I weighed 75 pounds when I was three years old. Doctors thought I had a thyroid problem, but I really just loved to eat. “Man it must cost an arm and a leg to feed that boy”, was a frequent remark to my parents. Although I was always “the Fat Kid”, growing up, I turned my size into an advantage on the football field. I loved that I could impose my will on an opponent, and I delighted in the appreciation and congratulations after a win or job well done. Game-winning sacks and forced fumbles filled my dreams at night and became reality on game day.
I excelled at football and was commended frequently for my play. Naturally, fathers wanted my behemoth self protecting their quarterback sons. Where I grew up, football is a way of life. “Friday Night Lights” is the most exciting time of the week and the topic of conversation throughout it. Football was always around me, and I was always around it. There was no mutual exclusivity between me and the sport.
Whether I liked it or not, football was my identity. The t-shirts that I donned to school often depicted pigskins or the Ohio State Buckeyes. My childhood bedroom was (and still is) themed with Pittsburgh Steelers wallpaper, bedding, and memorabilia. I played other sports but only in service of football, in order to “stay in shape” during the offseason. In middle school and into high school, I was first and foremost a big boy and a football player to everyone who knew me. I neither resented nor emboldened my association to the sport, it just was what it was.
Despite having a variety of interests, talents, and friendships outside of football, I often felt that football was my only area of achievement that others valued. Folks were very fascinated that I played in an all-star football game in Texas as a 13 year-old; however, no one was particularly impressed that I won first place in the Southeastern Ohio Math Counts competition. All-league and all-district football accolades as a Junior and Senior trumped my being elected Attorney General at Buckeye Boys State or President of my High School class. My teammates were supposed to be my best friends and “brothers” for life (one or two still are), but the long-haired, punk, skater kid who was, and remains, my best friend was said to be a short-term, “bad influence.” Conviction around what has the highest value and meaning is tough to come by as an adolescent. Football exacerbated my lack of conviction and mired my internal assessment of what should matter the most.
Health was not particularly front-of-mind for me before and during my teenage years. Asthma, frequent nasal congestion, and a subtle cough were my typical state of being. With little consideration for how I really “felt,” my informal mantra was “the bigger the better.” That adage proved to be rather effective, at least as it pertained to my football career. I saw varsity reps as a Freshman and was slotted to start at guard as a Sophomore. A torn labrum (or labia, my friends teased) suffered during a scrimmage derailed that season and called for surgery that Winter. I recovered, though, and had a decent high school career, starting every game both my Junior and Senior seasons. My proudest success was sacking future Heisman Trophy Winner and No. 1 NFL Draft Pick, Joe Burrow, multiple times. Though, by the end of my high school football days, I was jaded of the sport and resented the required dedication, bodily harm, and 285lbs that I lugged around.
During these years, I also had to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life. College coaches at the Division I — AA, Division II, and Division III levels courted me to come play ball for them. What most of them didn’t know was that I was pretty tired of football and aligned considerably more with being a scholar (read: nerd) than an athlete. Attending the best school possible for law, business, or finance began to crystallize as my primary goal. I would ideally achieve this without football. As I would soon learn, the Rolling Stones were correct. You can’t always get what you want.
I narrowed my list to primarily high-academic Division III schools and the Ivy League institutions. By March of my senior year, I’d gained admission to Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon, and Case Western — all terrific schools; however, my attendance was contingent on joining the varsity football team. At this point, I really, really did not want to play football, but my main concern was going to the best possible school.
Naturally, I was bound and determined to go to Harvard and start my new life free from football. In April of 2015, Ivy League admissions day came and each school released their decisions at the same time. I had just finished umpiring a softball game and eagerly checked the communications from the schools. One by one from Yale, Penn, Dartmouth, Princeton, I got the same hackneyed “we regret to inform you” message. With my final hail mary, I checked Harvard… “Waitlisted” — what a freakin’ tease, I thought.
To my dismay, I was going to be playing collegiate football. The same night that I got all those rejections, I called Johns Hopkins Head Coach Jim Margraff (RIP to one of the greatest men I’ll ever know) and notified him, with a weird mix of excitement and reluctance, that I’d be joining his team in the fall and that I appreciated the opportunity to join such a prestigious program and university. Oxymoronically, I was achieving some of my biggest dreams, while entering a nightmarish continuation of what I most wanted to flee. While most kids couldn’t wait to get to college, I was dreading the impending 2-a-day practices and the ass kickings that 18 year-old me was about to receive from his new collegiate teammates. I also feared leaving home, my family, and a girl whom I loved at the time. Lastly, I questioned that I could succeed as a first-generation college student at the 10th-ranked university in the country. To say that I lacked confidence in myself would be an understatement.
Somehow, after move-in day and saying goodbye to my loved ones, I felt like I was in the right place and that things would be okay. I had some great new friends, mentors, and coaches. I could sense and feel that there was an outstanding and tangible culture within Johns Hopkins Football. Despite my waning love for the sport, I was happy and proud to be a Johns Hopkins Blue Jay.
That first fall was tough. Two weeks into camp I found a way to dislocate my shoulder and sprain my ankle on the same play in pass protection 1-v-1’s, putting me out for half of camp. The next month brought relationship issues — remember that girl that I said that I loved at the time? We broke up shortly thereafter. When midterms came, I learned first-hand that I was closest to the bottom quartile of brain power at my new school. The whole time, I had a lingering sense of homesickness. Football, though, was typically a bright spot after recovering from my injuries during camp. I, surprisingly, enjoyed our practices, connected well with my new teammates, and, by the end of the season, was finding my way on the field. We ended the season with a conference championship and a playoff win.
