I observed a powerful lesson when I was 13, but like most young teenagers, I didn’t pay very close attention. And like most lessons, observing it wasn’t enough to have any lasting impact. Experience, sometimes unfortunately, is the only real, lasting teacher.
My oldest brother Mark may physically be the strongest person I have ever known. So, to see him unable to bring himself to leave the house or even get off the couch was bizarre to me.
He wasn’t physically injured.
He was emotionally broken.
Mark had just been released from the BC Lions after 9 games as a professional football player. After dedicating years of his life to achieving his dream. He couldn’t see any of the success. All he saw was the failure. He had become so wrapped up in making it. Being a pro football player became what he associated success with. Being a pro football player became how he saw himself. How he gauged his worth. No more football, meant no more Mark. A dangerous place we all tend to find ourselves in sometimes. Placing the value of who we are, on the label of what we do.
Being the youngest of five boys gave me the unique opportunity to have heroes in my own house. I looked up to my brothers. They each served as great examples to me about how to go about living my life.
All my brothers grew up playing sports. Any and all that were available to them. They loved playing, loved competing and loved being a part of a team. My upbringing was a merry go round of attending practices, games, tournaments and sports banquets. It never seemed to end, and looking back now, I never wanted it to. I loved cheering for my brothers. No matter what sport they were playing, seeing them at on the court or field gave me a magical feeling. I wanted to be what my young eyes grew up watching. I wanted to be just like them.
I would rate the overall athleticism of my family as fair at best. That isn’t something you tend to think about when you are a kid though. All you see is what people actually do. Whatever my brothers lacked in given talent they more than made up for with focus, work ethic, dedication and overall enthusiasm for anything and everything they did. All the things that one really can control. That was always crystal clear to me, even at that young age.
As my brothers made their way through junior high, personal preference matched with natural selection weeded down their sports outlets. It wasn’t until the 11th grade that football found Mark. Almost overnight, the sport grabbed him and became much more than a game to play and a team to belong to. It became a mission. A way of life.
My memory of Mark’s high school career is vague at best. I was nine, at that age, memories seem to be more feeling than vivid recollection. What I do remember is seeing my oldest brother become a man of purpose. He took charge on the field and that guided him to take charge in his life. Football gave him the outlet to pour the very best of who he was into something.
Mark was good enough in those two high school seasons to earn a scholarship to Simon Fraser University. Over the next four years he progressed to being one of the most dominate offensive lineman in that school’s recent era. It wasn’t because of his natural physical gifts either. Mark is maybe 5’10 with our trademark stumpy Reid arms. He had bulked his short body up to an extremely stout and powerful 250lbs. Still, those dimensions are a far cry from the prototype desired by the pro scouts. That didn’t hold Mark back. Just like the rest of my brothers, his extreme commitment to all things that were in his control overcame those things that were not.
The strength he built from relentless weight training became legendary. As did his flawless technique, built similarly from never-ending work on minute details repeated over and over again. Everything that Mark did around football was done with that same focus, work ethic, dedication and overall enthusiasm I had seen all my brothers pour into everything they did. I witnessed enough at that young age from Mark to see what can be accomplished when you fully commit to something and master absolutely everything that is in your control.
Football rolls out the red carpet for some, others keep working until they smash the door down. The carpet usually gets rolled out because you were lucky enough to have been blessed with gifts the sport wants. For the rest, the door gets smashed down because of your personal commitment to mastering all the things outside of what you weren’t given. Those tend to be the very things that you can take with you after your playing days are done and pour into your next outlet. All the things that really matter in the end – how you go about doing whatever it is you do.
Mark beat all the odds and made the pros. He forced the scouts to look beyond what he may not have naturally been given, and to see what he had trained himself to actually be able to do. Mark’s dedication to mastering his craft is what it took, and that’s exactly what he did.
Sometimes though, for whatever reason, other people see the same thing differently. By mid-season, Mark’s first pro year, a full coaching staff change was made. Visibly undersized Mark quickly became overlooked. He was released and never again was granted a real opportunity. Through no fault of his own, his lifetime dream was suddenly over. Everything he had worked so hard for, for so long, was now gone.
