My football career first ended on November 11, 2006. We were clobbered 28-0 by the only team to beat us that year, this time by 17 more than the first loss. Unlike the first meeting, which was decided largely by a blocked punt return for touchdown, they were clearly the better team. As a captain, I led the team over to shake hands.
I remember rushing. While I was the third guy in line, I remember trying to hurry up to get off the field. After shaking everyone’s hand, I began a trot that, the closer I got to our locker room at Nippert Stadium at the University of Cincinnati, became faster and faster with each step and my eyes began to burn. I was the first one in the locker room and I took my usual seat up front on the offensive side, buried my head in my hands and wept like a baby.
One by one, my teammates filed into the locker room and together, as a senior class, most of us cried together because we knew we would never be blessed with the opportunity to strap up a helmet again.
A few of my teammates, all three other captains in fact, joined but weren’t nearly as emotional; they all had scholarships to play the next year: My quarterback to Wofford, safety/running back and defensive tackle both to Cincinnati. I was entertaining basketball offers and was waiting until the hoop season to choose a college. Nonetheless, my heart ached because I realized I loved football and lost it all at the same time.
I had been playing since the 4th grade. I joined the Sycamore Comets as a nine year old but by that point, most of the team had been playing together for two or three years already. I played running back and cornerback for two years, during which we only lost one game. The next year I changed colors and played for the Sycamore Aviators, the program on the “other side of town”, the one my older cousin had played for. The metaphorical “little brother” program to the Comets at the time. We joined forces in seventh grade to play for Sycamore Junior High School where we went 14-0 in two years.
High school would provide another challenge, having to compete with the allure of the local catholic schools: Moeller and St. Xavier high schools – one, if not both, of which always went to the playoffs and was often ranked nationally. With a slightly depleted team but still a strong core, we lost our first game as freshmen before winning out the rest of that season. As sophomores and juniors, we were called upon to carry the varsity team and finished 7-13 in two seasons.
After a much needed coaching change, we finished the regular season 9-1 as seniors, won the first ever playoff game in school history and entered the rematch with Colerain excited but not ready to win a football game at that level.
So there we all were, young men crying together collectively increasing our understanding of how big of a part of our lives football was. After the lamenting, we packed our bags and left Nippert Stadium as the best football team to ever wear Sycamore green and gold.
A few months later I committed to play Ivy League basketball at Dartmouth College. I had passed on opportunities to play football at better sports schools but Dartmouth provided the best combination of sports and academics in order for me to do what I wanted to do with my life at the time. Just weeks after arriving in Hanover, I discovered the less glamorous side of college recruiting when I found out that I was actually a walk-on instead of a “rostered” player, as I was led to believe. It turned out that the assistant coach that had recruited me took a job at Tennessee Tech and I lost all footing with the program.
Determined to begin my college career with some optimism, I read the situation as a sign that football was my true calling. I’m pretty sure the basketball coaches spoke to one of the football coaches because the next day I was BCC’d on a “blitz” to walk on the football team.
I went out there, ran crisp routes, caught every ball, and that night I was asked to join the football squad. Since I had already gone through the eligibility requirements with the NCAA, I suited up that week and played in the JV game that Sunday against Milford Academy.
Having already experienced the feeling of having something beloved stripped from me, I vowed to give everything I had to the game of football. Obviously – I mean, I played football at Dartmouth. I certainly wasn’t playing for the girls or the spotlight.
I became the best receiver on scout team and, that fall, was the most fun I’ve ever had playing football - maybe second to our overtime win vs. Lakota West on Homecoming in 2006. Nonetheless, I had been blessed with the chance to play football again. I skated through that season playing receiver on scout team and started on the punt block team against Princeton the last game of the year.
Going into my sophomore year, I was confident that I could compete for a starting spot as a sophomore. It was the first time in my life that I had a whole year to dedicate to one sport and I was determined to be the best I could be. I went home for winter break just after the end of the season to be with my family for the holidays, most notably my grandfather who was scheduled to undergo a knee replacement on January 2.
Early on the morning of January 3, I was leaving my best friends house and hit a patch of black ice on a hilly Snider Rd. I skidded into a ditch and then slammed into a tree at about 20 mph. I had relatively minor injuries but my back was aching a bit. The next morning I had to notify my grandfather, recovering in his hospital bed, that I had totaled his Ford F-150. He was surprisingly understanding and the next morning I was on a plane back to Hanover.
