The End Of A Dream
July 16, 2001
Editor's note: Nolan Nawrocki walked on to the Illinois football team and lettered for the Fighting Illini in 1998 and 1999. Hailing from Chicago (St. Rita HS), he played as a defensive back and later a linebacker for the Orange and Blue. A journalism major, Nawrocki formerly wrote for the Fighting Illini newspaper, published by the Univ. of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics.
The spirit of the underdog thrives off of hunger, determination and an eagerness to prove critics wrong. I have been an underdog all my life, fighting for honor, respect and glory. Whether it was making a tackle at the park, walking on to the University of Illinois football team or trying to realize my dream of becoming a professional football player, the odds have been stacked against me. It has never stopped me from reaching for my goals until now.
It was Oct. 28, 2001, the first day of the inaugural XFL draft. I was in California with my girlfriend of six years, accompanying my brother on a business trip. The XFL had signed 1,600 athletes to professional football contracts and placed them in a draft pool of eligible candidates to be selected. As one of those athletes, the XFL draft was an opportunity to move a step closer to realizing my dream, a steppingstone to reach my ultimate destination -- the NFL. Seventy names were called the first day of the draft. My name was not one of them.
On the following day, the skies were clear as waves crashed against the side of a 19-foot Boston whaler in San Francisco's Sausalito Bay. Inside the boat's cabin were a half-dozen roses, five red and one white. Tied to the white rose was a two-tone gold ring.
I hoped two dreams would be realized that day. My girlfriend Christie walked down the aisle as a flower girl when she was 5, dreaming of the day she would get married. From an equally young age, I watched Walter Payton fight off defenders with a dogged determination and relentless drive, dreaming of the day I would compete at Soldier Field.
I had no control over being drafted, but I made certain one dream was coming true on that cool, autumn day. I woke up that morning, told my girlfriend I was going to work out and headed straight to Sausalito Bay with my brother. There we rented a boat, sped to Angel Island and looked for a place to hang a sign I had made before leaving Chicago. After spotting some trees high on a cliff, we quickly climbed the side of the hill and hurriedly tied the sign to the trees with rope. As I was tying a knot in the rope, a gust of wind swept across the hill, knocking a branch across my forehead and opening a two-inch wound.
By the time we reached the mainland and drove back to our hotel, three hours had passed. Thinking we had been exercising, my girlfriend was not too happy by our extended absence. She was even more disgruntled when I came back looking like Frankenstein, blood trickling down my forehead. To explain our absence, I told her I had dropped a dumbbell on my head and had to stay at the gym to fill out an injury report. Her blood was boiling, but I managed to calm her anger. I told her I had called a boat company on the way back and rented a boat for us to visit Alcatraz. After showering quickly, we headed back out to Sausalito Bay, boarded the boat and set out toward Alcatraz. As the boat jumped waves, I kept one hand on the railing and tried to keep the other hand still to snap pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge. Soon Alcatraz was within our sights, as well as the jewel of the bay, Angel Island. The engine slowed as the boat neared the island.
High on a cliff was a blue bed sheet tied between two trees. Painted on the sheet in white letters were the words, "Will you marry me Christie?" Not wearing her glasses, Christie didn't notice the sign, at least not until I stood up, walked to the cabin and pulled out the roses. I pointed to the sign, dropped down on one knee, removed the white rose and presented it to my future bride.
While my personal life was sailing smoothly, my football career felt as though it had hit a bed of rocks. The draft was complete the following day. A total of 560 players had been drafted, but my name had never been called. It was disheartening to learn, but overcoming adversity was not foreign to me. I thought back to the advice I received in training camp during the summer of 1998.
Former Illini WR John Wright Sr. (1965-67), now CEO of the Wright Financial Group, walked into the team meeting room carrying a black, leather bag containing two items -- an unloaded 9 mm Colt, semiautomatic handgun with a laser sight and 10 bricks of tightly packaged bills totaling $1 million. He picked up the gun, turned on the gun's laser pointer, aimed it at the wall and said, "Our philosophies in life are like a laser. We are an energy source, and our philosophy guides us just like a laser guides a bullet. If you point that laser on the wall, and you squeeze that trigger, all that energy from that bullet is going to go right where that laser is. If your philosophy is controlling all of your energy, you can do amazing things when you focus your aim. The difference between a flashlight and a laser is nothing more than focus."
