In 1952, a great fog descended on London; over a period of 5 days, there was no above ground transportation, a dramatic increase of crime, and nearly 12,000 deaths attributed directly to the fog. For London’s 8 million plus residents, life in the fog was scary, dangerous, and uncertain. Now it’s my turn to face the fog, and while the vices of anxiety and doubt concerning my football future can be overwhelming at points, I know how to battle them…because this isn’t my first time in the fog.
When my family moved from Birmingham Alabama to Deland, Florida in the middle of my sophomore year of high school, I was filled with uncertainty. Aside from the usual challenges of adapting to a new environment, new curriculum, and new social interactions, there was a new football team to prove myself too, and with only two years of high school left, my football future was uncertain.
Early that spring, I was introduced to Deland-style ‘Tire Fights’ – a car-tire tug-of-war with no rules and one task, forcibly take the tire from the other player. Tire Fights are bouts for position and respect, and when a new guy comes into a competitive environment, everybody wants to see where he fits on the food chain. On the Monday of my second week, the biggest guy on our team (6’6, 270 pound tackle who ended up receiving a scholarship offer from the Florida Gators) stood in front of the tire and needed a challenge; he was the prize. Beating him meant playing time and that’s what I was after. I stepped up in front of a team that largely didn’t know my name, and while everyone noticed he outweighed me by 60 pounds, what they couldn’t measure was my heart…and that was the difference. The laws of physics certainly weren’t on my side, but with a devout desire to win, the grueling 3-minute battle proved too exhausting for my competitor as I drug him past the line, took the tire, and garnered the respect I needed to make an early contribution on the football field.
Having earned a starting position on an 8A team, the forecast for finding a football scholarship at the major collegiate level now seemed certain. However, clear skies didn’t last long when a month later, on the third day of spring practice, in front of a host of 7 major Division 1 scouts, my knee was fractured on a dive by a defender, and I was instantly sidelined. Sentenced to 8 weeks of rehab not only cost me opportunities to impress college scouts during prime evaluation time, but I found myself spiraling to the bottom of the depth chart on an already talented team. With the season fast approaching and a mental and physical deficit from missed practices, I wrestled with the fear that my football-life would be buried alive.
Armed with a comeback mentality and a can-do attitude, I attacked my rehab, made great time, re-earned the starting spot in camp and sealed it with a score in the first game. I had a breakout junior season and received a invitation to the National Underclassmen Junior All-American game – the same game that boast alumni including Titans Quarterback Marcus Mariota as well as other NFL stars. Finally, that was my big break, an opportunity to garner national interest from top tier schools; I was riding high and ready! Unfortunately, what had seemed so sure vanished so quickly when two weeks before the All American game I broke my back in a freak accident. After practice, a teammate and I ran routes against each other when a contested catch fell to the ground leaving both my L4 and L5 vertebrae fractured. My world was forever changed. For 3 months I was confined to a chair or my bed and was forced to standby as honors, awards and opportunities, previously in my grasp, sifted like sand through my fingers. To make matters worse, the doctor told my dad and I that football just wasn’t safe for me, and I should consider never playing again entirely.
Looking back on those moments when all seemed lost, I now gain strength knowing that overwhelming uncertainty and impossible improbability can be overcome. Even though the realities of setbacks and misfortune are real and do hurt, I realize that feeling sorry for myself and spending hours contemplating ‘what if’ scenarios will never bring me closer to achieving my goals.
Many players do sustain career ending injuries, and most athletes never play past high school, but I’ve been blessed to overcome many ‘Hard Knocks’ during my football life and carry with me a underdog’s attitude as a result. While I may not have always been the guy pegged by others to go on and play in the NFL, it could be right in front of me…but I’ll just have to wait until the fog clears.