It was the tenth day of my 3rd year of NCAA college football camp. The perfect summer weather, 80 something degrees, the hot sun burned down on the old condemned astro turf of red hawk stadium as players meandered about warming up and stretching away the early morning imperfections like a pack of lions preparing for the hunt and I felt like a king.
We were ranked top 10 in the nation after proving our worthiness in a national championship attempt the year before reaching the second round against many critics predictions. My path as a collegiate athlete had led me to this moment and while many people questioned my decisions to leave a division one school no one second guessed my talent as a football player however soon they and I would be swallowed by the painful events of that day overflowing with hindsight and regret.
The practice began like any other and I as always excitedly stepped onto the field eager to improve and master my new found position as sam linebacker in a devastating 3-4 defense. It was a conscious decision to switch to linebacker as a career move and one that I welcomed and as it proved, was working well for the defense. In our linebacking drills I quickly applied my defensive end skills and adapted skillfully wreaking havoc on our offense without much opposition. I was almost impossible to protect against and my defensive abilities were on display as I consistently evaded any blocking scheme that our offensive line could throw at me. The line at that time consisted of a highly skilled and seasoned core, one of which was my former all american older brother and like any brothers we had our battles. We challenged each other day in day out from the moment I suited up in a red hawk uniform. Brotherly competition, one filled with a high level of mutual respect and ferocity which proved beneficial to our improvement as players after all this was the main reason I made the move to a division 3 school when I could easily have taken a roster position at any competitive 1AA or 1A school. More than that it was his senior year and I wanted nothing more than to give everything I had to be my best and contribute to making his last year a memorable one.
Blitz Period! My favorite! As a sam linebacker I had freedom, room to play, it was like uncaging a 800 pound tiger after years of confinement. I had the ability to start my rush from distance and depth concealed in 3-4 unpredictability I made pass rush into a poem, an art and in my mind the flow and rhythm just poured out of every step. OMAHA, OMAHA, HUT, HIKE! I dashed forward from 3 yards deep 4 yards wide timing the snap flawlessly easily a step or two ahead of my brother which was rarely done by any of his opponents. I hastily closed distance and so did he, making up his ground quickly being the high caliber player he was I was never surprised. Like two 1000 pound oxes collision was inevitable but being the smaller in stature that was not my game plan as i knew he could easily win that battle. Rather than engage him and lose, I had other plans. Right at the moment of immense impact I chopped his outside blocking hand throwing him slightly off balance giving me a window of seconds to reach for his back shoulder, flip my hips around his and pull myself through to advantage. Swimming my inside arm over and bringing the rest of my weight through, I placed myself between him and the now vulnerable quarterback with his body now behind mine. Knowing I had won the immediate battle, my eyes widened and heart pulsated coursing a concoction of blood, adrenaline and testosterone through my veins. I turned up the speed and closed the distance, 2 one thousand, 3 one thousand, the silent pass rush clock in my head counted down pressing me to hurry my feet before the qb had time to react or my brother recover and enact one of his miraculous and sometimes painful punishments. 4 one thousand, i slapped the qb in the stomach and cheers of encouragement from the defense and harsh words of criticism from the offense filled the air. I celebrated internally showing no emotion and jogged back to the huddle. Just another play. Another learning experience, a chance to improve. A typical day at the office.
Blitz period quickly ended, my brother and his pack of offensive lineman went back to the drawing board and the linebackers went on to engage in our S.O.S. as my highschool coach and mentor would drill in our heads. “Same Old Shit”! he would say, boring, tedious, but necessary if you want to be the best. And I had grandiose plans, perhaps conceited plans of glory. Plans to reach the NFL like one other player from MSU history had done, Sam Mills. I knew it was a long shot but I also knew it was possible and I always believed I had the ability, maybe not the size, but my skill I knew was top notch and unmatched. With that I was confident enough I could play with anyone at any level.
Our practice period consisted of bag agilities, linebacker reads etc typical drills that were absolutely necessary, especially if the position was somewhat foreign to you like it was to me. Halfway through our S.O.S. we readied for the bags. High knees, shuffling, cross overs etc. I was last in line anxiously awaiting my turn to improve and fine tune my CNS which due to a tough hamstring pull the spring season before, was giving me trouble. I stepped up to the bags and exploded through but my body pushed back. My mind was telling my body to turn it up but there was a disconnect. I felt like I was in quicksand. Maybe it was the heat or the hour of practice on old astroturf which I was introduced to a year ago and which I knew could quickly cause fatigue. I mentally attempted to dial it up a notch thinking to train my body through it, I forced myself to into a higher gear. Planting my right foot and exploding back through the bags to finish the drill strong my right knee buckled under the stress. POP! TEAR! An agonizing and alien feeling flooded my nervous system and I collapsed to the ground, scared and furious, immediately i knew what had happened. I had torn my ACL, ravaging my meniscus and with it my aspirations of fulfilling the dream I had of glory.
