Letter to My Younger Self

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Dear Young Vernon,

Get up.

Get up off your knees, Vernon.

I need you to listen to me — and if there is anyone in this world you should listen to, it’s me.

Because I’m you, from the future.

You’re only 15 years old right now, but I’m almost 50. I’ve been through a lot. And I’ve been asked to write you a letter giving you some advice to help you as you navigate all the incredible and heartbreaking things that are going to happen to you in the coming years. All the mistakes — and all the successes.

And the first piece of advice I have for you might be the most important.

Get up.

Get up off your knees, Vernon.

Because if you don’t, you’ll never forgive yourself, and you’ll leave this world with a broken heart.

I know you’re mad at Mom. So mad that you wish she would just die — that she would just hurry up and leave this earth so you could move on and have a normal childhood … while you’re still young enough.

That’s why you’re in your bedroom, on your knees, with your elbows on the edge of your bed, hands pressed together, eyes closed, praying to God above.

Praying that your mother will die.

And meaning it.

I know you’re frustrated. You’re frustrated that Mom, a black woman, married a white Italian man and moved the family from Brooklyn out to Staten Island to live with him. You’re frustrated because you don’t like the way he talks to your mother — because you hear the two of them argue and fight all the time. You’re frustrated because you’ve been a parent to your younger brothers and sisters since you were a little kid yourself. Cooking dinner, braiding hair, changing diapers — things a mom is supposed to do.

But she’s always too “sick.”

She’s always either on drugs, out searching for her next fix or stuck in an unconscious lull between highs.

And the way she looks at you …

You know the look I’m talking about. That look that always freaks you out and makes you turn away. That cold look where she doesn’t really look at you — she looks through you. Like you’re not even there.

You remember the day you found out why she looks at you that way? You were 11 years old and you walked in the front door from school one day, dropped your books on the kitchen table and went into the bathroom. When you swung the door open, there was mom. The toilet seat was down and she was sitting on top. She had a thin rubber tube tied around her right bicep near her elbow with one end of the tube between her teeth to keep it taut, a needle hanging out of her forearm.

She was sitting right in front of you, pushing her thumb down on the plunger of a syringe, forcing heroin into her veins.

She had this look on her face … like she had just been busted.

You knew she had been doing drugs, but you’d never seen her do it. You’d never seen anyone do it.

That day when you walked into the bathroom — that’s when it became real.

And you just screamed. I mean, for the first time ever, you just let it out and yelled at your mother.

“Why are you doing this to yourself!”

Remember? She didn’t even react. She just pulled out the kids’ toilet stool, set it in front of her and sat you down. You looked up at her as she continued preparing her next dose of heroin. You remember what she said?

“I want you to see me do this because I don’t ever want you to do this…. Because this is going to kill me.”

And with all the wisdom of an 11-year-old, you responded the only way you knew how.

“If you know it’s gonna kill you, why do you keep doing it?”

Then, she told you a story.

She told you how when she was 18 years old, she was walking home from band practice. Mom was a flag girl and baton twirler in the band, and she loved it. She was also a fantastic athlete. She was a track star. She ran like a deer. And she had a smile that could light up a room. Imagine what she was like when she was 18…. So full of life, full of energy. She must have been the most beautiful girl in the world.

So she was walking home from band practice, down a Brooklyn street she’d taken many times before, when two men grabbed her. I mean, just snatched her. Violently. They dragged her to a nearby apartment building, up the stairs and to the rooftop, covering her mouth with their hands so nobody would hear her screams. Up on the rooftop, there was a third man waiting.

As she told you all this, she was sitting right in front of you, pushing her thumb down on the plunger of a syringe, forcing heroin into her veins.

She told you that the three men on that rooftop gang-raped her.

She told you that when they were done, they planned to kill her — just toss her off the roof.

But before they could, they heard somebody coming. And instead of throwing her off the roof, they left her there and scattered to get away.

Weeks went by, and she never reported what those men did.

Even after she found out she was pregnant.

Maybe she was scared. Maybe she was embarrassed. Who knows? Unless you’ve endured something horrific like that, there’s no way to guess what goes through a person’s mind.

I don’t even want to imagine what it’s like.

But a true testament to Mom’s strength is the fact that she kept that child. She didn’t get an abortion. She didn’t put the baby up for adoption. She kept that baby and raised it, because no matter the circumstances, that was her child.

