I COULD’VE Been A Contender!

When I played football in college, freshman played on a freshman-only team, separated from the varsity upper classmen (I discussed my college decision process here).

About a week before our first game, Don Dobes, the freshman head coach (yeah, the guy who unwittingly changed my name the first day on campus, as I described here), called me into his office.

“Kenny,” he started, unaware that four weeks earlier there were only five people on the planet who had ever called me by that name, “you have had an outstanding preseason and far exceeded our expectations.”  Intuitively I knew that that bar was pretty low, given the amount of effort he’d put into recruiting me (he was also the guy responsible for recruiting in the Midwest).  As he said that I was thinking to myself, “I may have exceeded YOUR expectations, but I haven’t even come close to MINE.”

“The reason I wanted to talk to you,” Coach Dobes continued, “is I wanted to let you know that Donald is getting the start next Friday. You’ve done everything we’ve asked of you, but we’ve got to face reality. Donald has incredible potential and he is the future of this football program.  And my job as freshman head coach is to get him ready to play for the varsity next year.”

There was no way I could deny what Coach D said.  Donald was an absolute specimen. Six foot tall with muscles on top of his muscles. And a 40 time of 4.3 – 4.4 seconds without straining one of those muscles.  He was probably the best raw football talent that I had ever seen in person (up to that point, of course) and I don’t think I’m exaggerating at all to say that he had the POTENTIAL to play on Sundays after college.

And yet, over the three week preseason that we had been practicing together, I had also seen some basic flaws that made me doubt that that potential would ever be realized.  He’d nonchalantly show up just as practice was about to start. He’d run through warm-ups and drills with limited effort or attention.  On pass plays, he’d often run the wrong route or drop an easy catch (although sometimes making a spectacular catch on a seemingly uncatchable ball).  On running plays, he’d jog off the line of scrimmage, uninterested in the assignment of making a downfield block that could turn an eight yard run into a sixty yard touchdown. In short, we were complete opposites!

I took in what Coach Dobes had to say. No doubt I was disappointed and certainly a bit pissed off as well.  And I responded from the gut.  “Potential is great coach,” I said, trying to contain my emotions.  “But it doesn’t win football games. Performance on the field is what they put up on the scoreboard.”

My response probably took him a bit off guard.  “Don’t worry, Kenny,” he said as he hastily ushered me out of his office.  “We’ll be rotating receivers into the game. So you’ll get your share of playing time.  I’ll see you at practice later.”  And that was that.

The mistakes that Donald displayed during the preseason carried over into the first two games of the season, and by the third game, I had been promoted to the starting role.  And yet, at the start of training camp the next year, I once again found myself below Donald on the depth chart. The varsity coaches were just as blinded and tempted by his potential as Coach Dobes was.

And so, the same scenario played out again, for two more years.  By the early part of the season, actual performance won out over unrealized potential.  They tried to get Donald to move over to the defensive side of the ball, to defensive back. “If I wanted to play d back,” he would say, “I would have taken the scholarship offers from Virginia or Wake Forest (i.e. bigger schools with higher level football programs).”

Finally, when I won the starting role in preseason and started every game our junior year, Donald figured out that the slower, far less athletic guy who had been beating him out for the past three seasons wasn’t going away.  He moved over to defensive back and won All League recognition in our senior year – like I said, he was that talented.

So what is the point of this whole story?  Well, a friend of mine took issue with one of the things I said in my reposting yesterday of Everyday is a New Beginning, which started “The state of your life when you woke up this morning is the sum total of EVERY decision you’ve made since your brain was developed enough to make decisions for itself.” The next line, which she had an issue with was:

You were EXACTLY where you were supposed to be this morning, based on all those decisions.

My friend’s comment was, “I think many are not living to their potential.” And I felt like, in order to give that comment it’s due, a full on, separate post was necessary.

No doubt, she is right.  Many, I would probably argue most, maybe even ALL, are not living to their potential.  But notice, I didn’t say “you are where you COULD be” or “you are where you SHOULD be” but rather “you are where you were SUPPOSED to be” based on the decisions that you have made to this point in your life.

“Could” and “Should” are words based on potential, like Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront: “I COULD’VE been a contender.  I COULD’VE been somebody. Instead, of a bum, which is what I am.”

And the point I was trying to make, maybe not very well, is that where we find ourselves each day is simply the consequence of every decision we have made and every action we have taken (as well as the decisions and actions of everyone else that impacts each of us in some way). If those decisions and actions are well aligned with whatever talents we have been blessed with, then the possibility exists of “living to our potential” or close to it.

For me personally, I never feel as if I am “living to my potential.”  It’s just the way I am wired, I guess.  I am never satisfied or content and always feel like I could’ve or should’ve done more, done better, whatever.  And I doubt that will ever change.

But I’ve learned that rather than feeling regret over a decision that results in an outcome other than what I expected or an action I take that is not executed to the full potential of my ability, all I can do is accept the reality of the outcome for what it is.  Hopefully learn from the experience.  And maybe get a little bit closer to realizing that full potentiality somewhere down the line. It is true in sports.  And it is true in life.

Not too long after my Buddha climb, after I had left the NFL, I happened to find myself on the train platform in Port Chester, NY on my way into Manhattan for a job interview.  I was still in a pretty bad way and it wasn’t an accident that I would stand far back on the platform when the train pulled into the station, just to be on the safe side.

I hadn’t thought about Donald in a long time, and it didn’t cross my mind that he happened to be from Port Chester.  As I stood on the platform, a man (some might call him a bum or a hobo) was making his way along the platform, asking people for money.