Wright picked up a few bricks of money, each $100,000, and tossed them into the crowd of players. After he relocated the bricks that players tried hiding, Wright said anybody in the room was capable of attaining the wealth in his bag. He said success boils down to mental toughness.
"The definition of mental toughness is the ability to be at your best on command -- skill in controlling your emotions," Wright said. "If you really believe that and work at it, you can be at your best on command. But that's a trained skill, nobody was born mentally tough. ... If you don't like the way something is in your life, you have a choice of how you are going to respond. Mental mush accepts life as it is. The mentally tough individual evaluates what he does not like and seeks to change it."
After Wright had finished speaking to the team, I walked out of the meeting revitalized. I was not happy with my third-string position on the team, and the great thing was, I had an opportunity to change it. The next time I buckled my chin strap, I was going to make sure I did everything in my power to earn a spot on the field. I found a new sense of purpose.
Two weeks later, the team was preparing to play our first opponent -- defending Pac-10 champion Washington State. While I had practiced as a safety at Illinois, head coach Ron Turner thought I would serve the team best by imitating WSU All-Pac-10 LB Steve Gleason on the scout team that week. I relished the opportunity. WSU employed an attacking, blitz-intensive defense, and Gleason was the center of its attack.
As I pulled Gleason's No. 34 jersey over my shoulder pads before practice, Wright's words kept reverberating through my head. I had played three years on the defensive scout team and had nothing to show for it. I didn't like the way things were, and now was the time to change it. The blow horn sounded, signaling a change of period. The team had just finished stretching and completing a special-teams period. The next period was group "run" -- a period that allows the offense to execute its running plays against the upcoming opponent's defense. It is nine-on-nine -- no receivers needed -- first-team offense vs. scout-team defense. It was my time to shine, to show coaches and players that I wasn't happy with my role, and I was ready to step up to heightened responsibilities.
The play was called. My job was to blitz the B gap between the guard and tackle on the snap of the ball and disrupt the backfield. As Illinois QB Kurt Kittner called the cadence, my anger grew. I had given so much of my life to Illinois football. I dedicated countless hours in the weight room, spent hours at practice every day and nights watching film. Playing college football was no different from working a job and going to school. I gave at least 20 hours a week to the team, and where had it gotten me?
Kittner shouted, "Red 19, Red 19, set, hut."
The ball was snapped. Like a launched missile, I shot between guard and tackle, stunned the fullback five yards deep in the backfield as he was coming out of his stance, and grabbed the jersey of the tailback being handed the ball.
The OL coach sounded his whistle in frustration and yelled, "Line it up. Back on the ball." We walked through the play, allowing the linemen and fullback to learn their assignments and pick up the blitz.
Every time a blitz was called, I fought my way into the backfield. If I wasn't blitzing, I was reading, reacting and looking for someone to attack. I played like a bear that had just watched his cubs' carcasses being dragged from a lion's jaw. In the game of football, you are either the hunter or the hunted, the seeker or the sought. I am a Darwinist. I believe in the survival of the fittest. I enjoy hunting, and I craved the opportunity to "hunt" on Saturdays.
The NCAA allows 65 players to travel to away games. About 120 players usually comprise the Illinois team. After every Thursday's practice, a list would be posted in the locker room of the 65 players who would be traveling. As players would file into the locker room after practice, starting players would walk by the list and yell in jest, "Yesssss, I made the traveling team," without looking at the list. While humorous, it burned me that I wouldn't be on the list.
After Thursday's practice prior to the WSU game, special-teams coach Greg McMahon visited me at my locker. He said coach Turner liked my intensity in practice all week and wanted me on the field. For the first time, I joined the traveling team.
