My Life: Challenges, Choices And Incredible Love
MY LIFE: CHALLENGES, CHOICES AND INCREDIBLE LOVE
My story begins in the small, blue-collar town of Endicott, New York, nestled between the Susquehanna River and the Adirondack mountains near the Pennsylvania border. I was born in Syracuse and was the youngest of five children. My parents both experienced broken childhood lives in and out of orphanages, neither really having a positive figure in their life to emulate. For my entire adolescence my family lived well below the poverty line. With my mother staying at home with us kids and my father armed with just a high school education to support us, money was never around. Regardless of this lack of money, my mother created an environment for us kids that oozed with love. She protected us from the ugliness in life as much as she could, including the volatile mix of anger, abuse and alcoholism that had seized my father during me and my siblings formative years. It was my mother whose character, gentleness and love prepared me not only to reach for my dreams, but how to be me.
I remember fighting through winter nights with no heat, teeth chattering and blankets bundled. I knew I wasn’t alone though. I had my brothers and sisters. My mother would rock me to sleep and sing into my ear to comfort me. I remember times with no electricity and no television and huddling up to the battery-powered radio to listen to the Super Bowl. I remember my friends calling me on a pay phone because our telephone line was shut off for failure to pay the bills. I remember being forced to move for failing to pay rent. I remember living in a cramped tent for a whole summer. I remember living in that same tent for a frigid month in the fall. Sometimes I would wake up--cold and afraid--but all I had to do was to look over and see how strong my family was being and it comforted me. Food stamps couldn’t come fast enough as the cupboards were emptied by the end of each month. I remember the feeling of extreme embarrassment as the clerks at the store seemed to giggle as we flashed our food stamps as payment. I remember the points when food stamps weren’t enough, when we relied on church baskets. When we relied on the "defects" from grocery stores - food that they would throw into the dumpster in the back that was slightly defective.
By the time my parents divorced I was nine years old. It never really bothered me. I think even at that young age I realized that the weight of my father’s abusive alcoholic behavior towards my mother and us kids was too much to bear any longer. My mother took us to live with her in a cramped apartment that was suited for three people instead of six. We struggled, but we were loved. I remember walking three miles to school and back every day in second grade because I was afraid to change schools. I remember assisted lunches in schools and the funny looks my schoolmates would give me because my clothes remained grass-stained day after day. I remember packing up the car with our same old, reliable tent and going on vacation where we would sweat collecting trashbags of refundable cans on the beach during the day in order to have money to spend at the penny candy store at night. I remember...
By experiencing all of this, and more, in my childhood, I realized two very important things at an early age. First, I was going to make sure that I succeeded at everything I wanted to. I would not be denied at whatever I did. I refused to live in poverty when I grew up. Second, I was going to be a compassionate and understanding individual, to try and live up to the wonderful example that my mom set for my siblings and I. To show compassion when you’ve seen so much hate. To give when you having nothing to give. To care when no one else cares. To be positive when surrounded by negativity. To hold myself to my own standards, no one else’s. To never doubt myself. My mother was a beam of light that lit the way for me in a dark environment. I had seen good and bad in my young life, and I knew that my mother chose the right road.
When I was nine years old I had a plan. I knew how I would make it out of poverty. I had already spent sleepless nights worrying about how I would be able to afford college. I would play football, my first love, and use it as a vehicle to facilitate my road toward an education and a career. Yet, although I had a plan, I did not know at such an early age the steps that must be taken for my dreams to be realized.
I had a plan, true, but I was still coasting. I was coasting in school, in sports, and in life. I wasn’t squeezing everything out of life that I could. It was as if I was just around for the ride. Then, one fateful day, it hit me. The biggest turning point in my life occurred when I was a 15-year-old freshman in high school. It is forever seared in my memory, one of those rare moments of clarity in which I saw everything mapped out for me. I got home from school one day and looked in the mirror…and I didn’t like what I saw. I saw an underachiever. I looked at my grades in school and I knew I could do ten times better. It felt as if the ship for success was sailing and it was about to leave me behind. Good-bye college education. Good-bye NFL. I was just getting by, just barely treading water in the Sea of Mediocrity. If I was going to make something happen, it had to start then. From that day forward--just that one day--I changed my life forever. I made a promise to myself. I would refuse to be outworked. I would take what God gave me and max it out every single day.
I remember waking up that next morning, filled to the brim and overflowing with a sense of purpose and new life. I felt like I could take on the world, like I could do absolutely anything. I liken my emotional state equivalent to that of Scrooge waking up and realizing that it’s still Christmas. This was the new me, and it felt great! It was like I found this secret that no one knew about. Except it was, in fact, no secret at all. It was right there in front of my face the whole time, just like it is for everyone else. I just had to believe in it. Anything that I did from that day on, I did with everything I had. Whole days were dedicated to succeeding in school, in sports, and in life. If I didn’t understand anything in school, I would bug the teacher until it was clear. I would wake at 5:30 a.m. and never coast. By 7:30 in the morning, I wanted to accomplish more than most people do in a day. I reinvented myself and I was a new man. The fruits of my labor were starting to pay off - my grades were sky high and my athletic endeavors exceeded all expectations. My father had been sober for three years. Things seemed as though they couldn’t be better.
