Five Lessons From a Life in Football

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Antrel Rolle, Retired / NFL - The Players' Tribune

I’ve been playing football since I was six years old.

When you’re in football, you’re in it. You don’t think too much about how or why you got there.

Being a few months away from officially retiring, I’m thinking back on the moments that defined my career — something that started on a patchy field in Homestead, Florida, 27 years ago. When you take a step back and analyze what you have put your body through since the age of six, it’s a lot to take in. Here are five scenes that tell my story.

Dad’s Wild Advice

Sean Taylor and I were the only two defensive backs in Miami’s 2001 freshman class who weren’t redshirted. But, my technique wasn’t up to par yet — in high school I had gotten by purely on athleticism. At the college level, they’re going to teach you a lesson and make you deal with some adversity, to see how you respond. Before the ’02 spring game — after having seen action in eight games the season before — I was demoted to second-string and I didn’t know how to handle it.

What happened next was kind of crazy.

This story always makes me think about my parents. I couldn’t have cleared this hurdle without them.

My mom was a test-prep adviser and counselor at a high school, and I’ve never been around anyone who takes their job that seriously as she does. She’s where my passion and drive come from.

My father was the first black police chief in Homestead. I was in high school when he was promoted. He was always hearing, “We give him six months. He’ll be outta there in six months.” And it’s going on 18 years and he’s still there.

My dad is the quiet one in the family. He doesn’t say much, but when he does say something, it has a powerful impact. A couple of weeks before the 2002 spring game, I called him and told him about my coach’s challenge. My coach had said that no starting spots were finalized, and that there would only be a few chances before the game for us to make our case for the starting lineup.

My dad gave me some standard “dad advice,” but then at the end of the call he told me something that changed my life.

He said, “I want you to go out there and I want you to play like a f***ing wild man.”

And that’s not his personality! But it came out. When he said that to me, it triggered something in me. I mean, I get goose bumps now talking about it. But in practice, I went out there and played so reckless — to the point that it was like I didn’t care about my body. I was going to make the play no matter what. I always played with a chip on my shoulder from that day forward. Every day before I took the field, I heard it in my head, You go out there and play like a f***ing wild man.

It’s crazy because had he not said that to me I don’t know how I would have responded to getting benched. I don’t know if the pressure would have gotten to me. That call with my dad, it released everything in me — no anxiety, no nervous bugs, I just went out there carefree. I didn’t give a s*** about anything. 

Rolle and Taylor jump to celebrate

The next few weeks, I played my tail off. I never came off the field after that. Needless to say, when our season started, I was in the starting lineup. Thanks, dad.

The 602 Calling

When you’re coming into the draft as a top 10 NFL prospect, you’re extremely excited, no question.

I definitely had a nightmare scenario in my head, though.

Two, actually.

In my early meetings with my agents, there were two places I said I didn’t want to go: Green Bay and Arizona. Both places were just so far away from home. Arizona specifically brought up bad memories. I went there for the Fiesta Bowl in 2003 and I didn’t have a good time — we lost the BCS championship game to Ohio State, 31–24 in overtime. (You remember that late flag for pass interference? Damn!)

So, I’m in the draft room and I get a call from the 602 area code. Phoenix, Arizona, of course. I pick up, and there’s no mistaking the voice on the other end of the line.

“Hey, it’s Denny Green with the Arizona Cardinals. How’d you like to be a Cardinal?”

I found the energy to say, “I’d love it!”

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All things considered, I loved the situation despite my early misgivings. Even though we only won 10 games in my first two years, I embraced Arizona. Being there helped me grow so much as an individual and as a player. I had only ever played for winning programs, so the experience helped me learn about adversity.

The lesson that I absorbed was just how much circumstance plays a factor in your career. I was playing corner, but our defensive philosophy didn’t suit my strengths at all. I had always been a press corner. I never backpedaled once at Miami. But when I got to Arizona, I was told to play nine yards off the line — that was their system. I was thinking, I don’t do that. That’s not my strength.

Look, you cannot play like a f***ing wild man nine yards off the line. You can’t.

It frustrated me because I never liked anyone catching anything. Short passes, curls — I didn’t like it. In 2007, there was a coaching change and Ken Whisenhunt came in. Along with a coaching change comes changes everywhere else. We acquired another corner and I was moved to the nickel spot.

Once again, I had been demoted to second-string. Luckily, I had been through this scenario before. I knew what to do.

That November we went to Cincinnati to play the Bengals. Chad Johnson and I had a mutual friend, and before the game, Chad told my friend, “Man, I was looking forward to toasting Antrel today, but he’s not even in the starting lineup!”

When I heard about that, it did something to me. I snapped.

I had three interceptions, two of them for touchdowns. It would’ve been three, but the third got called back for a penalty.

After the game, Chad came over to me and said, “How the hell did you know what we were doing?”

I was like, “Hell, I dunno! I wasn’t even in the starting lineup, right?”

