My Girl

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Dear Jaelle,

You know you’re just like daddy, right? I know you don’t see it now, but when we rock to Future in the car, or when I put Young Thug on at home and get you dabbing all over the living room, I see me. That’s how I vibe, too. I love my music.

Even the way you start dancing and singing when your favorite song comes on.

Go ahead. Turn up … I know that’s your jam.

That’s the stuff that gets me. When we’re listening to music, or reading books at night or whatever — those are my favorite parts of the day. It doesn’t matter if I’m coming home from a long day of workouts or from a tough loss on Sunday. When I see that smile on your face, it’s a reminder of why I do everything I do. And I want to thank you for that — for being the thing in my life that drives me every day.

It’s crazy to think that you turned three years old this week. It all goes by so fast. It still feels like yesterday when Mama came to me and told me I was gonna be a daddy. We were back at Clemson and I was getting ready for my junior football season. I just remember being so …

Scared.

Yeah. Scared. And nervous.

I’ll be honest, baby, I wasn’t ready to be a dad. I was a college student and I was going into the most important football season of my life. And now, on top of all that, a baby? How was that gonna work? It was nerve-racking just trying to wrap my head around the whole thing. I knew you were gonna change everything.

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You shook things up right away, too. I remember when I got the call that Mama was in labor and you were about to make your big entrance. It was June 15, 2013. It was in the morning and I was about to head to voluntary summer workouts, and I had to call Coach Swinney and let him know I wasn’t gonna make it that day.

“I’m gonna be a daddy, Coach!”

I got in the car, and instead of making the short drive from my apartment to the practice facility, I drove four hours to Sumter County, S.C., where Mama was in the hospital.

By that time, I wasn’t scared anymore. I was excited. I still wasn’t ready, but I was … ready.

Let me explain.

I know you’re always watching on Sunday when daddy takes the field, even though you don’t really understand the game of football or what it is I do. But let me tell you one thing about football: It’s a game where you have to rely on the guys who came before you and learn from them. When you’re one of the young guys, you have to watch the veterans and do what they do. Like how I watch the way DeAngelo Hall uses his hips to stay on a receiver in coverage, or how Dashon Goldson closes on the ball to make a pick or a big hit.

That’s how you learn — by watching.

Then, you take all those things you see the veterans do, and you practice them. Over and over. It’s all about reps in practice and snaps in games.

So you learn by watching, but you refine your game and get better by doing. And I’m blessed to have the opportunity in Washington to learn from some of the best in the game.

But that’s why I was scared when Mama came to me and told me I was gonna be a dad. I mean, I didn’t know how to be a dad. I didn’t have my dad in my life when I was growing up. I lived with my mama and my stepdad, and even though I remember all the things they did for me, it wasn’t the same. It was tough.

So at the end of the day, I didn’t know what having a real father even felt like. I had skipped the “learning” part and was gonna have to go straight to the “doing” part.

That was scary.

But I knew everything was gonna be O.K. after Mama and I talked to our moms — you know them as Grandma Tanya and Grandma Vina. We told them we didn’t know what we were gonna do or how we were gonna raise a baby and still go to school and play football. And they let us know from Day One that they had our backs and would make sure we had all the help we needed.

That was a big relief.

But back to that day in the car after I told Coach Swinney I wasn’t gonna make it to practice. I was stuck in traffic on my way to Sumter County, trying to get there to be with Mama before you were born. And I just felt … calm. Like I said, I wasn’t scared anymore. I was excited. I couldn’t wait to meet you.

And when I did, everything changed.

There I was, 21 years old, sitting in a hospital room around 10 p.m. — two hours before Father’s Day — holding my brand new baby girl. And the last thing on my mind was summer practice, or the big junior season I had coming up. The only thing I was focused on was how I was gonna make sure this baby girl would never have to know what it was like to grow up without a dad, like I did. That I was gonna do everything in my power to make sure she would never to go through the things I went through growing up.

Thank you for being the thing that drives me every day. For motivating me to keep working to give you the kind of life I never had growing up.

I grew up in the small town of Allendale, S.C. Just like other inner-city communities, there was a lot of poverty and crime, and it was easy to get caught up in the wrong lifestyle — the streets, the crime, the hustle — because that’s all you see, and that’s all you know.

