Running Into the Fog: Having Faith in Uncertainty

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 Hail Marysame 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.

 

Gabe

Ready, Set, Go: Pro Day

“Schrade…You’re Up!”  As three scouts encircled around me, one pulling my right arm up as high as it would go, one making sure my feet were together, and the last taking the measurement of my standing reach for the vertical jump test, I looked up at the plastic slats designated in half-inch increments. No more practice. Pro Day had arrived. I was ready. I was set. It was time to go. 

Vertical

Pro Day is the climax of a lifetime of work. Athletes spend months, thousands of dollars, and maintain rigorous diets training for peak performance for the biggest interview of their lives. Preparation has always been my forte, and for Pro Day, it was at an all-time high. I burned nearly 5000 calories a day training to file my body fat all the way down to 12% which meant doubling my protein intake to maintain my 240 pound body weight. Since January, I’ve consumed 450 eggs, 720 chicken breast, 100 salmon and 270 tilapia filets, 180 Greek yogurts, and 300 protein shakes. Despite exhaustion from multiple hours of high-intensity daily training, I would come home and do max out push ups, each night one more than the last working to increase my reps for the 225 lbs bench. I spent off-days, Saturdays and Sundays, working on mobility, stretching, rolling, prepping for the next week of training.  In January and February, I jumped the fences of upper class neighborhoods to use their pools to simulate the anti-inflammatory effects of an ice bath.  I went to bed at 9:00 o’clock every night for three months, and on the first Sunday in February, that meant going to bed in the third quarter of the Super Bowl. I practiced the Short Shuttle upwards of 500 times and knew how many breathes I would take during the 40 Yard Dash. My preparation was unmatched…so, when on Pro Day adversity did come, I was still ready.

I calculated tough conditions; 2-10 teams don’t usually have much NFL talent to offer, and scouts have often already done their homework and are anxious to get home. I didn’t expect a grandiose turnout or the devout level of interest that more successful programs are afforded. While I hoped for a full-house, I prepared for a fast-paced, impersonal evaluation with minimal opportunities to impress or engage prospective employers other than the day’s scheduled physical test and measurements. This mental due diligence may have saved my career, because while Texas State Pro Day was the biggest day of my life, for scouts in attendance, it was just another day at the office. Regardless…I was on my mark…I was set…I was ready to go.

40-e1522464388138.jpeg

Pro Day offers no do-overs, no second chances, no sympathy, and despite the day’s many obstacles, I performed. Event after event, my last name was called, and all at once I was running, jumping, pressing and catching for a chance to live my dream. I bested the averages of fullbacks invited to the NFL combine and the scores of the highest rated prospect at my position in every category except the 40, and even in that, I was less than a tenth of a second behind. Below is a table of comparisons between 2018 NFL Combine participants at the tight end and fullback positions and my performance at Texas State Pro Day.

Position 40 5-10-5 L Drill Vert Broad Bench
Avg TE 4.76 4.41 7.21 32 1/2 9’07 18
Avg FB 4.85 4.57 7.46 30 1/2 9’00 17
Me 4.91 4.20 7.17 33 1/2 9’04 23

As I alluded to last week, the 40 Yard Dash is all important, and being just outside of the normal fullback average may very well prove costly. However, strong performances in the strength and agility segments were significantly above average and what I needed to spur NFL teams to take notice.

For thousands of senior prospects, Pro Day has both come and gone, and the results have left most without hope of playing competitive football ever again. I have confronted those odds many a time over the last three months and understand the possibility that Pro Day could have been my final football act. While there is tremendous uncertainty regarding what my football future holds, what matters is that my Pro Day numbers warrant me the right to have a chance to prove I can play, and a chance is all I’ve ever needed.

Now, I’ll wait, and by wait I mean prepare – prepare for the opportunity I expect to have…the opportunity I feel like I’ve earned. The NFL Draft is April 26-28th, and while I am not expecting to be drafted, I am expecting a call.

 

Gabe

 

 

 

Running for My Life: The Need for Speed

In 2012 Nike released a now famous video titled “Fast is Faster.” The footage likened NFL stars to supercars and jet engines equating the speed of the NFL’s elite to those awesome products of modern science and technology…and they weren’t wrong. The message was clear: what was strong, has become fast…and what was fast, has gotten faster. The game was changing. That was the memo. The repercussion…only the fast survive.

NFL football players have always been considered the biggest people around; currently, they are not only the biggest, but often the fastest as well. The shift in the league’s players from size and strength to size and speed has revolutionized how the game is played. Overwhelming size now fused with alarming speed cements NFL players as modern day demigods allowing football not only to consist of rugby style pile drives but instead evolving to a fast and explosive matchup game centered around maximizing personnel advantages of size, strength, and now more than ever, speed.

Speed testing is what scouting-combines and pro days are all about. Sure there are tests of strength like benching 225 pounds for max reps and tests of explosiveness like the broad and vertical jump, but every other athletic assessment starts and ends with the question, “How fast?” There are three tests of speed:

  • The Short Shuttle (5-10-5), is a lateral change of direction drill; it evaluates how fast a player can start, stop, and return in 5, 10, and 5 yard segments.
  • The Three Cone (L Drill) is a more comprehensive test of movement requiring the player to both redirect, turn and burst at 90° angles.
  • The 40 Yard Dash represents the kingpin of all combine testing drills and claims the title for the ultimate test of speed. The simplest of tests…a player starts in a three point stance and runs 40 yards as fast as he can.

