Not that You Won or Lost but How You Played The Game

I found these beautiful words in my parents house in Dublin, Ireland. Who wrote these words?

For when the one Great Scorer comes to write against your name, he writes, not that you won or lost, but how you play the game

Does anyone know who wrote this? Grantland Rice, Alumunus Football, Only the Brave and Other Poems (1941) seems to be credited a lot however, my old graphic letters version says Newbolt (would this be Cardinal Newbolt)? I’ll post the original Celtic letters version in ‘spread the moment’ section in a few days.  Meanwhile, does anyone know, for sure, who wrote these words?

You can download this as a poster by clicking on it or print it out and post it onto a notice board, or a dressing room. The debate also continues elsewhere on this site as we occassionally post this verse to see if we get any different comments – see  July 2009 and also in Jan 2010 . Please keep adding comments. Thank you.

Here is a different, yet beautiful, overlapping  intriguing version of the poem – written in 1925 by JB Downie in Minneapolis, USA, kindly sent into us by Peggy Legrande.

When The Master Referee Peggy Legrande


This beautiful piece of art & poetry was framed and hung proudly in Peggy’s parent’s home. She is now passing this on to her own grandson. Long may it inspire him and his family to come. Thank you again Peggy – warm wishes to you and yours  from London and Dublin.

63 thoughts on “Not that You Won or Lost but How You Played The Game

  1. I know these words well from my father, who himself was a great sportsman. Jim McCarthy, captained Munster and Ireland and played with the Lions. Dad regularly uses this quote. He is now 84 years old and in great form. I will ask him where he first heard that quote and hopefully answer your query.

  2. Cooleen it would indeed be an honour to hear how your father came across these words. Perhaps he might also have some stories of sportsmanship (I’ll bet he has) which I would love to share with others.

    Meanwhile the Independent newspaper (11 October 2007) endorsed this spirit of sportsmanship (and your father in particular):
    “But when were men’s finest hours defined solely by the ultimate outcome? What of their spirit, individual acts of supreme courage and bravery? What of their honesty, the way in which they represented their countries and enhanced the great values of their sport? Such qualities are the bedrock of the game, and the Lions of the Fifties were the epitome of those values.” This was taken from an article in the Independent news paper which your father might enjoy. Click on the title: Paris the perfect setting for reunion of ‘Invincible Lions’

    One South African journalist wrote: “South Africa owes a manifold debt to the British Isles rugby touring team. They have rescued our rugby from becoming a matter merely of boot and brawn.”

    The independent article continued: “J S McCarthy, perhaps Ireland’s greatest ever open side and a member of Ireland’s only Grand Slam team of 1948, was a particular good friend of [the late] Peter Kininmonth’s (no.8 for Scotland and the Lions). As Tony O’Reilly said: “They were like ‘The Odd Couple’, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, inseparable and enormous fun.”

  3. This quotation comes from the poem, “Alumnus Football”, by Grantland Rice. Rice was a great sportswriter who coined the phrase “The Four Horsemen” of Notre Dame and is also credited with the name “The Crimson Tide” for the University of Alabama football team. He is featured as a character in the movie “Bagger Vance” as well. You might enjoy reading the whole poem, which is on the theme of perseverance.

  4. Well George. The plot thickens. Circa 1925 eh… as an earlier comment suggested 1930s. So the search goes on. I’ve yet to find the full poem ….but pls ignore Sheetz’s Amendment:
    “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you place the blame (in John Peers 1001 Logical Laws . . . 1979).”

    If anyone does find the full poem – pls send it to me as we really need to publish it here also.

    We will find it!

    • This is the whole poem:

      “For when the one great scorer comes
      To write against your name,
      He writes not that you won or lost
      But how you played the game.”

      • I have the actual poem. it is very old, and hung on my grandmother’s wall when my father was a child. He hung it in our home in the 60’s, and when Dad died in 2007, at age 86, it was here in his house.