When game time arrived, I was eager to get on the field. I was told to be ready to run downfield on the kickoff unit. I envisioned myself sprinting 40 yards full speed, eluding blockers and delivering a thunderous blow reminiscent of NFL special-teams kamikazes Steve Tasker and Larry Izzo. Like a movie, I kept rewinding that scene and playing it over and over again in my mind. On the sideline, I felt like a mental-health patient strapped to a bed in an insane asylum. Constrained to the white chalk on the sideline, I desperately wanted to get on that field, but I would have to wait until our next game against Middle Tennessee State.
When I was a freshman, my mother snapped photos of me standing on the sideline around an Illinois defensive huddle, which included future NFL defensive players Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy. When the photos were developed, I was embarrassed she had taken them. I told her to save her film for when I was playing in a game, not standing on the sideline. After three years of waiting, she finally got the opportunity. With the team riding an 18-game losing streak, I was going to step on the field during a live game for the first time since high school.
As we took the field for kickoff, adrenaline rushed through my body. I raced downfield as fast as I could and continued straight through the endzone as we were coached to do when the ball was kicked past the uprights. Most walk-ons quit before they ever experience a live snap. Many scholarship athletes flunk out, quit or transfer without ever stepping on the field in the heat of battle. My mother knew how much I had dedicated my life to get to this point. Without her strong support and the support of my father, I very well may never have been on the field that day. My success was their success. As we were breaking the huddle before the kickoff, a tear formed in my mother's eye and streamed down her cheek as she focused her camera. As I took the field, the camera clicked. She snapped as many photos as she could.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, we were in control 48-20. Fans rushed the field and tried to tear down the goalposts. We did not win a national championship or clinch a birth to the Rose Bowl, but the losing streak had come to an end. My journey was just beginning.
Two games later, we were set to play Iowa. The ball was kicked off to us to start the game. My job was to help double-team a 6-2, 250-pound Iowa fullback sprinting full speed downfield. As I peeled back to make the block, I saw the ball being kicked through our endzone and slowed down. While the whistle was being sounded, the player kept running full speed and trucked my teammate who was to have joined me in the double-team block. The next time they kicked off, it was my turn. Like the first time they kicked off, I started on the front line of the kickoff-return team, peeled back 20 yards and saw the same Iowa player preparing to smear my teammate. Right before they were about to meet head-on, the Hawkeye noticed me coming at him full throttle, too late to avoid. I buried my helmet under his chin and brought his acceleration to a burning halt, knocking him straight off his feet and opening a wide lane. Illini KR Rocky Harvey scooted behind my block and returned the ball 47 yards.
After playing on special teams that year, I earned my first college letter. Because I redshirted my freshman season, I had a fifth year of eligibility remaining. I was set to graduate in four years and had to make a decision. Would I continue playing my fifth year and work toward my goal of playing professional football or graduate and step into the workforce?
In my first four years, the team's records were 5-5-1, 3-8, 0-11, and 3-8. I had never been to a college bowl game. Twenty-four seniors were returning the following year, the strongest senior class that had been at Illinois since I arrived. We all had one thing in common: We wanted to go to a bowl game. My decision was simple. I would enroll in graduate school and complete my final year of eligibility.
When the spring football season began, I knew time was running out. That spring, I participated in more plays than any other linebacker. Due to injuries to two starting linebackers, I was working with the first-team defense. In the spring game, I led the defense with seven tackles and two forced fumbles. I felt as though I was slowly creeping closer to realizing my dream of playing professional football.
Before my final season, the senior class decided it was going to implement some new team rules to help us get to a bowl game. Along with banning alcohol consumption during the season, we agreed upon attending a nonstop 24-hour military program at the Experimental Training Center in Homer, Ill. -- about 25 miles southeast of Champaign.
I awoke at 4 a.m. on July 24, 1999, and began my trek to Champaign from Chicago in the dark. After two hours of traveling, I met the team at Memorial Stadium, and we headed to the center. The program is used to train soldiers and law-enforcement officers. Among the activities planned, the whole team had to complete a rigorous obstacle course without touching the ground. If any player touched the ground, the whole team had to restart the activity.
