Dear sons, I wish I could describe for you just how much I loved playing sports as a kid. I didn’t really blossom as an athlete until about 14 or 15, but I loved sports, even when I was a chubby, uncoordinated kid without much skill. My sport was football, and my position was nose tackle/defensive tackle. I know I didn’t have the size or talent to ever play pro ball, but if not for my accident, I think I could’ve at least made the roster for a small college. One of the only things that nags and gnaws at me is the fact I’ll never know the answer to that question. Was I talented enough to play college football? I don’t dwell on it often, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it from time to time.
I want to share with you one of my fondest memories from the eight years I played. It was my junior year of high school, and I was 15. From a couple of years of intense weight-lifting, I was strong beyond my years and had earned a starting spot as the right defensive tackle. We were playing Cocke County, at the time one of our biggest rivals because our head coach was originally from there and couldn’t stand losing to them. The left guard who blocked me that night was 5-6 inches taller than me and was pretty athletic. Play after play, we battled like we were in a street fight. One play he would beat me, the next I him, and the next, we’d stalemate. It was without a doubt the most intense one-on-one matchup of my football life. I left everything I had on the field and played an extremely sound game, giving up hardly any rushing yards to my side.
In the end, we lost the game, but as the teams were shaking hands, he pulled me out of line and hugged me like an old friend. “That was the most fun I ever had,” he said. “You’re a warrior, man.” I thanked him and told him he had played a great game, but in the moment, the sting of the loss hurt too much. I walked back to our dressing room and sat down outside against the brick wall. Then, I just started crying. And I cried pretty hard, too. I couldn’t believe we had lost that game, and losing hurt, especially after I had played one of the best games of my life. Several of the Cocke County fans had gathered outside our dressing room to taunt us, and when they saw me crying, they really let me have it. Some of my own teammates gave me a hard time, too, yelling at me to stop, but I didn’t care. To this day, I’m not ashamed of crying after that loss because when I really care about something, I give it my all, and when you give your all and still come up short, it’s painful.
I sometimes think about that left guard and wonder if he remembers that game as well as I do. I wonder if he remembers how hard we battled play after play after play, neither one willing to quit, neither one willing to back down. I wonder if he ever looks back on that game and feels the way I felt out there on the field, like I’d never been so alive. I hope he does, and I hope that you both one day will get to experience something like that, even if you have to suffer the same sting of defeat, because that memory is one of the most fulfilling of my life. As old age takes me and my brain begins to fade, I hope the memory of that game on that night against that guy will stay with me until the end because the memory of feeling that alive and that present in the moment isn’t experienced very often, and it’s a pretty amazing feeling.