My painful screams echoed through the stagnant summer air seemingly freezing time and our practice. Everyone stopped to look at the origins of the catastrophic event like onlookers of a devastating car crash. They gazed upon my injured form as I tried to bury head into the turf. Squeezing my tear filled eyes shut I strained to turn the hands of time back, begging for a do over, but fate is sometimes not so kind and instead my brothers in red were now audience to a tragic play of which I was the star. It was surreal, as our athletic trainer carted me off the field and through the glassy veil of tears and sweat I caught a glimpse of my oldest of kin, my hero, my friendly opponent, my motivation and my best friend. His posture was of disbelief, hands out to his side and through his shaded helmet he helplessly followed the path of the cart off the field, the field for which we were not too long before battling upon, sharing and growing together through a passion of the sport that other brothers could only imagine. I will never forget that feeling being carted off my stage where I was king and I most undoubtedly will never forget the feeling of letting my brother down. A feeling that haunted my dreams for some time. It wasn’t until much later and would shortly be reinforced thereafter through my brothers undying support, that I realized my dreams had already come true. The love for the game is nothing compared to the love of a brother. My gift to be a football player would mean absolutely nothing without that.
This game is a team game and an often overlooked benefit of that is acquiring and building lifelong friendships, a family. I look back now after so many years and I have no regrets. Sometimes things you love are taken from you. Life is finite and fleeting you must grab hold and savor every moment you can while it lasts never being complacent. Every decision I made throughout my unexpectedly short career were done willingly and without outside influence. Yes, I never lived up to my potential, yes i miss the sport, yes i believe that i would have been great and every sunday and saturday it hurts me to watch players fulfilling their dreams. BUT the friendships I’ve acquired and life lessons i learned along my path are insurmountably more important.
Now injured and sidelined indefinitely, my struggles had just begun but I faithfully and passionately cheered on my brother through every game and practice I could. It was a great feeling watching him at his peak and enacting an incredible vendetta against his opponents especially because I was often times on the receiving end. His last play of his last game concluded and to me he was one of the best damn offensive lineman i ever went against and i had played against many talented and large individuals. The final whistle blew and he came slowly walking over to the sidelines where i had stood propped up by crutches the entire game. He in elderly brother fashion he knowingly passed right by my emotional self to greet our large family of support but then turned back to me as I stared at him with love and admiration. He shoved me, a typical move, trying to avoid the inevitable as he was and is very seemingly tough with a solid control over his emotion. But I rebounded quickly, even with an injury i still possessed remnants of my once formidable agility and dived into embrace him. And there we stood on the field where two brothers born almost a year apart, inseparable from infancy crossed paths yet again exemplary of the sport that was so much a part of us both. My eyes overflowing with emotion, i knew i had missed a chance to partake in his last year and share those moments that only two brothers in battle can, but this was it and the finality of it all was too much even for him and he too broke down and we shared a moment, though short lived i will remember it till the end of my days. My brother loved this sport, that team and the players and coaches that made the red hawks unique with a passion that few men feature and which many including myself aspire.
My brother will always be my hero and my best friend, football just reinforced that. I even, after 2 years of an imperceptible hard recovery returned to the field where my brother continued to play an immense role in my athletic life, not as my competition which i was happy as i do believe i had lost a step and he would without a doubt have painfully paid me back for many of battles i had won earlier, but now as a coach. He supported me until the last snap of my last game of my football career. When it ended I was content and happy with my performance, I could not ask for anything more. I am proud and thankful to have been giving the opportunity to share the field with him and my other brothers in red and I hope he knows how much it means to me that he was a big part of that.
Fast forward to today, my older brother Frank and I now watch our younger brother (when Frank is not coaching high school) who is a captain on the football team wearing the same uniform we both once wore. He carries on the tradition of brotherly camaraderie. He, through his trials and tribulations is a huge role model for the other players which may not be so apparent to him but is obvious to all observers. Every snap he plays he proves his ability as a player and as a person. It’s arguable who the best of us 3 is and any brother would never admit to the other having the better skill however Frank and I, i think, secretly believe our youngest one (not smallest) is the best brother of us all to have played the game and that more than any stat he could ever gain is what the sport is all about.
**Help share this story with your friends. Please like this post, retweet it and subscribe to my RSS feed. Thank You!