Ten different players took turns trying to complete the course, each touching the ground. With every attempt, we learned a new way to conquer an obstacle. Soon a system was set in place. Players would complete one part of the obstacle and wait to assist the next person before moving on. With the sun blistering to the tune of 96-degree heat, we finished the task in six hours. The activity forced the team to work together and continually experiment by trial and error until a surefire solution was achieved.
According to program director Andy Casavant, the program is memorable to many people because, in addition to teaching teamwork, it forces participants to accomplish feats on their own. Participants are given nothing beforehand, and facilitators will not answer any question in regard to an assignment. Just as in football, people must achieve as individuals before putting it all together as a collective unit. "Of experimental base training, the main purpose is to allow the participants to discover, through the experience, answers," Casavant said. "Contrary to popular teaching, the less we say, and the more you do, the more you learn, and the better it is. Participants have to learn and do everything on their own, which is important because we know just from adult learning methodology that, as a trainer or teacher, when you get involved, even if you have good intentions, you still reduce the student's feeling of accomplishment. They like to know that they did it."
Two other tasks in the program involved scaling a five-story wall and completing a series of high-wire tasks on a platform three stories high with nothing but ground below. From an early age, I have always had a natural fear of heights. That same fear caused one 6-7, 305-pound offensive lineman to hyperventilate as he began the task. I did not hyperventilate, but the task was equally petrifying to me. Instead of concentrating on my fear, I listened to the instructors and focused on the task. Worrying about the consequence of falling only hindered my performance. I learned fear is only a factor if you let it be. To complete a task successfully, you must be able to block out negative energy and concentrate on the task at hand.
With everyone healthy during the season, my role diminished to playing only on special teams again, and I was back competing with the scout team. While I did not compete as much as I would have liked on Saturdays, I was competing against our first-team offense every day in practice. In my final season, I played against the most productive offense in Illinois history, which averaged 407 yards a game and scored 388 points. In my time at Illinois, I regularly competed against OG J.P. Machado (New York Jets), C Tom Schau (Green Bay Packers), OG Ryan Schau (Philadelphia Eagles), FB Robert Holcombe (St. Louis Rams) and TE Matt Cushing (Pittsburgh Steelers). I banged heads with them every day, and they all went on to play professionally. I hoped to join them at the next level.
Shortly after the XFL draft, the Arena Football League announced it would be hosting tryouts for its newest team, the Chicago Rush. I quickly contacted the Rush and continued to train my body for hours every day.
I lifted weights for more than an hour every day, five days a week, and ran for another hour. I sought out former landfills, such as the hill Walter Payton used to climb in Arlington Heights (now Nickol Knoll golf course) and the hill known as Mt. Trashmore that the 1995 Northwestern Rose Bowl football team surmounted in Evanston. Climbing that treacherous hill united a Northwestern team that hadn't gone to a bowl game since 1949 and made it the college football story of the season. Drenched in sweat, I would run up and down the hills 10 times initially, gradually working my way up to running it 20 times as Sweetness did. The workouts were so exhausting they left me dizzy and vomiting, as Payton claimed they would do to him.
I also sought out the advice of speed coach Tim Graf in Joliet. After correcting my running technique, I decreased my 40-time two-tenths of a second to the mid-4.4s. I weighed 226 pounds and bench-pressed 225 pounds 27 times, the same number that NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Urlacher performed the lift at the NFL's Indianapolis Scouting Combine.
I had the speed and strength, but I did not have much game experience. Every time I'd try to get my foot in the door of professional football, people would ask for game films, and I hadn't played much more than special teams. The other issue was my height and weight.
While I did not meet prototypical NFL size standards for a linebacker (6-2, 240) at 5-10 3/4, I hoped my above-average strength and speed would compensate for the difference. Sam Mills (5-9, 225), Zach Thomas (5-11, 235), Dat Nguyen (5-11, 231), Dexter Coakley (5-10, 228), London Fletcher (510, 241) -- the list of dominant, undersized NFL linebackers goes on. My dream was to add my name to that list. When the Arena tryout came, roughly 100 players were in attendance. Team personnel evaluators quickly tested our speed and strength before moving on to the real test. They wheeled out a stack of shoulder pads and helmets and began lining players across from one another. On the sound of a whistle, I had one of two objectives -- touch the cone behind a blocker or prevent a defender from getting to the cone. Each player rotated between the positions of fullback and linebacker.
