To Young Athletes Who Feel The Pressure to Be Perfect,
It took me years to realize that life doesn’t end when you lose a game or make a mistake.
I grew up in Fairborn, Ohio, between Cincinnati and Columbus. I’m the second to the youngest of five boys. With three older brothers, I started playing sports very young.
As a kid, my older brother’s friends would always say, “Yo, your little brother is really talented. He’s going to be special when he gets to high school.”
In my freshman year of high school, I played varsity baseball and basketball. Soon after, I emerged as a standout football player. It wasn’t long before I became well-known around town for my athletic ability. People would come up to me to tell me they saw me make a play or wish me luck on our next game.
Everything I did, I felt as though it was bigger than just me. I was one of the very few people in my school’s entire history to have a shot at getting a scholarship to play Division 1 football. It felt like everyone was counting on me to win and go on and do big things with my life. Looking back, I now can see how unhealthy it was to try and live up to other people’s expectations.
In Ohio, football was a big deal and my high school never made the playoffs. My senior year, we started the season 5-1. I played quarterback and safety and people expected me to lead us to the postseason. All we had to do was win two of the next four games.
In one game, I threw a pick-six right before halftime and we lost by seven. The next game, we were driving down the field to win. I fumbled, they recovered the football and we lost that game by five.
We didn’t make the playoffs and I felt like it was all on me. I didn’t shake it off. I wasn’t just disappointed, I was devastated. After the game, I stood on the sideline, hugging my mother as I cried uncontrollably.
I felt like the biggest failure, because I thought I let everyone down. For years, I did everything I could to avoid moments like that one – to prevent mistakes on or off the field.
I didn’t go out with my friends or go to parties. I didn’t try new activities outside of sports. Paralyzed by this idea that I had to live up to expectations of others. I really didn’t explore a lot of my interests.
In college, I received a football scholarship to play at the University at Buffalo. But I continued on the same path, trying to do everything the way people told me to, so I could make it to the NFL – just like everyone hoped. It was as though my whole high school and college career, I walked on eggshells, trying so hard not to slip up or let people down.
When I graduated college and the NFL was no longer an option, I realized I had no idea who I was or what I liked outside of sports. That’s when I went back home and hit rock bottom.
I couldn’t find a job or keep a job. For the first time, I didn’t feel wanted for anything. And I no longer had sports, the one thing I had always used to bring people joy.
After never drinking in high school or college, I started to go to the bars four, five, six times a week. I stopped working out, gained weight and I got a DUI.
I ended up getting a job as a busboy at a restaurant a few miles from my house. Because of my DUI, I couldn’t drive, so I traveled by bike. When I rode my bike, whether it was summer or winter, I wore a hoodie all the way up because I didn’t want anyone to see me. Anytime I walked the streets or went to a store, people recognized me. They were still talking about the hail mary I threw my senior year or a dunk I made in basketball. I was supposed to “be somebody.” Instead, I was just another kid that went away for school and came back.
I was depressed.
One night, I got drunk and high at a friend’s house and I had a very bad trip on edibles. After watching the movie The Matrix, I thought a creature from the movie was coming after me and I started running. No socks, I just started running down the street to my house.
In a full-blown panic attack, I remember thinking, “What am I doing?”
When I woke up in my house the next day, I was in the fetal position and that’s when I realized I needed to get it together.
Around that same time, a girl who worked with me at the restaurant, Amanda, asked me out a few times. I repeatedly said no because I didn’t think I had anything to offer her.
Finally, one day I said to her, “I have no money. I can’t take you anywhere and I can’t drive you anywhere. “
She told me to come get drinks with some friends and that she’d pick me up and she’d also pay.
Amanda wasn’t from my hometown and knew nothing about me, which was amazing. There were no expectations and right away, I felt comfortable and safe with her. After our first date, we spent every single day together. And with her by my side, I started to explore and discover my identity.
I realized I love music, particularly old music. So, I started listening to Frank Sinatra and buying old records. Also, I enjoy cooking. Sometimes, I will just sit around and watch cooking shows like Bobby Flay and Chopped.
Three months after my first date with Amanda, we moved in together and I ended up getting a good job at a nearby college, working for a program called Upward Bound. The program provides academic services and resources to underprivileged high school students, giving them a better opportunity to attend college.
With Amanda, I wasn’t afraid to be myself or try new things and above all else, she made me feel like it was OK to make mistakes. I remember one day, I made lamb and I burnt the mess out of it and we laughed about it. It was OK.
In 2018, I married Amanda and a year later, we had our daughter. Now, I run my own business called Learning 2 Cope, talking to young athletes about mental health.
I want you all to know that you don’t need to live up to anyone’s expectations. You decide what defines success and you decide where your life takes you. Don’t be afraid to explore interests outside of sports.
Your identity should never be wrapped up in a sport or an activity because everything you do in life has a season. Maybe you’ll play sports for ten years or 15 years or 20 plus like Tom Brady, but at some point, it will come to an end. The only thing in life that’s with you forever is yourself.
That’s why it’s so important to figure out what makes you happy. To do so, you have to be willing to make mistakes. If you never try oysters, you’ll never know if you like them. If I never burnt that lamb, I would have never taken the time to learn how to get it just right.
The less I am afraid of making a mistake, the more I have come to love myself.
So, whether it’s fumbling on the football field or losing a job, or not reaching a goal, please understand that mistakes allow you the freedom to experiment, learn and grow.
Life does not end when you make a mistake. Mistakes are actually where life truly begins.
So, don’t worry so much and enjoy your life!