So there I was, just a scant nineteen years old and nowhere to go. Growing up in good ol’ Texas, football was my future. Playing football was going to get me friends. Playing football was going to get me girls. Playing football was going to get me everything I ever wanted. I had two older brothers who were something akin to demigods in my eyes and they both just happened to be really good at football and what do you know, they had everything I thought they wanted.
What everyone forgets to tell you is that you only get all this if you are good. But I had no worries because I was good, damn was I good...in high school.
In high school, I was the biggest guy on the team and more than just a little athletic for a guy my size. As an offensive lineman, one of the big boys on the field, I played basketball, a skinny boys’ sport. I was terrible at scoring but the fact I made the team at all was the remarkable point. I also ran track. Ran meaning I threw heavy things really far. Going into my senior year I was one of the best players in the district, on the radar of every school we were scheduled to play and named Team Captain.
Things were going well for me and football seemed to be paying off. I was in my senior year when I got my first real girlfriend and when it seemed like everyone in school wanted to be around me. The buzz to be my friend only increased after I was offered a scholarship to Texas Tech, the holy mecca for all things West Texas and where nearly half of all my classmates destined for college were headed.
My prospects were looking good but I ended up having a less than spectacular season, I suffered a high ankle sprain during the final game of the season and my team went five and five. My girlfriend left the country soon after the end of the season so we broke up and Texas Tech withdrew my offer. That left me with offers from Division Two schools who were unwilling to give me a full-ride scholarship and I wasn’t able to afford school without hurting my family’s pockets for a while. Thinking back, I remember how I felt more and more secluded as the football season became more of a memory.
Then the Ponies called.
Southern Methodist University rang and they were impressed by aspects of my tape. At least that is what I told myself. In reality, there was a late change in the coaching staff and the new staff was desperate for halfway decent recruits. In all honesty, I was weak and timid on the field but my athleticism made up for that so the school offer me a full-ride scholarship. I went on a visit where I was wined, dined and showed a good time.
DISCLAIMER - There was absolutely no alcohol involved, whatsoever. The food was good though.
With no other comparable offers, I was packing my bags in that summer of 2008. I kissed my mother goodbye and arrived in the quaint neighborhood of Highland Park near the heart of Dallas, Texas. I showed up ready to show off my God-given talents, because lord knows I didn’t work out on my own time for what I had.
I would reclaim the promises of football in my new environment and things got off to a good start. I was catching a few eyes and all my new teammates were impressed with my size as we moved in and introduced each other. I felt good that June, confident in myself and my abilities and what I would accomplish in my four years at Southern Methodist University.
Then the workouts began.
My performance in the majority of my workouts would have been laughable if they were not so pathetic. In fact, one teammate would make it his life’s mission that year to ensure I remembered the time I passed out towards the end of the first workout. He was not being malicious, he was just stating facts that amused him. Thinking back, I think he was trying to be friendly in that high school jock manner but I was not mature enough for ribbing among acquaintances yet. Though his bemused assessment, and those of literally any witness, was spot on. I was the worst player on the team by wide and far and the gulf between me and the next guy was astronomical.
Yet, bless his heart, my offensive line coach did not give up on me. He was determined to make me a Hall of Fame player in the NFL and all I had to do was do what he told me. How could I not believe the man? The guy played in the NFL for over a decade and his assistant won two Superbowls protecting Tom Brady, yes the Tom Brady, Mr. Deflategate himself. I had every reason to live by their word, by their mere utterances and yet I could not.
For some reason, everything they asked me to do seemed to be beyond my ability. They were simple enough things: go to class, do your work on and off the field, get on the bike after practice, workout after class, don’t eat past seven in the evening, drink a gallon of water a day. Easy, simple, straight-forward instructions that would have given me everything I ever dreamed of having.
Yet I could not do them.
I knew I needed to do these things to be successful yet I just flat out could not do a single one of them for any length of time. I would do one or two for a week and ignore the rest or I would do all of them for a few days then do none of them for the following days. The things I needed to do to be successful as an athlete were out of my wheelhouse. Granted, if I had discipline, none of this would have been an issue but I did not so there I was.
Over the course of the year, my offensive line coach would talk to us big boys during the meetings and tell us about knowing what type of guy you were. Some people are mathematicians. Some were history buffs. Whereas others were athletes. And then there were football players.
Not everyone was made for football. Football is a punishing sport that requires complete synchronicity between the mind and the body. When on the field, one has to have the game plan so ingrained, they are able to throw their bodies around with reckless abandon. You had to be the biggest, fastest, strongest guy at the moment of attack but if you are attacking the wrong person, you are of no worth to the team. Lumbering idiots have their place but the gridiron was...for all intents and purposes...a field of battle.
Please forgive the cliche.
And just like in armies, there were people enlisted for all the wrong reasons. Yet there were many playing football because of societal reasons as opposed to personal ones. You could be an athlete and play football professionally but only the best athletes went that far. Most teams will takes a real football player over an athlete nine times out of ten. However, a real man to knew himself and his make up. There were real men in other professions. There were real men who were gardeners and even beauticians but one had to know oneself to understand this.