Every time I lined up in a two-point stance on defense, I ran full speed, bull-rushed or ripped past the blocker and tapped the cone. Every time I crouched down in a three-point stance on offense, I fired off the ball and met the oncoming linebacker on his side of the line of scrimmage. None of them got near the cone. The team video-recorded our play and advised all players not to contact the team. They would review the tape. If they were interested in you, they would find you. A month passed. I was never contacted.
While I knew they only planned to take a few of the 100-or-so players at the tryout, I felt as if I had come close to domination. Had my lack of playing experience been too much for me to overcome?
You choose your battles. You choose the path you take in life. I believe in choosing goals and going after them wholeheartedly. I spent the last six months running, lifting, consulting speed coaches, reading books about conditioning and technique, contacting different agents, sending articles about myself to teams. I visited the Chicago Bears' summer camp in Platteville, Wis., for the first time and took note of linebacker drills. I played racquetball, basketball, practiced tae kwon do and boxed -- all to improve my quickness, hand-eye coordination and flexibility. With my head down and legs pumping, I pushed my rusted 1984 Oldsmobile Delta 88 up a hill as I had read Tampa Bay FB Mike Alstott had done to strengthen his legs in college. I ran up toboggan sleds so steep that my legs could be pumping full speed and I would only be moving at the pace of a jog.
As Vince Lombardi said, "The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender." I worked hard and with the creation of the XFL and the expansion of the Arena League, two new professional football teams were coming to Chicago at the same time I happened to be graduating. I thought it was destiny -- that I was meant to play football in Chicago. I tried everything I could to get a chance, but it has not come. It's a time that inevitably comes in every athlete's life. The helmet transforms from a weapon and shield to protect the head to a symbol of pride and loyalty adorning a player's living room or office. New battles are waged. The time comes to put one dream to rest and begin realizing another. For some, it comes in high school, for others, after injury or a lengthy professional career. For me, it has come sooner than expected. What's important to me is that I tried. I didn't want to live my life with any regrets, wondering what could have been.
In high school, I looked at NFL draft statistics. More than 90 percent of athletes drafted into the NFL came from Division I programs. If I was going to play in the NFL, my chances would be greatest if I played against the best competition in the country. Not receiving any Division I scholarship offers, I quickly made up my mind. I would walk on to a Division I program. It would require taking out many college loans, but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make. If I couldn't play with the best, I wanted to know it.
After settling on Illinois, my high school football coach at St. Rita, Todd Wernet, told me I should be prepared to face a situation similar to the one experienced by the title character in the movie "Rudy" -- overcome by bigger, stronger and faster athletes. When I arrived in Champaign, I was surprised to find that I was one of biggest and strongest players in the defensive secondary. I had played linebacker in high school and had trained all summer long for this opportunity. My size and strength were up to par with most college safeties. What I quickly realized is that another factor is more important than size -- the ability to run.
On my first day of practice, the team had already completed summer camp. It was the first day walk-ons were dressed in helmets and shoulder pads. Special-teams coach McMahon was working on a double-team drill -- a drill players like to call "suicide" for walk-ons. The walk-ons take their turn running downfield before facing two blockers, one who is coming straight on and setting up the walk-on to be blindsided by another blocker. While walk-ons are preparing to elude the oncoming blocker, they very often are decleated before they ever see the blind-side block. With players like future NFL LB Kevin Hardy delivering these blocks, it was not uncommon for walk-ons to get knocked five yards in the air or get somersaulted before landing on their backs.
The first time I donned the orange and blue helmet, I raced downfield as hard as I could, ran past the blind-side blocker and crashed into the oncoming blocker. As he was falling on his back, the blocker grabbed onto my shorts to brace himself, and ripped them right off. Coach McMahon ran to the site of the collision, screaming, "Yeahhhhhh, I like this kid! What's your name, son?" He directed an equipment manager to get me a new pair of shorts.