At the age of thirteen, I couldn’t understand why that would affect someone so much. How someone could change from being the most confident man in the world one day to being too embarrassed to leave the house the next? In the end, it’s just a game. It’s not who you are right? Right?
I distinctly remember thinking about that as I watched Mark take time to come to terms with not only losing the sport, but really losing his identity. It was hard to watch someone who I only knew as this unstoppable, powerful man, turn inward and lose confidence in themselves. I promised myself right then and there, I would never let a sport dictate my worth, for good or for bad. Funny how easy it is to forget promises made to yourself when you’re thirteen.
For reason’s different than Mark’s, I didn’t find football until the eleventh grade either. I entered my first season an underwhelming 5’11 180lbs. Just like my brother though, the sport immediately grabbed me and quickly consumed my life. Football now gave me an outlet to pour everything I had into something, and just like how I watched all my brothers before me do, that’s exactly what I did. Every moment now became about improving whatever I could to make myself a better player. Following the template I had absorbed from my upbringing, I became a workout machine. I learned how to weightlift and made it not just a priority, but a new way of life. What I ate now mattered, how well I slept now mattered, what and how I studied now mattered, who I hung out with now mattered. I began to choose my actions based on purpose and reason. Nothing was random, and everything was done with all the focus, dedication and enthusiasm I could humanly muster. I felt alive.
I slowly worked my way on the field. It took time to see progress, but my relentless work on everything that was in my control soon began to pay off. I graduated high school around 6’1’’- 240lbs and even by my own modesty had built myself into a decent football player. Like my oldest brother before me, football had become more than a game, it was now my mission. It was what I was going to do with my life. It had become my life. It had become how I saw myself. It had become who I was. My 13-year-old self-promise wasn’t even a memory anymore. Football was all that mattered.
Once at college I tripled my efforts. Workouts, drills, film work, you name it, I did it and did more of it than anybody else. Why? Because I was going to make it to the pros, I HAD to make it to the pros. Whatever I could do, I would do, and many times overdo.
Such was the case with eating. At 240lbs I knew I needed a lot more weight to even be considered. 60 more pounds at least. So, what do you eat when you want to gain 60lbs? EVERYTHING. I mean it. At one point I was eating 10,000 calories a day! It ate so much that my digestive system shut down. I literally broke my stomach. I had irritated and inflamed the lining of my digestive tract so bad that it simply stopped wanting to accept food. Long story short I had to walk away from football. It was three years of stomach hell. Worse than the stomach pain though was sense of worthlessness that now consumed me. Without football, I was nothing. Being a football player was who I was. No more football to me, meant no more Angus.
How Ironic it became, to end up lying on the same family couch, nearly 10 years after Mark, feeling that exact same sense of failure. That same sense of emptiness and overall depression. I was sick sure, in pain, yes, but it was the loss of identity that became the real driver of the emotional spiral.
Unlike Mark though, I still had a chance with this sport. I didn’t need to prove to pro scouts anything yet. My college team would still be there for me if I could get myself healthy again to make it back. Once again, leaning on the approach to life my brothers example had burned deep into me so many years ago, I attacked finding a solution with everything I had. The need to play football may have drove that, but it was my actions that actually created change. It took three years but eventually I found ways to work with my body enough to start rebuilding it. I found foods I could eat and removed all those I couldn’t. Simple, focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t.
I made my way back. After three years away from not only the sport, but from any physical fitness at all I returned to college football. I finished my senior year a 300lb NAIA ALL AMERICAN. It was truly a remarkable comeback. I never saw it as such at the time. All that mattered was that once again, I was a football player. Once again, I was a somebody. Once again, I could be proud of who I was.
Pro sports can be a very humbling career. I was cut my very first training camp after being a number one draft pick. I was right back in the dumps. Back to being a nobody, a worthless loser. I finished that first season being on three different teams and not even playing one snap. Any belief in who I was, was on very shaky ground. My sense of self worth was teetering. I HAD to make it. I NEEDED football to be a somebody. A terrible place to be. One I promised myself so many years ago to never allow myself to get to.
