My first year of football was rough.
When I made the team, Justin took me to get all of the equipment needed for practice. The team provided the shoulder pads, helmet, jersey and pants. We would need to buy a mouthguard, knee/thigh pads and cleats. Before we left the store, my brother suggested we buy a cup to protect “my family jewels,” as he called it. Although, since I was so young, he claimed a peanut shell and rubber band would suffice. He died laughing in the store and so did I. I wouldn’t be laughing for long.
No one else at practice was wearing a cup. I looked like the most well endowed 4th grader of all time. The cup was way too big. It was made for high school kids. I was nine. The sides of the cup were destroying my inner thighs as I ran. I was too embarrassed to show any pain at the time. I decided to push through. It was easily the hardest practice of my life.
By the time the season came around, I was ready to play football – for real. I had no idea what was in store for me. In terms of play calling – it was one dimensional. I was on the field – but at that age – no one can throw the ball. We were just too young. The pads too big. I was basically an offensive lineman. I blocked for running plays all game. That year, I had one catch on one target. I wanted to quit. How was I going to impress my crush, Karen Sullivan, if I couldn’t even get an opportunity to score a touchdown?!
When I told my dad about my intentions, he said “We don’t quit.” It was as simple as that. I would beg with him, “I was wrong, I don’t like football anymore!” To which he responded again stoically, “We don’t quit.”
Looking back, it’s one of my favorite life lessons: Quitting isn’t an option.
So, I prepared for another season. My dad and I tweaked our practice regiment. We would walk to the nearby grocer (about 1.5 miles away) throwing the football the entire way – to and from. We dubbed them our “football walks.” Every day, after school, my dad and I would have a quick snack and discuss my day – what I learned, funny stories and grade school drama. He would then tell me about his childhood memories. The lessons he learned. I would listen intently.
As soon as we finished, it was time to get to work. Even when I had friends over, we would just invite them to join. It was nice to practice against a defender. There was no offseason for us. I was ready for year two.
Sweating in the Florida sun, I almost fainted the first day of practice. Surprisingly, as the days passed by, we all got used to the menacing sun in the distance. Our little routines started to settle in. We would get warmed up, run practice plays, scrimmage and then do a running drill called suicides. As you can imagine – they weren’t pleasant. Our coach would watch us run drills from his lawn chair, tapping one finger on his knee while staring at his stopwatch. His short pug nose was perennially burned by the sun and he ate sunflower seeds whole.
One day – the routine stopped.
I was pulled aside. The coaches wanted me to switch positions. As they spoke about their plans, I could feel my stomach sink. I wanted to be Randy Moss, not whatever they were jabbering about.
I was being moved to defense.
The coaches knew I was a great receiver, but also knew the QB couldn’t throw the ball. If only my dad was on the team, I thought. A ludicrous idea – but one that definitely crossed my mind.
To be fair, I also wasn’t great at blocking. My dad and I had practiced routes but failed to think about actually blocking anyone. I guess we thought every play would be like that first play I fell in love with. Hail Mary after Hail Mary. We were naive but dreamers nonetheless.
They decided to make me a defensive back. In their minds – maybe I could get some interceptions. What they didn’t account for was my horrendous tackling skills. They wanted me to attack the practice dummy and drill it into the ground. When I tried, it looked more like I was going in for a light hug. I couldn’t pull it to the ground – it was too heavy. So there I was, with the hot Florida sun shining its spotlight on me, dancing with the dummy.
In retrospect, they should have played our QB on defense – Brandan Bishop went on to become the starting safety at NC State and was part of the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons practice squads. But I digress.
That season, I was briefly a defensive back. After missing multiple tackles in our first few games, I was benched – rightly so. Turns out, no one threw the ball on any of the other teams either – rendering me completely useless.
By that point, the offense had a set lineup and I had failed at defense. I was in football purgatory. I eventually made my way back into a few offensive sets but it wasn’t the same. I was a backup WR on a team that didn’t throw the ball.
Finally, my fortunes turned. In one of our final games of the season – my number was called. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the play in the huddle. It was a play action fly route. I was finally getting my Hail Mary pass. As I trotted to my position, it was dead silent. Not in reality, but for me it was. I could only hear my own heartbeat. It was steady. I wasn’t nervous. I had practiced this exact play with my dad for a year. I could catch this ball in my sleep.
I was running. No, I was gliding. It was effortless. I blew by the defender and was in open field. I could hear the muffled panic coming from the opposing coaches voices. They knew I had won the route. I looked over my shoulder to locate the QB. He was rolling out to his right. He saw me – I swear I could see his eyes widen even though I was 35 yards away. As he stepped up to launch the ball into the heavens, a defensive lineman broke free from our guards clutches. He got to the QB in the nick of time and altered his throwing motion. The ball that was supposed to be destined for my hands….landed 20 yards out of bounds. I was crushed.
I never got another opportunity like that during the season. Two years of football – two targets – one catch.
The football walks continued
By that time, my friend Chris James had joined our football themed hikes. He was quite the player himself. Always a little rambunctious and never afraid of a challenge, he was a perfect defender. Since we were best friends, I thought it would be great to have him on the team. It didn’t take much convincing. He signed up almost immediately.
The next season, we also got a new QB. His name was Jake. He could throw the ball 35 yards. I was stoked.
As I would quickly learn though – once your reputation is that of a backup – that’s what you are until the next opportunity presents itself. That was my toughest year of football. In my heart, I knew I was better than the other receivers. Unfortunately, my poor performance on defense had put a bad taste in the head coach’s mouth. If I couldn’t tackle, then I wasn’t athletic. If I wasn’t athletic, then I couldn’t be the starting wide out. Plus, as previously mentioned, I was terrible at blocking. It never interested me. The coaches never explained why it was necessary. My talent was catching footballs, not blocking for others.
Because of this, I saw the least action that year. I was becoming extremely frustrated. It didn’t help that Chris had become our starting defensive end and was making big plays. He also recruited a few of our other friends from school. They were all starting on defense as well, which became quite formidable. They had their own clique. They were single handedly winning us games as I watched from the sideline. I hate to admit it, but I was jealous.
Isn’t hard work supposed to pay off, I thought
What was the point of practicing my craft if I was never going to see the field. I wanted to quit again. Crying, I approached my dad. “Please, I hate football, let me quit!” Even he thought about it this time. I could see the wheels turning in his head.
Was it worth it? Could his time be used elsewhere? Should he be studying more? We gave it a good three years – no one would blame us. Would this really be quitting or just
re-evaluating a situation
He was weighing its pros and cons.
With all that in mind, he simply said “We’ll give it one more year.”
The football walks continued
One day, during one of our walks, my dad made us stop. This was highly unusual. This was not part of our routine. I was just getting into a rhythm and was a little upset with this sudden break of habit. He said he felt tired. He needed to take a break. He sat down in the grass and looked off into the distance. From his facial expression, I could tell this wasn’t going to be a brief hiatus. I decided to sit next to him. For awhile, we just sat there, listening to the breeze pass us by.
“Let’s head back,” he said. He looked exhausted.
Everybody gets a little tired every now and then. It’s normal after a hard days work or a bad nights sleep. But in this case, the tiredness was as if my dad had worked a whole month of night shifts.
As we walked back to our home, I started to get that sick feeling in my stomach again. I just didn’t know why..
A New Beginning
In 2001, Hall of Fame wide receiver, Cris Carter, retired from the Vikings as their all-time leader in, among other things, receptions (1,004), receiving yards (12,383), and touchdowns (110). After retirement, he decided to move with his family to his home in Boca Raton, Florida.
Little did I know, his decision to do so would significantly alter my football trajectory..