        This puts it in the late 1910-20s at the latest. If you leave me an email I will send you a screen shot of the piece, but it reads as follows:

        “We can’t all play a winning game, someone is sure to lose, Yet we can play so that our name, no one may dare accuse. That when the Master Referee scores against our name, it won’t be whether we won or lost, but how we played the game.”

          • You can find the original poem was written by J.B. Downie before Grantland Rice was born. Did he plagiarize or was the idea his own. At least he didn’t go word for word.

          • I know nothing of the origin of this poem. My dad was the youngest of 5 boys and he was born in 1921. The piece hung first in my grandmother’s
            house in Colgate, Oklahoma when Dad was growing up. His brothers were much older than him…I suppose the poem was printed sometime in the time between 1910 and 1925. My poor Grandma…she raised those boys by herself during the depression.

  5. One of the great sports poems of all time by one of the greatest sports writers…

    Alumnus football
    Grantland Rice

    Bill Jones had been the shining star upon his college team.
    His tackling was ferocious and his bucking was a dream.
    When husky William took the ball beneath his brawny arm
    They had two extra men to ring the ambulance alarm.

    Bill hit the line and ran the ends like some mad bull amuck.
    The other team would shiver when they saw him start to buck.
    And when some rival tackler tried to block his dashing pace,
    On waking up, he’d ask, “Who drove that truck across my face?”

    Bill had the speed-Bill had the weight-Bill never bucked in vain;
    From goal to goal he whizzed along while fragments, strewed the plain,
    And there had been a standing bet, which no one tried to call,
    That he could make his distance through a ten-foot granite wall.

    When he wound up his college course each student’s heart was sore.
    They wept to think bull-throated Bill would sock the line no more.
    Not so with William – in his dreams he saw the Field of Fame,
    Where he would buck to glory in the swirl of Life’s big game.

    Sweet are the dreams of college life, before our faith is nicked-
    The world is but a cherry tree that’s waiting to be picked;
    The world is but an open road-until we find, one day,
    How far away the goal posts are that called us to the play.

    So, with the sheepskin tucked beneath his arm in football style,
    Bill put on steam and dashed into the thickest of the pile;
    With eyes ablaze he sprinted where the laureled highway led-
    When Bill woke up his scalp hung loose and knots adorned his head.

    He tried to run the ends of life, but with rib-crushing toss
    A rent collector tackled him and threw him for a loss.
    And when he switched his course again and dashed into the line
    The massive Guard named Failure did a toddle on his spine.

    Bill tried to punt out of the rut, but ere he turned the trick
    Right Tackle Competition scuttled through and blocked the kick.
    And when he tackled at Success in one long, vicious prod
    The Fullback Disappointment steered his features in sod.

    Bill was no quitter, so he tried a buck in higher gear,
    But Left Guard Envy broke it up and stood him on his ear.
    Whereat he aimed a forward pass, but in two vicious bounds
    Big Center Greed slipped through a hole and rammed him out of bounds.

    But one day, when across the Field of Fame the goal seemed dim,
    The wise old coach, Experience, came up and spoke to him.
    “Oh Boy,” he said, “the main point now before you win your bout
    Is keep on bucking Failure till you’ve worn the piker out!”

    “And, kid, cut out this fancy stuff – go in there, low and hard;
    Just keep your eye upon the ball and plug on, yard by yard,
    And more than all, when you are thrown or tumbled with a crack,
    Don’t sit there whining-hustle up and keep on coming back;

    “Keep coming back with all you’ve got, without an alibi,
    If Competition trips you up or lands upon your eye,
    Until at last above the din you hear this sentence spilled:
    ‘We might as well let this bird through before we all get killed.’

    “You’ll find the road is long and rough, with soft spots far apart,
    Where only those can make the grade who have the Uphill Heart.
    And when they stop you with a thud or halt you with a crack,
    Let Courage call the signals as you keep on coming back.