Arizona Cardinals v Cincinnati Bengals

It lit a fire under me. I remember Coach Whisenhunt looking at me after that game and it was like he was saying to himself, “Damn. This is who this dude is.”

I remember looking at him like, You don’t know what I’m capable of.

The thing I didn’t reveal to Chad was that I had been studying film like crazy. That was how I knew exactly what Cincy was going to do. From 2007 on, I was a thief.

The Art of Thievery

Before every game, I always tried to steal two plays from the opposing offense through my preparation. Two plays, minimum. And by stealing plays, I mean I was thinking, How can I get two turnovers? Two turnovers can change the outcome of a game.

I remember one time when we were playing Indy. When you’re playing Peyton Manning, you gotta be doing overtime. So all week during prep, I kept seeing that they liked to run Dino, which is a double-post move. What tipped that play was the alignment of the tight end. Every time they ran the play, the tight end was backed up off the ball a little bit, and he wasn’t in a full stance. All week during practice, I kept screaming out, “Dino! Dino! Dino! It’s coming!”

By Thursday, it was almost like a joke.

The game rolls around, and they’re in the red zone, and I see the tight end line up a little bit off the ball, exactly how I had seen it on film. I’m screaming at Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, “Dino! Dino! Dino!” And sure enough, the double-post comes, and pop! DRC jumps the route and picks it.

Arizona Cardinals v New York Giants

I love playing with DRC by the way, because if I tell him something, he doesn’t care what’s going on, he’s gonna do it. You don’t find too many players like that. A lot of players like to second-guess. They’re scared of, “If I jump this route and I’m not right, I’m gonna be on SportsCenter!”

I used to start dancing. That was the signal for DRC to jump the route. I’d tell him, “Listen, if you see me dancing before the snap, don’t worry about playing deep. I got you over the top. Jump it.”

I’ll never forget we were playing the Texans in 2009, and the game was tied with a little more than two minutes left. Man, I started dancing like crazy. I knew that the out to the sideline was coming. DRC looks at me, like, Yeah? O.K. then….

Matt Schaub drops back, they run the out … pop! DRC takes it for a touchdown.

There’s only certain players you can do that with. You need to develop a certain type of chemistry. I’ve always had that chemistry with my corners. I prefer for them to eat and I like to do the dirty work and hit people.

They loved me for it. Ask them. They’ll tell you.

A Tale of Two Super Bowls

I was lucky enough to play in two of the craziest Super Bowls in recent memory. You remember the Mario Manningham catch down the sideline? You remember Santonio Holmes in the back of the end zone? I was there for both of those.

Let’s talk about that Santonio Holmes play first. That whole game was so back and forth. When the Steelers had the ball at the end of the game, we thought we had them.

Second-and-goal. Forty-two seconds left. They line up.…

Man, this still hurts.

It happened so fast.

Football: Super Bowl XLIII: Pittsburgh Steelers Santonio Holmes (10) in action, making game winning catch of touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger vs Arizona Cardinals Ralph Brown (20) during 4th quarter. Tampa, FL 2/1/2009 CREDIT: John Biever (Photo by John Biever /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X81791 TK2 R1 F25 )

The Steelers had run that same play three times earlier in the game and Roethlisberger didn’t connect once. This time, they switched the side of the field and they ran it with Holmes. The ironic thing is that Roethlisberger was looking at Nate Washington on his first read, and I jumped the route. He cocked his arm to throw it to him. But Nate slipped. Roethlisberger literally just pulled the ball down and threw the it to the corner of the end zone instead. We had perfect coverage on that route.

I turned my head and saw him make the catch, and I’m like, Clearly he’s out of bounds. Until I saw the replay. My heart just fell to my stomach. It hurt, but at the same time, you had to respect the result because both teams fought with every ounce of strength in their body. At the time, I was still a young guy, it was my fourth year in the league. In the week before the game, you have the parties and all the excitement around the Super Bowl. I didn’t really participate in the festivities, but the outside world still crept into my mind.

When I went to the Super Bowl with the Giants in 2012, there essentially was no outside world to me. I saw my game-plan book, my opponents and that was it. There were gonna be no distractions whatsoever. I knew what it was going to take to be successful against the Patriots and Tom Brady.

I made sure I was going to exhaust myself with the details. I had a lot of pressure on me because I had switched positions, from cornerback to safety, in Week 15. I told the coach, “Listen, I understand if you want to play Prince Amukamara, but I don’t want him to lose his confidence. You’re gonna need him next season. I’ll move to the nickel position. That way we can have Deon Grant and Kenny Phillips at safety. Let’s rock.”

The Super Bowl was a different beast, though. Normally before a game, we have a single game-plan sheet. There are three columns: The first column is the calls, the second is the checks and the third is the adjustments. That week, we had a sheet that was full on the front and the back. We had two different game plans. In my 11-year career, I’ve only seen it that one time. Because I was playing both the nickel and the safety position depending on the personnel, I had a lot of s*** on my plate.