I opted out of medical care in Cincinnati since I knew I could get it for free at school through the team and my family didn’t have insurance. The injuries appeared mild and I worked with the strength program to build an off-season regimen that would rehab but also strengthen me up. For a few weeks I was careful with my body but ultimately decided that, as a college football player, my back pain was protocol and complaining about it further would make me look weak.
So I played through it.
Going into spring ball, I was the third receiver and had formed a friendly personal rivalry with our top DB from off-season workouts. We pushed each other. I had some highlights from spring ball but none bigger than a 4th quarter post route for touchdown that I caught in the spring game – he wasn’t guarding me that play but I would have still caught it if he was (Pass credits to Will Deevy).
I returned to Hanover that summer for two-a-days. I remember tweaking my knee during the first couple of weeks, during an afternoon practice, but again, I pushed through it.
The knee pain increased each day. I had grown accustomed to it on the football field but off the field I wasn’t nearly as tactful, often seen walking slowly or with ice bags. I was able to put the pain away for most of the season. I settled into the third receiver role, as expected, and saw a solid 15-20 plays per game.
I took great satisfaction in the mental aspect of suppressing pain. While I knew my body wanted to give out I had pushed my body to places before that I didn’t previously know I could so I convinced myself that I was amidst another one of those experiences. I remember lining up for plays and having to put all of my weight on one foot. Typically, I put the foot closest to the ball in front but, after a certain point, I always put my right foot forward because I didn’t trust my left to hold me up and keep me from false starting.
As I walked to the line I would tell myself, “Six seconds. Six seconds.” I just had to forget my pain for six seconds, the length of the average football play. I would find my spot and key into the ball and that’s when the switch went off. After that point, for six seconds, anyway, my knee pain was nonexistent and I played as hard as I could because I was partially afraid that my body’s limitations would overcome my mental strength and my knees would just give out.
It was against Harvard when it all ended. I had to run a kitty route, a comeback by the outside receiver but with a reverse pivot so that the quarterback could target my numbers more easily. I got to about 10 yards and prepared to stomp my feet in the ground but the pain wouldn’t let me. By the time I came out of my break, the ball was already rolling out of bounds.
Coach Jackson pulled me out, “You’re not coming out of your breaks like you should. I appreciate you being tough but you gotta get that knee looked at.”
In the locker room after the game, Coach Jackson told me that they were going to hold me out for the next week with hopes that my knee would improve. I knew then that my season was over. I knew that if anyone took a solid look at my knees they wouldn’t let me play.
I had experienced trouble just standing up from a seated position but I never told that to any of my coaches or trainers. Couldn’t look weak.
The next day I let the trainers look at my knee and they informed me that I had patellar and quadriceps tendonitis which, in simple terms, meant that the tendons holding my kneecap in place were thinning. The one on top, the quadriceps tendon, was so thin that it almost snapped.
I began an aggressive rehab routine and, heading into spring ball later that school year, I was in the best shape of my life. Fifteen solid pounds of muscle heavier than high school and less than 6% body fat, my knees were strong and I was ready to lead the Ivy League in receiving.
Being cautious and proactive about my health, I went to the trainers for a routine check up on my back injury that, by this time, was over a year old. I had been experiencing some pain when squatting and wanted to get it checked. The back specialist was an old Indian man with overbearing facial hair.
Dr. Abdu told me that what he had originally identified as shadows from gas in my stomach, when viewed from a few different angles and by different doctors, turned out to actually be two fractures in my lowest vertebrae before my pelvis. Dr. Abdu left the examination room and I sat there alone.
Almost as quickly as I had realized my love for football back in 2006, I had to digest that my back was broken and I had to decide whether or not that was a large enough deterrent to playing college football.
I remember sitting on the examination table and wishing that someone was there with me. I thought about my Sycamore ’06 teammates on whom I leaned during a similar situation not even three years prior. I wished that one of my family members were there with me. On that table I also understood that I was becoming an adult. I had only myself to depend on and I had a big decision to make.
By the time I left that examination room at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, my football career was actually over. However, instead of feeling just sorrow, this time I had no regrets. I knew that everything I had I gave to the game of football.