My second season almost saw me get cut again. I did end up making the team and held on long enough to improve to the point that I finally did earn a starting spot. Lot’s of things fell into place and I was lucky enough to end up having a relatively successful thirteen-year career. Every moment was spent doing everything it took to not only keep my job but excel at it as best as humanly possible. Like Mark, I too was undersized by pro football standards. It took maximal effort on all the things that were in my area of control to keep me playing. It was my work ethic, dedication, ability to focus and overall enthusiasm with how I did my work that enabled me to compete and play as long as I did.
I played long enough to witness so many of my former teammates go through that same struggle my brother and I had when the sport gets taken from you. So many confident men knocked right down to feeling lost. That sense of value and worth somehow gone because you know longer are playing a game.
It was the exact same scenario I had witnessed in my home with my older brother so many years ago. It was the exact same scenario I had repeated myself more than once, so many years ago as well. Repetition is a powerful tool. The more I kept seeing it the more I kept asking myself why? Why is somebody’s sense of worth so tied to something that is outside of their control? How does playing a game or not dictate how you feel about yourself?
I saw it enough and matured enough to finally see the fatal trap so many of us fall for. Sometimes again and again. We end up pouring so much into what we do that we unknowingly allow the endeavor to become us. To define us. We end up empowering something out of our control to dictate our sense of worth and level of happiness.
Making the team does not make you a better person. Just as getting cut doesn’t make you any worse of one either. It’s the effort, dedication and commitment you put into that pursuit, victorious or not that makes you who you are. The great news is, those things are always in your control. They are yours, nobody can take how you do things away from you. The sport or job or whatever, is merely the outlet to allow you to act out and improve those characteristics.
Who you are is how you go about living your life, not in the outlet itself.
Football is not, and cannot be who you are. It cannot be your identity. It cannot be how you measure your worth. It’s your chosen discipline to help develop yourself as a person. Love what you do. Be proud of what you do. But never let it become who you believe you are. You cannot BE a football player. That is merely what you do. It can be taken from you in an instant – then what are you?
Never outsource your worth or identity. Never give that kind of power to something outside of your control. You are how you go about doing what you choose to do. How you go about things is always in your control. Sports is one of the great outlets to challenge yourself in so many great characteristics worth improving. Use sports as a tool to help make you a better person.
It took Mark some time, but he too made his comeback. He figured out the exact same things out that I had to. Football wasn’t life, it was just what we had chosen to pursue at that point in our lives. It had helped teach both of us the things that really make a champion, and none of those qualities have anything to do with your job title. He learned how to give his all, to be fully committed to the chosen task at hand– that’s what matters. Mark has since become a very successful business owner and much more important than that, is raising with his wife, an amazing family of three great young boys. I’m very proud of my oldest brother, not because he played pro football, but because he helped show me what really matters in life.
I’m a lucky man for many reasons. Having older brothers to look up to and act as great role models for how to go about living my life is right near the top. I saw the good and bad around giving everything you have to something. I then went and experienced both extremes for myself. Luckily, I played long enough to learn the truth. It’s not the sport, or the job, or any other title that makes you who you are, it’s the effort you put into doing it that matters.
What you do is not who you are.
How you do it is.
I have many great memories from my childhood. Almost all of them revolve around something sports oriented for my brothers. So many practices, games and banquets that it’s hard to distinguish one memory from the other. To that point, I can’t even tell you which brother or even which sport this banquet was for. All I remember was that it was at the Skyline Inn in Richmond, and something told my 10-year-old self to keep the piece of paper that was laid out on everyone’s place setting. I can’t tell you why this letter grabbed me so hard, but something was telling me this message mattered, this was important. I’ve kept this message close at hand every since. Over thirty years later I still have it in my office today. The paper is worn and yellow stained but the message is as true today as it was back in 1986, in that dingy makeshift ballroom of the Skyline Inn.
It’s a strong reminder to us all about what matters most in life. What the real prize is.
USA Football's new model for youth football is designed to make the game safer by reducing contact and by teaching the game based on an athlete's age, the skill they are learning and game type.