I’m all about stealing plays, but with Tom Brady, there are never many tips. He gets rid of the ball real fast. There are not many deep balls. Everything is short and precise. It’s not so much about Brady, it’s more about your discipline as a defensive back. I had the unenviable task of covering Wes Welker, a shifty little cannonball. That’s who he is. Shifty as hell. We limited him, which was all we could have hoped for. We were feeling good about the tone we were setting, but of course, I still found myself in another dogfight in the Super Bowl. And we needed a little bit of magic.

So, that Manningham catch late in the fourth quarter….

Super Bowl XLVI

As a defensive back, let me just say this: The safety played it perfectly. I mean, out of 100, I would give him a 105 for that coverage. It was that on point. It was just a case of great offense beating great defense. Eli hit what we call the honey-hole, the exact spot in the defense where the coverage is softest.

I still see that play to this day, years after we won the Super Bowl. And even though I know we won, I have the same reaction every time. “Damn. How the hell did he make that catch?”

When the game ended and we were Super Bowl champions, it was a weird feeling. I didn’t know if I had another play left in me. I was emotionally drained. After the game, I took a shower and met up with my family. My voice was completely gone. I was exhausted. I went back to my hotel and fell asleep. I couldn’t even celebrate. I had literally nothing left to give.

I feel like I came to during the parade a few days later. Until you experience it, there’s no way to prepare for a Super Bowl victory parade. That was the real deal. It solidifies what you’ve accomplished more than a ring, more than a trophy. The whole city was united. We were a team that was 7–7 at one point, but still found a way to come together and win it all.

My friends will tell you — it takes a lot to get me excited. I’ve only been in awe once in my life prior to the birth of my son. That parade through Manhattan was the one time.

The End and the Beginning

I went to a Giants game the other weekend and it absolutely hit me: Man, I can’t deal with this no more. After the Bears cut me last May, I entertained returning to the NFL. But my mindset wasn’t right. I’m done. I have nothing left to prove.

I’ve been doing this since I was six years old.

The first team I played on was called the Homestead Hurricanes. I had a friend on that team named Sean Taylor. (In the photo below, I’m No. 44 in the front row. Sean is in the back row, third from right).

image1

We used to do this thing that we called the Oklahoma drill — two players lie flat on their back and wait for the whistle. When it blows you get up as fast and you can and slam into each other. Last man standing wins.

I had to go against Sean. The whistle blows. I get up and run at Sean, and I remember getting hit so hard. I get up like, Damn! I don’t know if this football thing is for me.

I still remember how that hit felt.

Sean always had that pop, even as a youngster. When we got older, we played on different teams. He played for the South Dade Rams and I played for Florida City Razorbacks. I was at running back, and my coach called out, “Twenty-eight Sweep.” I looked to the right, and I saw who was there at linebacker and I was like, “Nononono, let’s run 27 Sweep! We’re running to the other side, coach.”

Sean had a way about him. That is what defined him as a player later. When he hit you, he was gonna knock the s*** out of you.

Eventually, we both ended up at the University of Miami, and in my humble opinion we were the best corner-safety combo to come through there. We were white-on-rice on the field. We were attached at the hip without ever having to say a word. I knew he was always going to be there. He knew he could freelance if I was on one side. I knew that I could gamble because he was back there with the help. He was the best teammate I ever had. That’s the reason I wore 26 when I went to the Giants. I wanted to represent my favorite safety to play the game. If he was still here, he would have changed the safety position forever.

I’ll never forget the night my mom called me and told me about what happened to Sean.

I was in Arizona, and it was the day after a game. I stayed at a hotel that night. My mom called me and said, “Did you hear what happened to Sean?”

And I’m like, “No, what happened?”

She said, “I guess he went home and someone broke into his house and he was shot.”

“Shot where?”

“In the leg.”

I was thinking to myself, O.K., at least he’s gonna be all right. He’ll be O.K. This is Superman. This is Sean.

But then I start seeing the media coverage. I’m like … hold on. They were saying he’s in critical condition. I’ve always had this connection with Sean — his father, Pete, was actually a police chief in Florida City, just like my dad. I couldn’t fathom that he might die.

That night, my phone started ringing at two or three in the morning. It was my agent. I let my phone keep ringing. I didn’t want to answer it because I didn’t want to hear the news.

Sometimes I still think he’s alive, but I just can’t see him. I have trouble processing it to this day. He’s Superman. How could he be gone?

antrel-kid

Just the other day, I was just talking to my girlfriend about Sean. My son is 17 months old, and when Sean passed away, I believe his daughter was 18 months.

It was a reminder of what’s really important in life, and how precious it is.

My son is one of the biggest reasons I am at peace with leaving the game. I can still run with any guy on the field, but I want to make sure I can do that for a long period of time. I want to be able to exhaust myself with my son, and throw myself into his life and be a great father.

That doesn’t mean you’re going to see me out on the football field running around with my son.

Nope. My son’s playing baseball.

Dad’s taken enough punishment for the both of us.

antrel

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