By: Chris Hall
One conversation I had, the summer after my freshman year in college, changed my football career.
It seemed insignificant enough when it started; the player I was talking to can’t even remember it now. But I walked away with a lot of soul-searching to do afterward, and was never the same.
It was 2006 and we were coming off of a storybook national championship season. The recruiting class we brought in was full of stars and impact players (like most every class Texas brings in). Our mission was obvious — repeat, and win it all again.
Recruits go to schools for all different kinds of reasons, but the opportunity to win a national championship is a big one. If you’re going to play why not win it all, right? The trick now was doing that without Vince Young. He had just been drafted by the Tennessee Titans as the NFL’s 3rd overall pick.
I found myself in a new role on the team: I was actually older than other people now. I was still young and inexperienced (I redshirted in ’05 and didn’t have wisdom beyond my years), but I was at least more experienced than the incoming freshmen. That meant I had some shred of credibility.
I could teach the “new heads” a few things. Although I myself wasn’t even an “old head” yet (yes, that’s what we were actually called). But I could show them the ropes and help them navigate playing college football at the University of Texas.
Little did I know that as I was imparting knowledge — I would be the one getting taught.
For the life of me I can’t remember everyone that was there. It was me, maybe Aaron Lewis, and three new freshmen that had just arrived. We were going to eat dinner together at J2 (Jester’s dining hall on the second floor) which was a favorite of mine. It was all-you-can-eat, not the best quality, but anytime a buffet was involved I was generally interested (and still am today).
The most important role to be played was by Lamarr Houston. Lamarr was a freakish athlete — a 260-pound defensive lineman that also happened to play running back in HS. I don’t know how we kept finding these guys, we had signed Henry Melton (a 275-pound running back) just the year before.
Lamarr was more ready to play coming out of high school than I was after an entire year of our strength and conditioning. What can I say? Some guys are just more gifted than others, and I had a lot of ground to make up.
As the five of us sat around our table at Jester talking, the most important topic to every freshman football player came up: playing early.
I couldn’t tell the guys what it was like to start or make a big impact right away. I didn’t do that (I wasn’t Jamaal Charles) so how could I? I redshirted, rode the bench, and earned my dues on scout team like most every freshman does.
So instead, I informed them that redshirting is not all that bad and told the benefits thereof.
I can’t remember what all I said. I definitely mentioned getting to go home (if you wanted to) while the team was playing away games. That was a huge plus for me as a homesick 18-year old. I probably also mentioned that you still get to dress out for home games and go to the bowl game at the end of the season. Obviously, bowl game gifts are great.
In general, redshirting means not much is expected of you (yet) and you still get to be a part of the team. That’s what I was bringing out in a number of different ways when Lamarr rudely interrupted everything I was saying. (At least, it felt rude to me at the time).
Stopping me mid-sentence, he asked, “Do you like football?”
Shocked at his question, it took me a moment to make sense of what he was saying.
I responded, “Uh, yeah… Obviously I like football.”
“You say you do,” and then Lamarr drove home his point, “but everything I’ve been hearing you say tells me you don’t like football.”
It was hard for me to comprehend what he was saying; I was a football player. It was how I identified myself and made sense of my life. Plus, why was this new freshman challenging what I was saying? I just met him.
“Um, no man. I like football. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t like football,” I explained.
But Lamarr wouldn’t relent, “I hear you say that, but you’re talking about how it’s not bad if you don’t play… I like football. I want to play. I don’t think you actually like football.”
I insisted again that I did, but that’s basically where the conversation ended.
I’m sure nobody sitting at that table even remembers our brief exchange. I know Lamarr doesn’t, because I asked him four years later when we were seniors. I also told him what an impact that puzzling (and slightly insulting) conversation had on me.
I had to actually think about what Lamarr said. His questioning my love of the game sent me introspecting: “Do I, actually, like football?”
After days of consideration, I realized (at least at the time) that I didn’t. I didn’t like football.
In college, I had lost the love for the game. That was a big problem because football was the majority of my daily life. At some point in the transition from Irving High School to the University of Texas, football had become something I do rather than something I enjoyed.
I realized, also, what I had most liked about football in the first place: status.
The status of being a big-time football player was what I liked the most — not the actual game. Being praised by my family, being respected in my community, being the “big man on campus” (literally) was what I loved. If I could have gotten status through any other means (music, money, academics, etc.) it may have been all the same to me. Since I grew up in Texas, and was gifted athletically more than most, football was the best route for me to achieve the status I desired.
For you to succeed at the next level, you have to love football — the game itself.
Loving the trappings and benefits of being good at football won’t be enough to sustain you. The work you’ve put into play in high school pales in comparison to what you’re about to experience. Like I’ve told you before, the next four years will be the hardest thing you’ve done in your life.
If you don’t love the game of football (regardless of the stats, publicity, and mountains of swag), the cost will eventually outweigh the reward for you. You’ll find yourself back home, without a scholarship, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of your life.
Because of that conversation with Lamarr, I rekindled my love for the game. I realized I desperately needed to put my heart, emotion, and passion into what I was doing. To do enough to get by wouldn’t cut it. And to simply “do more” wouldn’t cut it either. I had to have a fundamental change of heart for my “doing more” to properly take place and produce results.
I’m glad I did. I’m glad I didn’t just “remain on the team.”
You have a lot of work ahead of you, recruit, and National Signing Day is quickly approaching.
Once the ink is dry and the fax is sent in, once your ceremony or announcement is finished, I want you to pause and take a moment to think: I want you to make the three resolutions below. Like you’re making a vow, so to speak, determining and giving yourself to accomplish the next four years:
1. “I will stay.”
I don’t mean you won’t transfer, that happens sometimes. Determining “to stay” means you won’t quit and come home. I can’t tell you how many great football players from my hometown I saw sign to play football in college, only to quit in the middle of their freshman year and start dating the sophomore girls back in high school.
Quitting is not an option. Settle it in your mind now. No matter what happens, you will not “come home.” You may visit your family, for sure, but you’ll refuse to quit and come home for good. Having this attitude upfront will help you when things (academics, relationships, playing time) get tough. And they will get tough.
2. “I will play.”
Not everyone can be the greatest thing since sliced bread. Statistics are against you for even going to the NFL. You may not start or be a freshman All-American, but resolve within yourself now that you will play — resolve that you will do whatever it takes to earn your way onto the field.
Playing time and starting jobs are not given; they’re earned by the people that consistently produce when the opportunity is given. Nobody owes you anything. Your high school accomplishments won’t mean anything on the next level. Determine now, that no matter what, you’ll do what it takes to get on the field. Don’t settle for just being on the team.
3. “I will graduate.”
To have a great playing career and make lots of memories doesn’t mean as much without a degree to go along with it. Graduating, finishing your education, is the best way to ensure you get the maximum benefit from this whole transaction. Remember: it’s business.
I hope you play in the NFL. If you’re a guaranteed 1st round draft pick, go early. But make the decision now that you will graduate, eventually. Better to do it all in one shot and not have to come back and pick it up again. Resolve within yourself now that you will finish what you start.
Oh, and by the way, congratulations. I look forward to seeing you play on Saturdays.