The Letter

He swiveled in his chair, pointed at the X-rays, and announced “You are scrapping bone on bone. There is no more cartilage behind your knee caps.” “The pain,” he continued, “will not go away. It will only get worse with each passing day.” He paused and then added “I think you should give serious consideration to not playing.”

“Not playing is not an option” I replied. “I have been playing since I was in fourth grade. I’m a senior in college. Its my last season and two-a-days start in a week.” I replied.

“Is there anything I can do to manage the pain?” I asked. There was another pause and then he answered “Yes”.

My sports doctor, Cheryl (my team’s trainer) and I settled on a routine. In the morning, I would take two “horse pills” (for inflammation), arrive at practice early to get my knees taped, spend an hour icing my knees after practice, and take Advil. I would do the same for the afternoon practice. And, at night, I would take two more “horse pills,” go to bed, and do it all again the next day.

This routine got me through two-a-days. I continued this routine for afternoon practices on every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday during the first two weeks of the season. Saturdays was game day. And, Sundays were for rest. On the third week of the season, I followed this routine on Monday and again on Tuesday. And, then on Wednesday it happened….during the bear crawl.

I was the first to reach the station. I was the first to start. I was going to be the first to finish when I just stopped. I got up, looked for Cheryl, and, without saying a word to my coaches, ran off the practice field. Upon reaching her, I took off my helmet. “I can’t do it anymore” I said.

The Letter - p

I had reached my limit. I couldn’t push through the pain any more. I couldn’t dig any deeper. I had nothing left to give. I was so tired. I surrendered. And, once I did, the fatigue I had been holding at bay for so long rushed over me. I put my head on Cheryl’s shoulder and began to cry.

It felt like I was falling apart. I was that guy whose love for the game outpaced his abilities. I was that guy who made up for his lack of physical attributes by showing up earlier, staying later, and going full speed even during practice. That was how I led.

If I could not be that guy, then who was I?

How was I going to move forward?

I did not know what to do.

Maybe the best thing to do is quit, I thought.

I was lost.

I took the next two days off to talk to coaches, parents, and friends about what I should do. I wandered the woods of back-campus in a swirl of fear, self-doubt, and false isolation. When I found my way back to my dorm room, I found a letter. It was folded once, titled “Shawn” and placed on my desk. Hand-written words that shook my core covered one-page of college-ruled paper from top to bottom. Here is an excerpt:

Dear Shawn,

I know you’ve got a tough decision to make, one that has no correct answer. And, I don’t want to tell you what to do, but…You’re the glue that holds us together. When we’re tired or beaten we see you going at it with all your being against men bigger, faster, younger than you. The heart you put into your game makes up for any physical shortcomings you may develop. It’s the reason you were voted captain and it’s the reason I think you should stay…I will support your decision whatever it may be. But, I felt you should be told exactly how valuable you are to this squad.

Those words still bring forth a swell of emotions in me. Someone tells you who they think you are and it just happens to match up with who you want to be…damn!

My roommate, my best friend, and our defensive end Craig Gottschalk wrote those words. I know it was not easy. Where I come from, men do not write letters to other men. He did. It took courage. It took a willingness to be vulnerable. And, I am just going to go ahead and say it…It was an act of love.

His courage gave me clarity. His vulnerability gave me strength. And, his love brought me home.

I went on to finish the season, lose my starting position to a freshman who was bigger, faster and stronger, and learn how to lead in other ways. It was not easy. But, I had a letter.

Surround yourself with people who know you. I mean really know you. Surround yourself with people who believe in your magnificence and are at the ready to reach out when you have lost your way.

Thanks Gootch.


If you enjoyed this blog, you may enjoy my Halftime Speeches monthly email.

Thanks. – shawn

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