Every year I return to my hometown, Oakland, California, to host a youth football camp through my ACES Foundation. I think it’s important to give back to the community, especially to help the youth realize that they have the ability to achieve their dreams regardless of their personal circumstances. We show them different drills and exercises they can do to become better athletes, but more importantly, we have individuals share their testimony about their lives and stories about overcoming the realities of growing up in the inner city. And while everyone’s reality is different, common ground is often found in the struggle to deal with gangs, violence, drugs, sub par educational environment, and having to resist the immediate gratification of some of these actives seems near impossible. It’s sad but true, and having lived across the country, I have seen that most inner cities are faced with the same plights. So what’s the key for success for young people who find themselves faced with these adversities daily? As I discussed in an earlier blog, everything starts in developing a strong foundation rooted in your identity, character and relationships. But in order to become successful, we have to identify our why and make a commitment to invest in ourselves daily.
Knowing your why is everything. A former teammate of mine, Robert Griffin III, coined the term back in 2012. At first I thought it was a little corny, but when I gave the concept some thought, it made sense. Your why is essentially the source that fuels your passions in life. At the most basic level, it motivates you and will encourage you to set up daily activities to achieve your goal. Anyone who has attempted to achieve anything has faced setbacks, but because you know what you want, you have a reason to endure and will continue to make the necessary sacrifices to obtain your greatness. And your why may be as big or small, detailed or vague, or simple or complex as you want. The important thing is to not stand still, but instead to continually move forward no matter how slow or fast you’re going. My dream was never to play in the NFL. Growing up, I just wanted to play sports, have fun and go to college. I understood at an early age that financially my family would be unable to send me to a university, but I could use my athletic and intellectual gifts to earn a scholarship. And with the help of my mom, uncle and a lot of other folks, we made sure I was headed in that direction. I had to maintain A and B average (I established this as my standard, although it is important to know every child is different), display great conduct, and then put the time into my sports. That was the order of my life and it worked well, but it did not come without sacrifices.
My mother was not comfortable sending me to any of the Oakland public schools, and even if she was, in my uncle’s mind, the only place I was ever going to attend was Saint Mary’s High School. The only issue was the cost; it was like paying for college and we could not afford it. However, my uncle and a silent contributor made it a reality. They would take care of the cost, but I had to maintain the A/B average and work in the maintenance department during the summer. The grades were no problem, but having to work in the summer, what teenager wants do that? But I understood that in order to achieve my goal of playing football in college, it was a sacrifice I had to make.
I realize I had many people throughout my life help me in some way, and the success I have obtained is not my entirely my own. However, at some point, I had to take responsibility for my dreams, and could not rely on my parents, coaches or friends to achieve them for me. I had to understand the meaning of “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). There is nothing I can ever do to make myself righteous enough to close the gap sin created between God and I without Jesus dying on the cross, but as a believer in Christ, when someone examines my life, my daily actions and attitude, there should be evidence of my relationship with Christ. This also applies when chasing our dreams. I cannot tell you how many times a young man has told me he wants to play in college or the NFL, but when we examine his life, nothing looks like he is moving in that direction. Bad grades, not working out, and bad eating habits are some of the problems. And for me, that is always a great time to share my testimony and be vulnerable. Not too many people really remember how I was when I was young; most people know me as a blue collar overachiever who plays like every play is his last. But if I am honest with myself and young people, I was not always the man you know today.
I used to be that guy who had talent and played well but was lazy. I didn’t like to work, especially if it meant being uncomfortable, and because I felt like I was one of the better players, if not the best on my team, why did I need to grind? I was very shortsighted and my uncle wanted to send me a message to open up my eyes. One time during post-practice conditioning, I had reached my limit and started walking. My uncle was fed up with my prima donna attitude and literally dragged me to the finish line. Looking back on that day, my uncle not only stood in the gap and took me to where I needed to be, but he was also letting me know that I was no better than anyone else. It would be cool to say that after that I was hard working, but I cannot. However, that event did start the process of taking ownership and responsibility for my goals and learning how to enjoy it.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). Finding joy within your daily process is the real key in creating a sustainable commitment to yourself. Yes, we are talking about practice, how you eat, how you train, how you work! That is where the greatness is created. The reality is that at some point everyone is going to get exposure, and whether or not it is good or bad depends on how well you prepared. And finding joy in working and pushing your limits when no one is looking will ensure that you take advantage of the opportunity. You can’t fall back on the excuse that it’s just not who you are, that your background is too big of an obstacle, or that you just aren’t built for the work. It is going to take work no matter who you are. And over time, instead of the work being what you have to do, it becomes what you want do.
So continue to pick up your cross daily and die to yourself by working through the failure and growing pains by staying focused on your why, and not allowing yourself to be distracted by shallow things you may desire but that do not produce anything worth having, nor align with your ultimate goals. One of my former coaches, Greg Blache, used to say, “Tell your mind to get your weak body in gear.” Now he did not phrase it so nicely, but his point was that you have the ability to achieve your goals, you have to will and overcome your natural instinct to feel sorry for yourselves, stay in your comfort zone, and blame failures on your circumstances. He was reminding me of my why and the commitment I had made to myself. Therefore, do not make excuses; rely on the Spirit that resides in you to lead you and be great!