While each of the three tests of speed carry weight, the importance of running a good 40 can hardly be overstated, and the margin of error couldn’t be smaller. Two-tenths of a second is the difference between a 2` and 10 million dollar signing bonus, or in my case, between being drafted and not.

So why the 40? Simply put, it tests how fast an athlete can get from point A to point B, which is a product of the athlete’s capacity to produce force (Force = Mass x Acceleration). The lower the 40 time, the more force is being exerted into the ground, and the faster an athlete can move. Even though differences in 40 times are minuscule, tenths of a second are often the difference in outrunning the last defender for a score or making a touchdown saving tackle. To be fair, fullbacks aren’t expected to outrun many defenders, and our running back counter parts will always be significantly faster although their times measure a measly 0.15 less on the clock. Regardless, in order to compete as a profession fullback, the metric for speed must read 4.65 to 4.85 with potentially fatal consequences awaiting prospects in the slower portion of that range.

Much of how fast a prospect is can be derived from watching his film, but clocking his 40 time provides instant comparison to more than 50 other NFL hopefuls with almost identical height and weight dimensions, Pro Day is here, and this coming Monday is my chance to stand out from my competition and prove I deserve a shot to play with the big boys. Through hundreds of hours of training, carefully planned meals, and a body fat percentage nearing single digits, I’m ready to take them on. Along with competing in the other tests of strength, speed and explosiveness, I’ll have my turn at the 40 Yard Dash, and I’ll run it as fast as I can. After all, when the difference between making it and not is twenty milliseconds, I better run fast…I’ll be running for my life.

 

Gabe

 

 

Running Into People: A Fullback Mentality

3-16-2017

For the vast majority of people, running into someone unexpectedly occurs at your local grocery store and generally ends in a “Have a nice day!” and a smile as you part. For me, running into people is seldom unexpected and never ends with verbal pleasantries. With 15 pounds of equipment, the charge of adrenaline and a generous supply of bad Fullback Mentalityintentions, running into people is my job, at least I want it to be.

Football, as tough as it is, may not be as arduous as confronting the odds of making it to the NFL.  I think my 6th grade technology teacher put it best; I remember the exchange verbatim. “Who here wants to be a professional athlete?” In a class of fifteen about six hands shot up, mine included. He continued,  “I hate to break it to you, but statistically speaking, none of you will make it to the pros. Only 2% of all high school athletes even play in college, and out of all of the college athletes, only 2% of those go pro.” There was a lengthy pause as our 6th grade minds attempted to comprehend the overwhelming probability that our dreams would not come true. He raised the question again, hoping his rhetoric had corrected our delusional fantasies to something more, practical. “So, now how many of you really think you’re that one-in-a-million that is going to play professional sports?” I raised my hand again. “You do?” He challenged. “I do,” I countered as I wiped my now sweaty palms down my jeans. His response, “We’ll see.”

All my life has been spent battling those nearly impossible odds, sacrificing normal things, good things, in a quest to fulfill that dream.  In 2017, with nomination for the Mackey Award for best Tight End in the Nation and being named to the Sun Belt All Conference team despite consecutive 2-10 seasons, came the validation my aspiration so desperately needed. Finally, for the very first time, a dream born in the heart of a little 8 year old boy in the mountains of West Virginia seemed… possible. This January, I announced my intentions to play football in the NFL and declared myself eligible to be drafted to 1 of 32 teams in April. Now, in just over a week, I’ll have one final shot at making that dream come true. 

All COnference

Professional sports are physical attribute leagues. In no other profession in the world do employers examine things like knee circumference or the length of your hand as qualifiers for employment. In fact, the NFL dedicates an entire week to evaluating 300 of the nations highest rated college football players’ physical abilities: how fast, how quick, how strong, how explosive, you name it, it’s tested. Every year, guys who ‘test well’ climb the draft board, and every year, guys that don’t, fall. That week-long event is called the NFL Combine, and if you don’t get invited, your playing career and NFL dream is on the ropes. I’m not projected to be drafted, and I didn’t receive an invite to the NFL Combine. For me, and hundreds of other college football senior hopefuls like me, there is only one more chance to convince an NFL team that “I’m their guy” – that chance is Pro Day.

Pro Day(s) are combine style events hosted at most football team fielding universities across the country. Every Division 1A program hosts a Pro Day for their team’s graduating football seniors. Similar to the NFL Combine, Pro Days feature the same physical tests and measurements that the NFL Combine does; the major difference – there may not be anyone there to watch. Unlike the NFL Combine, scouts and coaches from professional football teams are not obligated to attend. From both a financial and logistical perspective, it isn’t practical to attend the over 100 Pro Days across the country. Therefore, teams pick and choose which Pro Days to attend based on previously garnered interest in a particular player or the reputation of a school to produce NFL caliber talent.

Unfortunately, my school (Texas State) is currently buried under the pile in both of those categories. Texas State hasn’t had a draft pick since our 7-5 season in 2014 from which Craig Mager and David Mayo were picked in the 3rd and 5th round respectively. Since then, three humiliating seasons of 3-9, 2-10, and 2-10 have certainly not aided NFL interest in our program or our players. Be that as it may, how many pro scouts show up at Texas State Pro Day is out of my control. What I do control, however, is my performance at Pro Day on March 26th, and I’m gonna need everything I’ve got.
For those of you that know my story, you know playing football has had more than its fair share of challenges. If you don’t know my story, I plan to tell it to you, every Friday, for as many Fridays as my NFL football dream is alive. The odds are stacked against me, now more than ever. Now, just like every time before, I’ll meet those odds in the field of play, dig my hand in the dirt and run right through them. Why? Because that’s my job; at least I want it to be.

Gabe