I was wrong. In January of my junior year in high school, I met a girl that changed my life forever. I saw her beauty once and I knew that I wanted to be with her forever. She was as beautiful as the Mona Lisa, but, as pretty as she was on the outside, she was even prettier on the inside. Lauren was everything that I never knew I wanted. She was sensitive and caring. She was the only girl that really understood me and has loved me just the way I am. She understands why I am the way I am, why I must succeed. And now, seven years later, I will marry my high school sweetheart without a doubt in the world that she is my one.
By my senior year in high school I was rolling on all eight cylinders. I had my girl, I was and all-state football player, and I was on the high honor roll. I was the captain of a football team that had crushed everyone en route to the state playoffs. The night before our big game I went to sleep soundly, dreaming of leading my team to victory...
"Isaiah, your mother’s been killed in a car accident."
It was the saddest day of my life. These words landed on my heart and sunk it deep into my soul. Never again will I feel the extreme sadness that I felt that day. I was numb and lost. Nothing can replace a mother’s love, and this realization came at the very moment I learned of her death. But, just like when I was little, I knew that I could look over and see the strength in my brothers and sisters. We helped each other through the rocky times. I was lucky enough to have Lauren by my side, as she has been ever since I’ve known her. That was my weakest moment and she was there to help pick me up. I still spend nights in her arms crying about the void my mother’s death left in my heart, and she is nothing but strong and supportive. She is my rock.
I ended up playing in the game that day, ignoring the well-intentioned advice of people around me. A lot of people didn’t understand why I chose to play in the game - they couldn’t understand how I could play the same day that my mother died. Football had always been a source of extreme enjoyment to me, but after that day it became a place to lose myself. I could forget about everything going on in my life and just be me. Everything just faded away when I got onto the field. No worries…just me and my instincts. Beneath the roar of the crowd, the crashing of the pads, and the battle of the bands, this was my quiet place. This was my peace.
If I thought I was working hard before my mom’s death, that notion was quickly wiped away. I realized how precious life was, how precious everyday was, and how I only had one chance at it. I squeezed every last drop out of my body every day, go to sleep, wake-up and do it all over again the next. Everyday was a gift from her to me and I would attack it feverishly like a nine year old on Christmas morning.
February 4th of my senior year, just a few months after my mother died, I signed a letter of intent to attend Harvard University. I would receive an outstanding education while proving my mettle on the gridiron. I wish I could have seen the proud look in my mother’s eyes at that moment, but it wasn’t meant to be. My hard work had paid off to that point, yet I couldn’t share it with the person most responsible for getting me there.
I wouldn’t have changed my time at Harvard for anything. I truly believe that it was the place I was destined to attend. It challenged me both mentally and physically, forcing me to continually reach beyond my grasp. I brought the same mantra to Harvard that I had begun in high school: I would refuse to be outworked. There may have been smarter people, but I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t be outworked. I graduated from Harvard last year after completing the rigorous pre-med requirements and starting every game all four years on the football team, the only person to do so in school history.
I did not attend my graduation ceremony at Harvard. I had been selected in the 4th round of the 2000 NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks, and I was in training camp. The Seahawks had granted me permission to go, but I had my own reasons not to attend. I had taken with me the experiences from Harvard, and I didn’t need a piece of paper to validate the legitimacy of those memories. Secondly, my father--who never graduated from college and was now sober for ten years and trying his hardest to right his wrongs--would love to accept my diploma not just for me, but for my mother and my siblings also. I could not have done it without them. This was a triumph for all of us.
When I was drafted by Seattle, it was the culmination of a little boy’s dream and years of hard work. There was no secret potion, no magic hat. It boiled down to hard work and me answering one question: Do I want it bad enough? My path to this point in my life had many twists and turns in which I have fallen and was picked up along the way. Now my family and I wouldn’t have to worry about where our next meal came from, or if we could make it through another cold shower in the dead of winter anymore.
I remember nights when my mom would hold me and tell me how she was going to win the lottery and scoop us up and whisk us away to paradise. Well, each of us kids did win the lottery in our own special way. But she’s already in paradise....
Re: My Life: Challenges, Choices And Incredible Love
Wow, I knew I liked this guy. WOW
Re: My Life: Challenges, Choices And Incredible Love
All I can say is "wow". Call me his number 1 fan from now on....
With all the horror stories we're subjected to on a daily basis regarding our sports heroes, it's so great to read something like this. Call me soft, call me a wuss, but whatever, this story definitely had me misty-eyed. Maybe it's because I've recently lost my Father, Mother, and one of my sisters, so it brings back the feelings of losing a loved one. But it moved me.
In fact, I've been in the market for a new Ram's jersey. I think I now know what number and name I'll have emroidered on the back. :r
Re: My Life: Challenges, Choices And Incredible Love
Thank you for sharing that with us RamWraith. It helps to purge for one's own sake, for I'm sure you were not doing so to impressed or solicit sympathy from us. I am very impressed. While many may think it a sad story, I do not. It is one of many on which this nation was built. Through hardship and pain came so much hope and fulfillment. Out of weakness came strength. Out of tragedy came promise. Out of perseverance came accomplishment. Out of love, came honoring that love and memory. A toast to you and your family! While not perfect, your family before you made you who you are , and that's quite an accomplishment in my eyes. I'm proud to know you.