loss. His answer—“You either win or you learn”—proved that stoicism is much more than a disposition to him. The Greek philosopher Epictetus, whose body—but not his mind—was born into slavery, was known to ask himself nightly before slumber, “Where did I go wrong? What did I do? And what duty’s left undone?” He knew what happens in life is nothing. How you respond to what happens in life is everything.

Mr. Hurts didn’t wait for the solitude of his evening bed chamber. His self-examination began immediately, under the glaring lights of a Super Bowl postgame news conference. Mr. McKinnon, meanwhile, achieved maximal personal glory by thinking least about himself. Together, the selfless slide and presser pronouncement are the rich harvest of two men who’ve clearly spent countless hours anonymously cultivating their virtue.

The fine character of these two athletes wasn’t developed in the Super Bowl, but it was on glorious display there. What one does when millions are watching can be instructive as well.

Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, Mike Kerrigan

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