As a freshman, team doctors tested players' body composition. To play in the defensive secondary, a player's body fat is expected to be 5-8 percent in order to have the stamina to play an entire game. After learning my body fat composition was 12 percent, I quickly changed my diet and began working to decrease my body fat. I started eating lean chicken, vegetables and raw oats. Met-Rx, Myoplex and many other sports supplement drinks became a regular meal on my menu. I completely eliminated fast food from my diet -- no more McDonald's, Burger King or White Castle. When I reported to summer camp the following year, my body fat was measured at 5 percent. In the weight room, I became the all-time leading strength leader at the safety position. Weighing 201 pounds, my combined total of 1,170 pounds for the squat (550), power clean (275) and bench press (345) was more than any safety had ever lifted at Illinois.
Keeping my body in peak physical condition became a religion to me. To be efficient in any endeavor, you need the right tools. My body became an instrument to my success on the field. I wanted to make sure that I was doing everything to provide myself with the optimal opportunity for success. I even geared part of my college education toward improving my sport performance. I took several courses focusing on the anatomy of the body related to sport performance. I wrote several papers and articles about physical training. I contacted NFL players, such as Tampa Bay S John Lynch, and picked their brains for knowledge that could enhance my performance. I read books, bought special training equipment and did everything in my power to move closer to my goal.
Former President Calvin Coolidge once said, "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not, Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not, Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not, The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved, and always will solve, the problems of the human race."
Coolidge's words sit framed on my desk, and I look at them every morning when I rise. As an avid believer in persistence and determination, it has been extremely difficult letting go of my dreams. If I had given up after high school, I would never have become a two-year letterman, four-time Academic All-Big Ten selection and Fighting Illini all-time strength leader. I watched the plight of Kurt Warner and how he beat the odds to become a Super Bowl MVP. I know there's a sliver of a chance that I might be able to follow in his steps and in the steps of every NFL athlete who has overcome adversity to get where he is. But reason has finally overcome me.
In my Arena tryout, I had roughly 15 full-contact collisions with opposing players. After not buckling a chin strap for more than a year, it took my body about five days before I felt fully recovered from the impact. In my 13 years of organized football, the worst injury that I sustained occurred in seventh grade. Games were played at a local park, which was poorly maintained. After making a tackle, a piece of glass lodged in my hand as I pushed myself off the ground to stand up. I quickly removed the glass, but my hand was bleeding uncontrollably. I ran to the sideline to have it taped so I could get back in the game, but my coach quickly summoned my father. The wound was going to require stitches, the only serious injury I have sustained in football.
I have never broken any bones or torn any ligaments, at least not to my knowledge. In college, I've had double vision in one of my eyes, had my shin gashed by metal cleats and felt my arms and neck go numb on several occasions, but I've never taken myself out of a game or practice since that childhood game. It is the nature of the gladiator to assume and withstand pain in the heat of battle. If the opportunity had arisen to play professional football, I would just as quickly have withstood more pain for the opportunity. In retrospect, however, the game takes a tremendous toll on one's body.
After 15 years in the NFL, Hall of Fame C Jim Otto could no longer get out of bed without assistance when he was 36. I will soon have a wife to support, and it will be as important to her as it is to me to show concern for my body. Along with a new family, I have other goals and larger contributions I would like to make to society. While it has not been easy letting go of my football dreams, I am excited about the new opportunities and challenges that abound beyond football.
The lessons I have learned in football are invaluable, and I will take them with me in whatever I do. According to sociological research, Chicago is one of the most segregated communities in the country. Neighborhoods are divided by race and ethnicity, and tensions brew from those divisions. On the field, it doesn't matter what color your skin is or what neighborhood you came from. All that matters is that you work together and get the job done. In my five years at Illinois, I was exposed to different cultures and different races and learned that race provides no indication of what type of person someone is.