That summer following my freshman year, I learned I was one of those people who was not made for football but I was not mature enough to admit this to myself. I mean how could I? In Texas, football is like a genie that can get you everything you ever wanted. I just happened to be the type who refused to go on the adventure to beseech the genie. Yet, I could not accept reality because reality derailed every foreseeable plan I made for my life.
Unfortunately, reality checked me before I could check myself and I got a call from my coach telling me that I was on academic suspension. I would not be returning to the SMU football team. That was when my world went into a freefall. I had no one to blame but myself.
I could not live the life of a collegiate football player. The life that was supposed to get me everything I wanted. My older brothers made it look so easy and yet I could barely finish a year. When I sat on my balcony, reviewing my life, words that were practically drilled into my head all throughout high school suddenly made sense.
“You have got to love all of it.”
I finally understood that I couldn’t just love the playing in games and all the attention and accolades I got from playing. I had to love working out, eating right, sleeping right, training right; doing everything that was required of me to reach the next level. I did not have them in me and I did not have the discipline to do them and it caught up with me. And it was there, on the balcony of my home, at nineteen years old when I realized I had no road ahead of me.
What I did not realize at the time was that I now had every road open in front of me since I no longer pigeonholed myself but that epiphany was one that was long in coming.
Now that the life I had set up and planned for myself was no more, I had to figure out what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I began attending my local community college with the mind of following my father’s footsteps and becoming a pharmacist like he wanted while also pretending I was going to go to another school and play. It was also at this time that I began playing semi-professional football.
Neither of these pursuits took me anywhere. I was always known for being smart but for the life of me, I could not concentrate in a single one of my classes. I kept trying but eventually I just started skipping which led to me just not going to class and obviously failing the course. I would then sign up for the same classes the next semester and repeat the process... for four consecutive years. All the while I am telling everyone that I am doing this and doing that in school and praying no one fact checked me. Luckily, I was blessed with a silver tongue of sorts and no one did.
During one of the years where I ended my school year prematurely, I was walking around my house feeling completely useless and unfulfilled. I had played all my games to my heart’s content and I was beyond tired of what was on TV. I had no job so I had no money to do anything and a car with a half a tank of gas but nowhere to go. After a few hours of aimless meandering, I found myself contemplating what I enjoyed doing. I figured if I find out what I liked doing then I could somehow find a career doing something similar.
That was when I found myself looking at a pair of books.
These books did not belong to me but I had no way of returning them to the owner so they were pretty much mine. The original owner was a former teammate from SMU who was trying to introduce me to a genre called historical fiction. The books were a series about the rise of Genghis Khan by Conn Iggulden and I absolutely loved them. I did not mean to steal them but since they were in my position, I read them again and again after I left SMU.
Eventually I discovered another series by Conn Iggulden but this one was about Julius Caesar. After tearing through the whole series in a matter of days, I found myself wanting more. All but hungering for more.
I remember sitting in my living room, staring at some moronicly transparent event on TV wishing there was some place where I could rent books for free. A place where all I had to do was sign up and if I promised to return the books by a date they set, I could continue getting more books. I then slapped myself. I literally dragged my right hand across my right cheek with force, and grabbed my keys.
I became a fiend at my local library. I would go and check out five to ten books at a time and eat all of them long before the time came to return them. I was practically inhaling books and with each subsequent reading, I found myself attempting to predict plot lines. The books I loved the most were the ones where all my predictions were wrong in absolutely spectacular fashion.
The Song of Ice and Fire series schooled me in how to keep the reader guessing while the Wheel of Time series showed me the beauty of a true fantasy epic. The Harry Potter series showed me the importance of core characters as well as the brilliance of minor events having huge short term significance. JK Rowling’s subtlety hit me so hard, I had to reread many books and see what majesty I missed.
I began devouring books at a breakneck pace but I soon began running into a problem. Not every author I read was Conn Iggulden or George RR Martin or JK Rowling or Robert Jordan. Many tried to be one of the greats but in trying to mimic legends, they lost their own voice, something I have found to be integral in becoming a writer of worth, nonetheless a legend.
At one point, I realized I’d blown through the entire fantasy section of my local library. I was disheartened but then I was introduced to all the truncations of the fiction genre in a room near the fantasy shelves. I continued to devour books at a breakneck pace and as I read more and more books, a plot began forming in the back of my mind.
I sat on this plot for a few weeks, nursing the idea as like a newborn child…which was true in a manner of speaking. Details were added here and there and details were reimagined here and there to make the plot feasible. Eventually, the plot grew too much for me to hope to contain just in my mind without forgetting things.
This was when I began writing down important details. These details needed to be explained, lest I forget that, and before long, paragraphs began filling the pages of an old journal I found in my closet. One night, I realized writing on paper was redundant because I was going to have to copy everything over onto the computer anyways.
So I started typing details here and there and those details expanded just like they did when I was writing them on paper. These paragraphs grew to fill pages and before long, the pages combined to make a coherent story.
And that was how I began writing.
Every day I wonder if I am fooling myself into thinking I can write well or even write at all. I continue to read everything I can get my hands on and every time I am blown away by how much I have to learn. It’s discouraging sometimes and it makes me wonder if I am repeating the mistakes I made with football. Yet, I cannot help but continue to write. I love it.
I love all of it.