    “Keep coming back, and though the world may romp across your spine,
    Let every game’s end find you still upon the battling line;
    For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,
    He writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the Game

    • I agree with John Miles because I found this poem and it was said to be written by Grantland Rice and published in The Nashville Tennessean. I’m sure I read it first at Harpeth Hall in high school. I found out from my mother that her father, E.S. Brugh roomed with Grandland Rice when they were students at Vanderbilt Law School. My grandfather Mr.Brugh, as I would hear him called. went on to be a school teacher and Principal at Tarbox School. Then he opened his own insurance business. My father who was a writer at the Nashville Banner also told me about what a great writer Grantland Rice was. I love his writing about The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame.

      • Peggy, many thanks for this. It just gets more intriguing all the time. Your grandfather Mr. Brugh, roomed with Grantland Rice. That must have been interesting! Coincidentally, I spoke in Notre Dame and we now have a great alliance. Incidentally, I read the verse to 60 Year 5 students (aged 9) yesterday and they loved it. Thanks again Peggy Reynolds Dudley – some fine Irish heritage there, methinks! Best wishes, Paul

  6. John, thank you so much. I’ve just sat and indulged every word and line. What pictures he paints with words and all layered with wisdom too. Wonderful stuff. Thanks again. Paul Smith

  7. Thanks Richard
    interestingly this source says:
    “It’s not how you win or lose, but how you play the game,” is a misquote from the poem….!

    I have also got some feedback from Linkedin Sports discussion which I wil try and dig out and post here soon.

    This is intriguing. Interesting to see who the World Cup heroes are – see home page for my 3 World Cup Sportsmanship heroes. Thanks again.

  8. The illuminated plaque which has Grantland Rice’s poem attributed wrongly to Newbolt (Sir Henry Newbolt, not Cardinal Newman) is confusing “how you played the game” [Rice] with “Play up! Play Up! and play the game!” [Newbolt]. Easily done, I suppose, … but on a wall plaque!?

  9. David, that is very helpful. Do you, by any chance, have the full poem by Cardinal Newbolt (and year of publication)? It would be good to post it here so that we have both poems for reference. Many thanks for your clarification. Paul

  10. There is a boys camp in Goshen Pass, Va called Camp Virginia. The directer was Mac Pitt,Baseball Coach and Athletic directer at University of Richmond. This quote was on a huge poster on the wall of the mess building. He preached this the whole time we were at camp…Too bad most professional athletes don’t have a clue what it means,,,
    “For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,
    He writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the Game”

    • Many thanks Mike. Great to hear others use these great words also. FYI I just posted a link to a video of an American basketball player Chris Herren, ex pro and recovering addict, and one who sees what sport is all about – fun. He pleads with parents to let kids have fun and they’ll keep at it – that is sportsmanship also. Check it out on my home page – the video is pretty powerful. Thanks again & very best wishes to Mac Pitt and all at Uni Richmond from a Dubliner in London.

  11. I’ve had the Great scorer quoted at my for more years than I care to remember,I knew it was by Grantland Rice but never until today seeing the full poem I thought it was like,Vitai Lamparda ‘ Play up and play the game’by Sir Henry Newbolt about cricket,guess your never too old to learn something new

  12. Indeed Pam.
    However the debate continues because the beautiful graphic styled verse that I found in my family home
    clearly says Newbolt – see the graphic

    Scroll down to the poster. Pass it on and see if anyone else has a clear view on it.
    Regardless of who wrote it – they are powerful words and an acid test as to whether a coach or a player really believes in sportsmanship – will they post the poster up?
    Regards, Paul

  13. I first heard the line spoken when watching the movie: Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius. I never forgot that line. In fact I wrote it down because I was so impressed by it. That was a couple of years ago. I often wondered about the line. I didn’t realise it was an actual quote and not just a line made up by a brilliant scriptwriter.

    And then to find this site and to read about the origin of the line…simply remarkable. Thank you.

    By the way, the movie was good too! 🙂

  14. May I enter the discussion on who wrote those final lines of Rice’s epic poem. I am 80 years old and have a framed wall poem by
    Jacob B. Downie(1843-1912) from as far back as I can remember.It goes: We can’t all play a winning game,
    Someone is sure to lose.
    But we can play so that our name,
    No one may dare accuse,
    That when the Master Referee
    Scores against our name.
    It wont be whether we won or lost,
    But how we played the game.

