Every August, football fields across the nation come to life, as young men take their dreams to the 50-yard line. It’s a time of eagerness and aspiration for those players, but a time of resignation and disappointment for the few unable to play. I was one of those, and though my football odyssey ended in failure, it taught me lessons that have proven invaluable in adulthood.
My severely underdeveloped right leg likely would have made me a bench-warmer anyway, but I was convinced that I could play high school football. My imagination, of course, made me more than a bench-warmer – I was going to be a gridiron god, and that belief drove me to train relentlessly for four straight years.
While my friends were catching the last few minutes of sleep before morning weights, I was pedaling my bike up hills outside of town in the predawn stillness. I was at the weight room door, an hour into my workout, when the coach opened it. On days the weight room was closed, I climbed the locked gate at the track to run stadium steps, and then looked for an unlocked door to the weight room.
I squeezed every possible ounce of strength and endurance out of my imperfect body, but it wasn’t enough. Deep down, I knew it wasn’t enough – that I was crazy to risk my future health to play on a team that would be lucky to win more than a handful of games – that playing football didn’t mean that much to my social status or future potential – but I was a teenager, and convinced that I could correct any injustice.
Each August, from 1985 to 1987, I reported for the mandatory sports physical, and each August, a responsible physician refused to clear me for participation. In 1987, I visited three physicians, and received the same result each time: we are impressed with what you’ve done with your body, but it would be irresponsible to allow you to expose yourself to potential injury. In 1985 and 1986, that news didn’t sting so badly, because I still had opportunity, but when it was officially over in 1987, I was devastated. My quest was over, and I didn’t have anything to show for it – or so I thought.
What I learned during those four years of training has carried me through the past 26 years. As an entrepreneur who has seen good, great and not-so-good times, I have leaned on the tenacity, persistence and discipline that I developed in those early-morning solitary workouts. When no one is watching, and I’m accountable only to myself, I think back to my moonlight bike rides when I could have chosen to stop and go back home, and no one but I would know, and I work an extra hour. When it seems like no one believes in the likelihood of my success, I remain committed. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that failure is nothing to be afraid of. If you totally commit yourself to a goal, doing everything within your power to succeed, like I did with football, and you still fail, it means that you pushed the limits, and that’s a good thing.
Too many of us fear failure, and it keeps us from pushing our limits and realizing our potential. We want to be assured of success, but any successful person will tell you assurance of success is only possible when you are limiting your aspirations. It’s on the outer fringes of our abilities that we experience our greatest successes and expose ourselves to our greatest failures.
I never played a single down of high school football, and that failure has had absolutely no negative impact on my life. In fact, as my body has aged, I see the wisdom in those physicians refusing to sign off on my physical. Though I never played, football taught me valuable life lessons that I might not have learned otherwise, and for that, I’m eternally grateful.