I have learned the importance of suppressing one's ego for the good of the team. When I arrived at Illinois, few players were quick to acknowledge me. Walk-ons come and go in college sports. Twenty-six walk-ons started their careers at Illinois when I did. Two finished. In five years, many passed through the locker room, so it's natural that players don't give walk-ons much attention until they have shown they are committed to the cause. I could have walked away after four years like several scholarship players who forwent their final year of eligibility. Instead I contributed to bringing Illinois to its first bowl game in five years. I helped rookies break down film, encouraged them to put in extra time in the weight room and helped them adjust from being a high school sensation to a college role player. I was not an All-Big Ten performer, but I was a senior, and I exerted what leadership I could to the team.
In college football, if you are not 10 minutes early to meetings, you are considered late. If you miss a block, the ballcarrier gets smeared. Not completing your assignments hurts the team more than it hurts you. And if you don't make those blocks, you don't see the field. Competition is fierce. You prepare and execute, or you don't play. Playing college football has taught me what it means to prepare and to overcome competition.
When I came to Illinois in 1995, the team was coming off an impressive Liberty Bowl victory. In my first two years, we did not go to a bowl, and our coach was fired. A new coaching staff was hired, and we did not win a single game the next year. Losing takes a toll on a person's self-worth. During that 0-11 season, head coach Ron Turner said he was embarrassed to go out in public. He hated losing as any fierce competitor does and didn't even want to visit the barber to have his hair cut. He didn't want to deal with the questions. He just wanted to bury himself in his work and get things right. As times worsened, many players quit or transferred to other schools. When I came to Illinois, there were so many players on the team that I had to share a locker with another player as many walk-ons did. During that winless season, fewer than 100 of the 124 lockers were filled. I have been through the good times and the bad at Illinois. I stayed loyal to my team. As we struggled, my commitment only grew stronger. I saw it as an opportunity and dedicated myself more to the cause.
Since I was 13 years old, I have been lifting weights to improve my athletic performance. I read research stating you lose 5 percent of your strength with every week you do not train. Since that time, a week has not gone by where I have not trained. Anytime I have gone on vacation, I found a place to exercise. If not, I would wake up in the morning and run or do push-ups, sit-ups and other exercises not requiring equipment. Every year when many teammates are in Cancun on spring break, I have been at home, in the gym, on the track, trying to advance one step ahead of the competition. Through sports, I have not only learned how to stay dedicated to a cause, but have learned a new appreciation for health. My football career may be over, but I will still train hard and eat healthy foods.
Life will never match our plans exactly how we want, but that doesn't mean you cannot continue to fulfill other dreams. As former Illinois coach Lou Tepper preached, life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it. There will always be something we wished we had or hadn't done. Life is always going to throw you setbacks, but it's not important how many times you get knocked down. What's important is that you get back up, counter those punches with more jabs and more hooks and keep trying to land that knockout shot.
It was late in the final quarter of the MicronPC.com Bowl in Miami. My knees were bent, back arched and arms hanging above my knees in linebacker form. My eyes were glued on the hips of the tailback. On the snap of the ball, the tailback took a step to the right. I mirrored his movement, shuffled a step to the right and saw the C gap opening between the tackle and end. I sprinted to the gap and met the ballcarrier as he stepped through the hole, making the final tackle of the millennium for Illinois in what would be a 63-21 victory over Virginia. When the game ended, I looked up in the stands at my waving family and knew it might be the last time I stood on the fighting grounds of a coliseum.
It was unclear whether I would have a chance in the NFL, but I had come a long way since my days as an 8-year-old standing uncovered in the corner of the endzone, only to be ignored by the older players. With my football aspirations now behind me, I think back to all the adversity I have overcome. I think back to a quote I heard by Justice Benjamin Cardozo in a psychology class my sophomore year in college: "In the end, the great truth will have been learned, that the quest is greater than what is sought, the effort finer than the prize, the victory cheap and hollow were it not for the rigor of the game."
I think of how my children, when conceived, will heed my past actions as much as my words and hope they, too, will never give up on themselves. I think not of my loss, but of my gain. One chapter of my life has been written, and I am ready to begin forging another. As I walked off that field, I was energized by the thought that I had walked down the long road, fought the hard fight and never stopped trying. I may have made my last tackle, but I will take all that I've learned and continue to tackle obstacles, continue to fight adversity and continue to prove critics wrong.