    • Robert, thank you very much for this new angle to this discussion which has been going on for a few years on this site (see also other discussion for an additional discussion).

      Richard Beale previously suggested the poem, Alumnus Football, first appeared in an article written by Grantland Rice for the Nashville Tennessean in 1908 to describe a Vanderbilt alumnus football game. Whereas Robert, you suggest Jacob B. Downie (Irish name?) 1843-1912. Although the words are slightly different they may have been written around the same time by different poets? The plot thickens. Richard have you got a date that Downie’s verse was published? Fascinating stuff. Thanks once again. Paul

    • Amazing Robert. Sorry for slow reply. Many thanks for this intriguing information.
      More information coming in – so please have a look at some of the other comments particularly one very recent comment from Steve Cowers.
      With very best wishes ~ Paul

  15. Our family has a metal plaque from the Shapleigh Hardware Co. with this quote, no author referenced. My research suggests the plaque was produced by Shapleigh between 1897 to 1908. Does this raise question as to Grantland Rice being the originator? The plaque belonged to my wife’s grandfather, Orson Ryan, whose son Kent played football for the Lions we believe the plaque was obtained about 1908. Do we know when Rice composed his poem? I’m curious about the possible Irish origin.

    • Wow Steve this is truly intriguing. This discussion has been going on since 2008 and I’ve never heard this angle. Please send me a photo of the plaque. With your permission I’ll add it to this post plus post it on our facebook page etc. and will invite anyone to send more information.

      Grantland Rice’s poem was published in 1941. The full poem is here:
      In fact, this link opens up a few other sources.

      Meanwhile, another helpful reader, Mr. Robert Kelley kindly added this comment: May I enter the discussion on who wrote those final lines of Rice’s epic poem. I am 80 years old and have a framed wall poem by Jacob B. Downie(1843-1912) from as far back as I can remember.It goes: We can’t all play a winning game,
      Someone is sure to lose.
      But we can play so that our name,
      No one may dare accuse,
      That when the Master Referee
      Scores against our name.
      It wont be whether we won or lost,
      But how we played the game.

      Steve, Downie is an Irish name? Also have a look in the comments and you’ll see another Lions player who used to quote this verse to his children a long long time ago.

      A framed version of the ornate graphics version of the verse used to hang on the wall in my parents’ bedroom in Dubin, way back in the 60s.

      I am delighted with your information. Please send photo plus any more information.
      Many thanks ~ Paul (author of Great Moments Of Sportsmanship)

      • In 1925 The Buzza Company published the above poem entitled “Playing the Game” by J. B. Downie.

        George Buzza, founder of The Buzza Co., published greeting cards, calendar posters and other fine paper products. By post-WWI the company along with other fine publishing houses were framing poems, also referred to as “poetry from the heart” and now Buzza mottoes.

        Buzza employed some of the finest illustrators of the day such as Leo Mero, well-known Edgar Guest, Sam Foss, and Anne Campbell. The company published poems and writings by Edgar Allan Poe, Maurine Hathaway and J. P. McEvoy.

        In the 1920s at the height of their business, The Buzza Co. produced their finest work. The illustrating department created superb designs which were reverent to the poetry, and Buzza printed on quality paper using quality inks. The frames were also made in house.

        Economics, changing times and a faster pace of living, all led to the demise of this charming custom.

        Mr. Kelly most likely has a framed motto published by The Buzza Co., who also published under Craftacres – the name of their building in Minneapolis, from 1925.

        • Well thank you Bettye. That is fascinating. I wonder if the Buzza company did the graphics on this lovely verse? Thanks very much for the information.

