It seemed that every elementary school year I ever had was one I couldn’t wait to arrive. Each one from kindergarten through the sixth grade brought with it little more responsibility and new opportunity. The fourth grade was one I remember had a unique excitement about it–a special anticipation.
Being old enough to attend a fourth grade meant I was also old enough to play Little League football. Growing up in my home this was something I was really excited for. My dad played high school football and always felt like he may have been good enough to play college ball. This meant a lot of talk and instruction about football from the time I was very young. He was never out of control and didn’t ever exert an inordinate amount of pressure but his excitement seem to breed a little more excitement in me.
So my mom signed me up, I got my gear, my helmet, my jersey and I was off to my first practice. It was great! I loved every minute of it, and couldn’t wait to go back.
Every day after school I had football practice. Now, some kids go hoping for the coach to tell them what positions they’ll be playing and others go with their dream position set in their mind. I was most assuredly the latter.
My favorite team in the whole world was the Dallas Cowboys, and my favorite player on the Dallas Cowboys was Roger Staubach. So on the first day I showed up for practice I knew I wanted to be number 12 and I knew I wanted to be quarterback.
This worked out great. I had always been able to memorize things well which made it easy for me to memorize the plays. In the first year of Little League football pretty much all the plays are running plays. In the fourth grade you rarely have anyone well developed enough to accurately throw or accurately catch the football. This meant that my job as quarterback was to remember who to give the football off to and which “hole” they were going through.
It was perfect. We had some good running backs and I always remembered exactly where to put the ball. This led to a season filled with wins and high expectations for the season to come.
It seemed like forever but eventually it was football time again. I don’t know if it was ingrained in me genetically but every time you taste the crispness in the air and smell the leaves beginning to change my body craves football. So it was with great anticipation that my teammates and I showed up to that first practice of our sophomore Little League season in the fifth grade.
There were a lot of great things that happened on that first day. First, you could tell that everyone had grown. That meant we were going to be stronger, faster and just all around better. Also, the coach pulled out the playbook and there were pass plays all over the place.
This was wonderful. Now our strong ground attack would be complemented with an air assault as well. I went home after practice and began to memorize the plays for the upcoming season. The following day at practice we learned that there was going to be one problem with the new approach. I couldn’t throw the ball.
Try as I might I could not get the ball into the receiver’s hands. Over and over I worked on getting the ball from my hand to the receiver. Over and over balls kept ending up too far ahead, too far behind, too high above or too far below their targets.
I went to the coach and worked to convince him that I could change this. I told him that I would practice as hard as I could and learn how to throw a good ball. The coach gave me my chance and determined to succeed I went to my dad.
In the backyard, he set up a litany of drills for me to work through to improve my ability to throw the ball. There was a tire swing, a target drawn on the fence, and even time set aside to throw the ball to my brother.
After nearly two weeks it became painfully evident that no matter what I did I was not going to be able to throw a straight ball. The coach pulled me aside to let me know that being a quarterback just wasn’t in the cards for me. With all his powers of persuasion he worked to convince me that quarterback wasn’t the only position of importance, and that there were many other places I could contribute to my team. But it fell on deaf ears. All my life I had dreamed of proudly wearing number 12 and now it looked like those dreams were dashed.
A few days later my dad asked me why I like to play football. I of course told him that about all the accolades and glory that the quarterback received, but I also told him how much I loved the drills that allowed me to hit somebody. My dad told me that maybe I should concentrate on that part and move on from the glory.
My coach, seeing the similar thing in practice the following week had me work out at nose guard. This required a whole new set of skills. I wasn’t the biggest guy on the team and not the natural choice to play this position. But, my coach felt that I could combine my love of hitting and my brains to be an effective defensive lineman.
He was right. I used everything I had learned to be an effective quarterback against the quarterbacks I lined up against. I would watch their feet, and knowing what it meant when I put my feet in that position, would be able to detect which direction the quarterback was going to go. I had a season filled with sacks, lining up on the defensive line in my number 12 jersey.
I thought I could only be happy wearing number 12 lining up behind the center. But circumstances didn’t allow that and I had to find a way to maximize my abilities. No matter how bothered, frustrated or annoyed I was at the fact that I couldn’t throw the ball didn’t change that fact.
The importance of this lesson was only reinforced when I broke my neck. As a quadriplegic, circumstances didn’t allow me to do many of the things I loved to do prior to my injury. There were countless physical activities that although previously a regular part of my life could now no longer be accomplished. Not only things I enjoyed recreationally, like skiing, football, and running, but normal every day things as well, like dressing, showering and getting up out of bed.
Just like my inability to throw the ball, no amount of frustration or anger was going to change my plight. I had to decide to maximize my abilities; to play the game of life with the same vigor as a quadriplegic as I did an able-bodied person. I couldn’t just quit because I didn’t have the “skills” to play the “position” I was used to–the cost of that decision would have been unthinkable. I had to learn to find how I could contribute to the “game” with my different skill set.
We have to approach our lives in the same way. They are many goals we want to accomplish and things we want to do. Most of them can be accomplished with hard work, discipline and dedication. However, there are some that, regardless of how hard we work, cannot be achieved . When we encounter these situations we have to be willing to make adjustments; we have to be willing to change.
In today’s economy we see this everywhere. Hopes, dreams, and aspirations that just six months ago were well on their way to being realized now have been dashed. Much like the change between my first and second season of Little League football things are different and no matter how much we wish they weren’t doesn’t change how much they are.
But we can still find a way to success, we just have to be willing to look at new ways we can contribute; at different “positions” on the team. We have to look at how we can maximize our talents to net the greatest results–even if that maximization means changing our goals and dreams to ones that can be greater served by our abilities and situation.
From that first day in my fifth-grade year that I made the change to the day in July of 1986 that I was no longer able to play football, I played on the line and loved every minute of it. Had I not been willing to look at things differently my football career would have been even shorter than it was and memories that I hold onto with such fondness never would have happened. We have to be flexible. Sometimes we have to be willing to make changes in our dreams to suit our strength and circumstance.
Doing so will lead to winning seasons and ultimately, happy days.