My Sophomore year was an even better experience. I was named the starting left tackle and was finding my groove. Our team had a very successful year, winning another conference championship and holding our own with that year’s National Champions, Mount Union. After the season, I was named First Team All-Conference and a COSIDA Academic All-American. Additionally, being a student-athlete at Johns Hopkins came with a meaningful sense of pride and community. To my surprise, I was earnestly enjoying football at the collegiate level. My body, however, was not.
The summer prior to my Junior year was rather challenging. My friend and teammate, Zack, and I were living in College Park, MD and commuting an hour daily to Washington, D.C. for internships. We were doing our best to fortify our seasoned bodies in the weight room for the upcoming season. Weeks went by but lower back, knee, and shoulder pain festered. The deterioration of my body was readily apparent. In fact, it compelled me to tell Zack that if I sustained another major injury at that point, then I would likely call it quits. At age 20, I felt 40. I arrived to camp that August with tight hips from a desk job and a forced enthusiasm as a returning starter on an offense returning only a few. I was also named a Pre-Season All-American — great… more hype to live up to.
The first game of the season, our team traveled to Leesburg, Virginia to face Washington & Lee University. It was one of the best and most exciting games I’d ever been a part of. We came from behind — down 10 points with 6 minutes remaining — and won in overtime. The triumph was a great team effort, but it left me unenthused. During the four hour ride home, I felt beat up, exhausted, and somehow unmoved by one of the best victories I had ever experienced. On the cramped bus seat, I ate my 3 Chick-Fil-A sandwiches and waffle fries in hopes of adding some comfort to my melancholic, contemplative silence. Of course, my meal resulted in intense bloat and a Chick-Fil-A sauce stain on my favorite pair of shorts, a size 40W.
Practice came that Tuesday and, bluntly, I was dreading it. The temperature was 90 degrees, I was still beat up and sore from the game, and some freshman was being a prick during our “Inside Run” period. Secondarily, I was already getting behind on schoolwork and not fulfilling responsibilities in my other extracurriculars. I also wanted to be studying with the cute girl from Economics class that I finally talked to at our party on Saturday. All this to say, football was crushing my mind, body, and spirit and the harsh, callous turf of the practice field was the last place that I wanted to be that day.
I toughed out the first half of practice and then the “Team Offense” period came. Coach Chimera called zone right, a play that I had executed and practiced a thousand times. I took my zone steps with the guard and double-teamed the defensive tackle, who tried to cross the guard’s face. This meant I would work my way up to the middle linebacker, which I did, and then *WHACK*. I saw true stars for the first time in all of my playing days. I was stunned, confused, and just felt “off.” Coach sent me to the sideline, where I took a knee and watched the rest of practice. One thing was clear in that befuddled hour — I was okay with never putting on a football helmet ever again. Shortly thereafter, the athletic trainer told me that I’d suffered a concussion and would likely be out for two or more weeks.
I knew that night that I would be done with football for the rest of my life. I was tired of being obese and living every day in pain. I yearned to start the next chapter of my life. While football is life for some, the sport was a monkey that I could not get off my back and an undesired identity that I just could not shed. This was my opportunity to finally move on. After two weeks of concussion protocol, I sat down with Coach Margraff and said that I did not think that I wanted to continue playing. He said that he understood and respected my decision.
That fall, I felt somewhat liberated and something like a let-down. I imagine that I was the only Pre-Season All-American that year to actually quit during the season. Players around the country (and on my team) were training tirelessly to earn that sort of recognition, but I viewed the acknowledgement as a burden. In spite of my disappointing decision, my true friends supported me. Others called me pusillanimous and questioned my toughness. That was okay. That fall I dropped around 60lbs, made a myriad of new friends across campus, and started dating a girl steadily for the first time during college. I finished my Junior year with all “A’s” both semesters and an internship that I would parlay into a full-time job offer. I always wondered what “Life After the Line” would be like and now I was finding out. I liked it a lot.
To this day, I still enjoy watching football, participating in Fantasy Leagues, and keeping up with the Ohio State Buckeyes. A lot of the time, I miss playing football. When your playing days are over, you covet the camaraderie, the fun times, and the opportunity to win at something meaningful. In my case, the good times certainly overshadow the bad ones. I have tried to learn what I can from my experiences with football, and I have had some success mimicking my favorite aspects of the sport in other areas of my life. Fortunately, these approaches have typically been a bit more constructive for my health and body and don’t mimic a full-time job on top of a full-time job.
My relationship with football has been filled with many ups, downs and in-betweens. Despite my, at-times, resentful and unappreciative feelings, I am extremely grateful for the sport of football. It taught me how to be a desirable teammate, the value of effort and attitude, and how to win in the long-term by showing up, putting the work in, preparing thoughtfully and persevering through tough times. Football introduced me to some of my best friends in life and certainly gave me some of my fondest memories. The sport enabled me to study at a world-class institution (go Hop!) and even travel to Europe for the first time. In reflection, I would not trade my beat-up body and bum joints or the thousands of hours of practice, lifting weights, and watching film for anything else. Although I may not have always recognized it while playing, football prepared me for (and presented me with) life’s challenges in ways that one can only appreciate after the fact. For that I am thankful.