Football was gonna be my way out. And now that you had arrived, football was gonna be how I made sure you never had to know that kind of life.

When you and Mama came home from the hospital and I went back to practice, I realized one thing pretty quickly: I wasn’t gonna be able to raise a daughter off a stipend from Clemson. So I went to talk to Jeff Davis, our assistant athletic director, for some advice.

I said, “What do I have to do to enter the draft early and have an opportunity to go pro?”

And he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. He said, “Play this season like it’s your last — plan like you have two seasons left. Play like it’s now or never.”

So that was my mindset. I played like I had no choice but to declare for the NFL draft and go pro after the season — because if I wanted to give you the life I never had, I really didn’t have a choice.

And Mama? She put on a cape…. She was a Supermom, making sure you you had everything you needed so that I could handle my business on the football field and work toward a better life for us all. And Grandma Tanya and Grandma Vina? All I gotta say is, Always be nice to them because you’ll never know how much they stepped up, not just to help take care of you while I was in school and playing football — changing diapers, late-night feedings, all that stuff — but also how they taught Mama and me how to be parents. Looking back now, we couldn’t have done it without them.

Because of all the help I had off the field and my mindset that my junior year was gonna be my last, I had a solid season. I wouldn’t call it a “breakout” year, but I did enough to catch the eye of NFL scouts. Coming out of Clemson, I was projected to be a second- or third-round pick. Coach Swinney told me that if I came back for my senior season I could improve my draft stock and maybe get into the first round, but he never pressured me to stay. He just gave me his opinion and let me make my own decision. And I had to make the decision that was best for my family — the decision that was best for my baby girl. I decided to go pro.

I didn’t get drafted in the second or third round. I had to wait until Day 3, round 4, pick No. 102, when the Redskins called my name. And even though I had started to doubt myself when Day 2 passed and my name wasn’t called, falling to the fourth round was just more motivation for me. I love proving people wrong, and that was my mindset going into my rookie year in Washington.

Now, as you turn three years old, I’m heading into my third season with the Redskins, and I’m working harder and harder every day to build on what I’ve done in my first two seasons. I’m doing it for me. I’m doing it for Mama. I’m doing it for Grandma Tanya and Grandma Vina.

And most of all, I’m doing it for you.

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I didn’t exactly have a “normal” family life growing up. I lived with my mama and my stepdad and their three kids — my half-sister and two half-brothers.

But when I was 16 years old — my sophomore year in high school — my mama and my stepdad split up, and my mama moved the family to Columbia, S.C. I was already getting recruited to play college football, and I wanted to stay in Allendale so I could stay in the same school district.

My only real option to stay in Allendale was to move in with my dad — my real dad, who I had never lived with before.

At first, I was miserable. I was suddenly an only child, living in a house with a man it seemed like I barely even knew. I had a lot of anger built up. That’s one of the reasons I play the game the way I do. I took out a lot of my frustration on the football field.

But as time went on and I started assessing things, I knew that if I wanted to be happy, I had to invite my dad into my life and make an effort to build a real father-son relationship. That’s a hard thing to do 16 years into your life. You can’t make up for lost time, but we started working on our relationship, and I did everything I could to forgive him, let go of my resentment and welcome him into my life.

Going through that was one of the toughest things I’ve done in my entire life, and we’re still working on our relationship to this day.

I think about that a lot when I look at you, Jaelle. I see you running up to me holding that Barney book up over your head with a smile on your face — “Book! Daddy! Book!” —  and I think about what it was like going 16 years without my dad.

And I think about sitting in that hospital room, holding my brand new baby girl in my arms, promising myself that I was never gonna let my daughter go day without her father in her life.

So thank you, baby. Thank you for being the thing that drives me every day. For motivating me to keep working to give you the kind of life I never had growing up. Because I don’t know if I would be where I am right now — heading into my third year in the NFL, making an impact on the field and building a beautiful family at home — if you hadn’t come along and shook things up the way you did.

So thank you. You’re the best Father’s Day gift I’ll ever receive. I love you, and I’m gonna keep on working every day — for you.

Just make sure you got that Barney book ready when I get home.

— Daddy

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