My mistakes made headlines, but this is the story no one read

To: young people who have made mistakes,

From: Weslye Saunders

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To young people who have made mistakes,

A lot of people look at my life and think I have made a lot of mistakes. My mistakes made it to the headlines of newspapers, google, and all over social media. Most people wouldn’t be able to handle the scrutiny and backlash I faced. However, I want you to know that I have learned to change my mindset – change how I manifest those perceived mistakes, which has led me to a better life.

For some time, I was a pretty selfish dude. It was all about me. I wanted to be a professional athlete. My size, combined with my athletic ability, made me stand out at a very young age. Coaches showed more interest in me than other athletes and didn’t penalize me for making an error like they might with someone else. I took notice. Sometimes I wouldn’t finish sprints, or I would give up halfway through practice. I would constantly test and push boundaries, as everyone continuously told me how great I was at sports.

For some time, I was a pretty selfish dude. It was all about me.

My first love was basketball, but I received a scholarship to the University of South Carolina to play basketball and football. Ultimately, I ended up solely focusing on football. In college, I started to realize my talent and take the sport more seriously. I played as a true freshman and made the freshman All-American team in 2007. Going into my senior season, I was ranked among the best tight ends in the country.

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I was on top of the world and on the cusp of my dreams coming true. But one decision – one mistake – put me on a significant detour.

Through the years, I saw top players getting handshakes – getting benefits, largely due to their performance on the field. I thought if I did well, I’d get the same perks. And sure enough, that is precisely how it happened. I accepted benefits, which at the time was illegal in the NCAA.

Growing up, Wes was a natural athlete.

Twitter was just starting to grow. As I traveled to South Beach and Minnesota, I posted pictures of my new lifestyle. I didn’t think anyone was paying that close of attention. But when the NCAA approached me, they had a whole book of pictures and records. You would have thought I killed someone.

My name was smeared in headlines, as I was in the middle of an NCAA investigation. Bullied and harassed on social media, it was hard for me and I didn’t always handle the situation perfectly. Ultimately, I got suspended and then dismissed from the team, missing my entire senior season. The fans who once cheered for me now resented me.

I tried to move forward and continue to chase my NFL dreams, but just before the combine, I broke my foot. Between missing my senior season and getting injured, I fell out of the draft and went undrafted to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As I was pushing to make the team during preseason, I was still in an immense amount of pain from breaking my foot. Struggling to perform while taking pain pills, a friend gave me Adderall to offset the effects of the Vicodin. It was another decision – another mistake – that led to yet another setback. The first week of the season, I got a random drug test. I tested positive for Adderall, which is considered a performance-enhancing drug and illegal in the league if you don’t have a prescription. The league initially gave me a four-game suspension, but when I got caught with that same substance a second time that year, the league increased it to an eight-game suspension.  At that point, I was struggling with an opioid addiction.

After my first suspension, I got released by the Steelers, but I got picked up by the Indianapolis Colts. After my second suspension was over, I played a season with the Colts while also getting my addiction under control. But then I was released, and that was it.

As I had in the past, I thought I would get another opportunity, but that’s not what happened. My reputation was damaged:

 “Bad for the locker room”

“Breaks the rules”

“Does drugs”

These statements weren’t just rumors. They were news.  

I wanted to show people what they read in the paper wasn’t me. I wasn’t a “bad boy.” First, I tried to defend myself against all these keyboard gangsters. It was very exhausting. Then, I went on a tour to NFL teams, calling it the “Why not Wes?” campaign. The idea was to look these scouts and general managers in the eye and show them I was a new guy. But it all went horribly wrong. The Seattle Seahawks ended up issuing a trespassing warning, and other teams were sent a message to be on the lookout for me.

It was all incredibly disappointing and hurtful. I thought football was a brotherhood, but I realized I was just a commodity. So much of my existence centered around my ability to play football. Once football was taken away from me, I had to dig deep and figure out who I was, what I stood for, and where my values lay.

Amid all this hurt and disappointment, I started to think less about myself and more about all of you. I began to be less selfish.

Getting in trouble publicly made me realize how much influence I had over young people like you. I decided to use my platform and even the negative attention I received as a launching pad to reach all of you – to inspire you, guide you, and help you realize that you can learn and grow from the challenges you endure.

Wes is dedicated to inspiring children.

I didn’t have a game plan when I started. I just showed up, calling high schools and even juvenile detention centers, asking if I could speak to their kids. It means so much to me when one of you tells me something I said resonated with your situation.

Also, I started volunteering for a charity called Silent Victims of Crime. It is based primarily around children with an incarcerated parent. It is where I have met some of you already.  We recently took a group to Jupiter, Florida, to a camp where all the kids could kayak and go bike riding and hiking. So many of our participants are from the inner city and have never been to the beach. Most of the group didn’t want to get in the water.  But once I went in with one person, everyone else wanted to give it a try. Those are the moments that I cherish. I love seeing young people like you overcome your fears and become more confident.

Muhammad Ali once said, “The service we give to others is the rent we pay on earth.”

That is now my favorite quote. That’s because the older I get, the more I realize happiness comes from what you do for others.

The older I get, the more I realize happiness comes from what you do for others.

Today,  my goals and my dreams are much different than they were when I was young. Now, my focus is on helping you move past your struggles so you, too,  can live your true purpose.

If you made a mistake, if you are facing adversity or a challenge, it’s OK. No matter how big or public or how many people have something to say about it, don’t look at mistakes as failures—instead, look at them as part of the game. Use them to help you learn about yourself and your purpose.

While facing adversity is never fun, I want you to remember that it was only through my mistakes that I found true joy and peace in my life. It was my mistakes that led me to a better life by leading me to all of you.

Your past doesn’t change the power you possess within yourself. So keep pushing forward.

I believe in you.

Weslye Saunders
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