  16. Hello. Sorry to jump in here. I live in Boston and recently acquired this poem via a 1920’s framed Buzzo Motto. I was trying to research it’s value and came across your group thread. I found my poem in a bargain bin in an old thrift shop. The tag on the back said, “Jacob B. Downie’s “Playing the Game” Gibson Buzza Motto cir. 1920.” I found a photo of one that looks just like mine online via another seller. Link >>

    • Welcome to the conversation. This is very interesting. I have heard of Buzzo, though ‘Jacob B Downie’ is new to me. What is the pinterest image – the link didn’t work. If you get a chance maybe you could photograph front and back and we’ll post them up here. Thanks very much. ~ Paul

      • So sorry, Paul! I am just now reading your comment. I ask because I came across 5 pages of hand typed poetry edited by a Douglas Delong, Aug. 10, 1943. Poems by Thayer, Rice and Walt Mason. Two of these poems I cannot find anywhere…..It looks like Mr. Delong was editing for someone.

  17. I have an original of the poem given to me by my Mother in 1949 that I cherish. I was a young child. It is gold leaf with a picture of two dueling horses with men in coats of armor. It is in an old glass case maybe 5 X 5 inches. Would love to share it but dont know how to post the picture. It also has some inpirational writing on the back.

    • I have been researching two knights sparing and the J B Downing poem, Playing the game. It’s black and gold. It was my grandparents and I want to pass it on to my son. First I was looking for some back ground info on it.

      • Sherry – that is fascinating. Perhaps you might post the full poem in an other comment – as it sounds different to my poem.
        By The Way, If you enter the word : POEM into the search engine in the top right hand corner (with the magnifying glass icon), you will find 3 different posts/articles about ‘For when the one great scorer …’ poem, and, more interestingly, you will find some even more intriguing comments suggesting the source of this poem.
        I wish you well and thank you for your comment.

  18. Here is a poem given to Dutch Tennis Star Tom Okker by his mother on his first trip to Australia in 1964.

    whatever the game and whatever the odds
    The winning is all up to you
    For it isn’t the score, and it isn’t the prize
    That counts when the playing is through!

    The best you can do may not be quite enough
    To defeat your opponents today;
    But you never can lose, and you never can fail
    If you “put all you’ve got” in your play;

    For the greatest reward that your efforts can bring,
    Is the fact that you stood the test.
    That you played a clean game, and you fought a good fight,
    And you always were doing your best!

    In the great game of Life it’s the purpose to win,
    And the courage to fight till you’ve won,
    That determines for you what degree of success
    Will be scored to your credit, my son”

    • Ann, thank you for sending this. It is wonderful. How did you find this? Thanks so much for typing it and posting it – it’s beautiful – what greta advice for a mother to give her young professional son stepping into a new world. There is another story here……. thanks again.

  19. This is great!!!! I have a Buzza Motto “Playing The Game” poem credited to J. B. Downie and art by Lee Mero. I purchased it from an estate sale. The back says “To my sister, Ann, with love., Florence. Christmas 1927” With the Grantland Rice name in this thread, I thought I would throw this curveball (hahahahaha )Lee Mero married Kathryn Rice in 1920!!!! How bizarre is that??? Have enjoyed the thread!

    • Thank you Karen for this intriguing insight. if you get a moment – perhaps you might send a photo or scan the poem – (both sides ie including the ‘To my sister Ann….’ and I’ll add it to the blog post in due course.

  20. This poem hung over the entrance to our elementary school’s gym. It had a huge impact on me and I have talked about it with other classmates and teammates. It inspired me to play every game the way they were meant to be played… honorably, respectfully, and with intensity. The gym and the elementary school were demolished years ago. The poem lives on.

  21. When the Great Chambermaid comes
    To make your eternal bed,
    She asks not if you won or lost,
    But did you beat the spread?

    This verse was at the head of a Red Smith sports column in the New York TIMES in the 1960s-70s era when the lowly NY Giants ALMOST upset the mighty Baltimore Colts with Johnny Unitas, The Colts were a twenty-point favorite with the odds-makers, but the final score came up something like 22 to 19 Colts, so Red Smith was praising the Giants. Smith attributed the verse to Grantland Rice.

    • Hilarious stuff Dave – many thanks. If you are watching the World Cup – this verse may be appropriate also as there are so many close games and penalty shoot outs! Am amazed that the NYT ran it. Fair play to them!
      Re poems – we featured another poem called the Smiling Poem in Dec 2018 – have a look as it makes a serious point about the POWER OF SMILING

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