When he came up to me, I gave him my typical response that I had learned in the more than ten years of living in New York and being regularly accosted by panhandlers looking to score enough cash to get their next bottle or bag or whatever.  “Sorry,” I said looking him in the eye and then looked away.

He stood there, looking at me.  And the words stumbled from his mouth. “Hey,” he said. “Don’t I know you?”  “I don’t think so,” I replied, not looking hard enough to see if I might in some way recognize him.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said as he reached back into the recesses of his brain to try to find the one cell that might still hold the memory.  “Kenny?” he said after a long pause. “It’s Donald.”

“Oh man,” I think I said, or something like that. “I’m sorry Donald.  I didn’t recognize you.”  He had gained a lot of weight and looked nothing like the fine athletic specimen I had last seen fifteen years prior.

“Yeah, I know,” he said, unapologetically.  “The drugs have kicked my ass, you know?”

We stood there on the platform together and talked for a few minutes. Two former Ivy League football players, formerly rivals for a starting wide receiver position, who had gone down different paths in life since. One wearing dirty, disheveled clothes.  The other wearing a suit and tie. But both jobless and somewhat lost.

At that moment a train pulled into the station, and I reached into my pocket and found my wallet.  I gave him every dollar I had, feeling guilty and not knowing what else to do. I asked him if there was a number where I could reach him, and he shrugged as if to say “You’re kidding me right. I don’t have a house, I sure as hell don’t have a phone.” I got on the train and watched him as we pulled away from the platform.

Afterwards, I wished I had done more. That I had given him a number where he could reach me or maybe invited him to come stay at my house (yeah, that would have gone over really well).  A few times, I drove around the train station at night, hoping I would see him on a street corner or something.  I’d figure out how to get him into a treatment program to get sober (maybe enlisting the help of some of our former teammates in the area) and help him get on a different path.  But I never saw him again.

We all have potential.  We wake up each day with the potential to make an impact in our own lives and in the lives of those we come in contact with – family, friends, strangers. Previous decisions, whatever they have been, determine the resources we have available and the magnitude of that potential (at least in the short term).  And until someone invents a time machine, there is no way to go back and change one of those previous decisions to alter our present circumstances.

Rather than spending my time and energy trying to design a flux capacitor, I choose instead to recognize that where I woke up today is the direct result of every action and decision I made prior to putting my head on the pillow last night (and all the blessings beyond my control that a higher power in the universe has decided to bestow upon me).  And to realize that the only thing I have ANY control over is the actions I take and decisions I make today.

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment. – Buddha
The future starts today, not tomorrow. – Pope John Paul II

2 thoughts on “I COULD’VE Been A Contender!

  1. Devastating, I grieve for Donald, an Adonis sent to his demise, and relate so much to the futility of your search for his remains. I did that a lot in Oakland, in part because in a society as competitive and individualistic as ours, potential and performance become the metrics through which status and identity are conferred. In the process, we cease to be and belong to each other outside the context of games, sports, business and all the other mirrors and metrics, the morgues and mints in which our talents are monetized and our lives are consumed. You gave Donald all your money because he was, and remains, a part of your humanity. But in the sick world in which we live, and die, in which manhood is constructed, only to be deconstructed, demolished, sports becomes an arena, a circus Maximus, in which boys are coerced into acting like gladiators, sacrificial pawns on a battlefield, just as girls are turned into Barbie dolls, with gender roles as a way of internalizing trauma and death. What made Donald feel so depressed and so inadequate? Why did he turn to drugs? What was the cry that no one heard, not even himself? What was he truly seeking? And what about the coaches? Did they not demote and discard him for failing to realize his potential, as if were a promising couch or bag of potatoes that did not deliver value? Wasn’t he discounted as if he were junk? Isn’t there something innately sick and abusive about systems and structures, athletic, military and monetary, premised on the elimination of the weak and the survival of the strong? Sure, decisions matter. But so do the rules of the game. And when those rules are rigged, and the systems are bogus, and the soldiers realize that they are sacrificial pawns, bodies that are bought and sold in markets, with name tags and expiration dates, then maybe Donald was not where he was supposed to be but like so many kids escaping the desolation of suburbia or misery of the ghetto for a shot at the army, or the marines or hezbullah or whatever, he was trading one hell for another, buying into the illusion of control in a world of carnage and cruelty concealing layers upon layers of denial, depression and deceit. Don’t tell me that the Donalds of the world who leave broken homes to lose their limbs and lives as warriors in battlefields and killing fields stretching from Vietnam to Iraq are in control of their lives. No. They are trained to kill their pain and can’t experience their emotions. The only reason Donald was homeless is because we abandon each other. And that too is a whole series of decisions-a blind spot in which we are taught to wound, slaughter and bury each other. Child-abuse And sacrifice, Ken, is at the heart of all these systems. Love is scarce, and it is only dispensed in exchange for violation, of one kind or another. These coaches are like pimps, they gamble with lives of boys who are searching for sanctuary. Just look at all the boys being torn to pieces by all these tribes vying to control the flow of oil and arms into the Middle East. Blood sucked into the ground, oil pumped out of the ground. Tribe and territory, that’s what sports and identity is all about. And if, at some point, you realize that you can’t live by or follow the codes, then you simply don’t belong. You are not a man. You have no identity, no team, no territory, no claim and no name. And no idea where, how or why to begin. You were willing to offer that chance to Donald, you went searching for him. Not because of his potential or performance, labor or capital but maybe because there are other, better scales and mirrors for measuring our love, devotion and humanity.

  2. Pingback: Never The Same Again (June 21, 2018) | Climb The Buddha

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