It’s just another Monday morning in August, with morning dew coating the freshly cut grass and the dragonflies buzzing about. It’s camp time; that time of the year where college football players all over the nation begin to seriously doubt why they ever thought it was a good idea to pick up a pigskin. Today is also a two-a-day, which is such a mind-boggling concept when you think about it. Somewhere along the line, someone was like “I know we just finished a 2+ hour practice in 100 degree heat, but we have so much daylight left! You know what? Maybe we just go out and practice…. AGAIN.” But make no mistake, camp is a type of beautiful pain, the labor pains for the Autumn Spectacle. Because as miserable as the screaming, the blisters, the bruises, and the fatigue can be, they act as a symbolic premonition: Football is back. For player and fan alike, the long night of the offseason is drawing to a close as the sun rises on another marvelous college football season, rich with its trademark tradition and pageantry.
For me, the start to this August Monday is not so much unlike the many August Mondays past. An early morning workout, followed by some time in the training room. And then it’s time to suit up and go to work. Except every time I’ve used that phrase before, I’ve referred to donning a helmet and shoulder pads and going to practice. But this time is the first time I’ve meant it quite literally. I’ve traded in my jersey for a button down and my practice pants for khakis. But don’t misplace your pity or disappointment; I am exactly where I’m supposed to be, and I couldn’t be more excited. It’s the first day of the rest of my life.
Obviously, this leaves quite a gap in the timeline of my story, and I’ll do my best to fill it in. I’ll put it bluntly: I didn’t get drafted. I didn’t get signed as a free agent either. That hurt a little bit, and I have never experienced a feeling as nerve-wracking as holding a phone in your hand for hours that just won’t seem to ring. BUT GOD IS FAITHFUL, and I did get an opportunity. I was invited to Rookie Mini Camp with Tennessee Titans, which is where I got my small taste of NFL football. In a scene that felt eerily reminiscent to the Hunger Games, myself and the other tryouts were shipped in from around the country and put on a bus to the facility, knowing full well that few of us, if any, would be granted the opportunity to sign a free agent contract and get invited to camp with the team. Nevertheless, I threw everything I had into the three day RMC, and I was challenged both by the complexity of an NFL playbook and by the level of competition I found in my fellow rookies.
At the end of my short stay in Nashville, I was certain of two things: I had performed to the best of my ability, and the NFL was not for me. I recoil even saying such a thing, as if somehow by saying I was ready to be done playing the game I love should cause the football gods to strike me dead where I stand. But I KNEW, and if you’ve ever known something in your heart without being able to adequately describe it, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. But if I had to try to describe it in insufficient terms, I would say this: I am ready to be great. Not “pretty good for my size” or “good for my talent level” or “very good at using my intelligence.” I’m ready for excellence without caveats and qualifiers. I’m yearning to take the cap off my potential. I realized that in the NFL, my best hope was to hang around for as long as I can and aspire to be average, hopefully collecting some decent paychecks along the way. While I respect the heck out of NFL journeymen and the many men who have the persistence to keep trying after being denied, I knew exactly what I wanted. So when the Director of Scouting told me that they simply had too many centers already and would not be offering me a contract, I knew that there would not be more tryouts. I would not be going to Canada, the Arena League, or anywhere else. My external circumstances had merely come to align with my internal realizations. I firmly believe that God prepared my heart for what could’ve been a devastating blow, and he gave me an opportunity to experience my “dream” long enough to come to the realization that it wasn’t what I truly desired. So when I boarded the plane home with the realization that I had played my last down of football, I felt the tug of nostalgia and the pang of disappointment, but I also felt something else: the thrill of anticipation. This was not my personal apocalyptic inquiry of “what am I going to do with my life??!!” Not at all. Instead, I tremble with excitement when I ask myself the question “What won’t I do with my life?” In my mind, the possibilities are endless, and I can’t wait to get started.
Like any great Shakespearean tragedy, this play calls for an interlude. The break between the end of my football career and the start of the real world lasted from mid-May until yesterday. I had the time and energy to do so much! I got to see my sister deliver a speech at her high school graduation, I played basketball with my little brothers, and spent loads of time with lots of different friends. I read more, I wrote often, and I listened to various types of music. I even visited mystical foreign lands like Indianapolis, IN, Abilene, TX, Ankeny, IA, Possum Kingdom, TX, and College Station, TX.
But mostly I just thought. About God. About politics. About the American identity. About adultery. About homosexuality. About race. Bias and discrimination. Violence and hatred. The virtues and evils of capitalism and self-interest. Our brokenness and the human condition. Who I am and what I believe. I could go on. I thought a lot, I laughed a lot, and I prayed a lot. But now, I head towards a new challenge, and I could not be more excited.
Today was my first day on the job as the Administrative Fellow for the Student-Athlete Experience at the University of Oklahoma. This semester, I will be working on defining the ambiguous term we have coined “The Student-Athlete Experience,” and I will be breaking that term down and analyzing what we do well and what we can do better here at OU. On a daily basis, I will be doing a lot of work in Student-Athlete Development, including events such as the Sooner Choice Awards, the Scholar-Athlete Breakfast, and Sooner Oath, as well as our leadership development training for student-athletes of all ages. Additionally, I have the opportunity to do some work with Sooner Sports TV! I will be providing web content in the form of film breakdown, and I will be a regular on the pregame show. My biggest role will be co-hosting a new show on Tuesday evenings at 6 pm at Rudy’s BBQ called The Huddle. Toby Rowland, Ryan Broyles, and I are partnering up to provide an hour of insider analysis and commentary in what promises to be a unique experience. We are definitely going to have fun with it, and we hope you tune in! As part of The Huddle, I will have a weekly segment that will be called Front and Center. This will be my time to talk about whatever I desire, and I hope to be both thoughtful and entertaining. I would love feedback for potential topics, sports-related or otherwise! I plan on pairing that short segment with a weekly blog post on that week’s topic to hopefully provide a deeper analysis on what will be a condensed, televised monologue. Basically, I am getting to do a little bit of everything, which is where I thrive. It’s going to be new. It’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to be challenging. And I can’t wait.
However, this transition to a place of anticipation and acceptance of my new role did not take place without its major challenges. On that long flight back from Nashville in May, and in the months since, I have been asking myself, “Who am I without football?” For so long, my primary occupation has been “football player.” At times, I have let it become my identity. My defining descriptor. As I’ve poured time, passion, and effort into the game, I have even started to believe that it is who I am. So now, that label that I have worn so proudly has been stripped away, and I’ve been forced to truly contemplate the pillars of my identity. And in that process of self-reflection I have come to the conclusion that football was never who I was, it was simply what I did. While I do love it, it does not define my self-worth or my value as a human being. To say I’m a football player is insulting to a God that made me to be so much more. So now I can proudly answer “Who am I without football?” with not so much of a question as a retort.
I am not a football player.
Because I never was a football player.
God bless and Boomer Sooner,