As soon as she told you that, you knew right away …

That child was you.

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Even though they didn’t throw her off the roof that day, I think those three men did kill Mom. Because she would never be the same. You never got to see her when she was young — when she was that bright, lively girl. By the time you were born and got to know her, she had turned to drugs, prostitution and God knows what else.

“To not remember.”

That’s how she explained why she started doing these things.

“To take away the pain.”

Anything to forget about what happened to her that day on the rooftop.

That’s why she looks at you that way — through you, like you’re not even there. Mom loves you, Vernon. But you remind her. No matter what she does to forget about what those men did to her, there you are, in her own home, every day … reminding her.

I know you remember how that made you feel: like trash. Any self-esteem or confidence you had was torn away piece by piece when Mom was telling you that story. By the time she was finished, you felt like you were the source of all her troubles.

Most of all, you felt sorry. Sorry for what had happened to her. Sorry that you reminded her. Sorry for every time you had judged her or gotten frustrated with her. And that’s when she looked down at you and asked you to make her a promise.

“If anything ever happens to me or your father, make sure you take care of your brothers and sisters. Keep the family together. That’s your responsibility.”

You don’t know it now, but you’ll never forget those words.

After that day, after you saw her in the bathroom, you went about your business the same way you had before. Cooking dinner, braiding hair, changing diapers. Taking care of your brothers and sisters. But you did it with a cloud hanging over your head. You felt worthless. You had this energy — maybe it was anger, anxiety, I don’t know — and you had nowhere to let it out. You had no release.

That changed a couple of years later, when you were 13 years old and your stepdad took you to your first football game.

I know you remember this. It was a preseason game at Giants Stadium against the Bears. From the first whistle, you were immediately drawn to the game. Enamored by the physicality of it. You instantly fell in love.

You weren’t just playing the game for fun. You needed the game.

Trust in that love, Vernon. It will serve you well.

Your stepdad was a die-hard Jets fan, but sitting in the stands that day, there was one player you couldn’t take your eyes off of — one guy who didn’t shy away from contact, he went looking for it. The baddest man on the field.

Walter Payton.

From the moment you first saw him, you knew you wanted to be a football player. That kind of football player. And after that, you always had a football in your hands. You couldn’t sleep without one. You played in the park, in the street — anywhere you could. Football became your outlet for all that anger and anxiety. In a world where you felt worthless, football gave you a purpose. It gave you meaning. It made you feel like more than just a “reminder.”

So it didn’t matter that you were just a string bean, always the smallest kid on the field. You weren’t just playing the game for fun. You needed the game.

That’s why when you tried out for freshman football and you only weighed 98 pounds, you put a rope through the middle of a couple of five-pound weight plates, tied the rope around your waist and hid it under a pair of sweatpants so that you’d be over 100 pounds when you weighed in — so you wouldn’t get laughed out of the room for being too small.

And you know what? I have a secret to tell you: Coach knows you did that. He won’t tell you this until years later, but coach Fred Olivieri — a man who will become a huge part of your life — knows you cheated the scale that day.

But he was O.K. with it, because, as he’ll tell you one day, that’s how he knew he had a football player — someone who wanted it more than anybody else.

That’s how you made the freshman team.

And that brings me to the moment you’re in right now, kneeling next to your bed. You had a great freshman season, and now it’s the end of your freshman year, and coach Fred has already told you he wants you to play varsity football as a sophomore.

You think he’s crazy. A five-foot-six quarterback, still around 100 pounds, and coach Fred wants to move you up to varsity? What’s he thinking?

He’s thinking you’re about to have a growth spurt. He’s thinking he’s going to work your tail off in summer workouts and that you’re going to get bigger, stronger and faster very quickly.

You love practice, so you’re excited about this. But mom knows how much you love practice, too, and she uses it to keep you in line. When you misbehave or slack on your chores, she holds you back from the one thing that you simply can’t go without.

Football.

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I want you to know something, Vernon: Your story is not a football story. But football will be a big part of your journey, for a few different reasons.

And today, Vernon, you forgot to do the dishes, didn’t you. So when you got home from school with the good news about joining varsity, mom wasn’t happy. You were all amped up and ready to start practicing, but mom said no. She grounded you. If you don’t do your chores, you don’t go to football practice.

You’ve never been so angry at her. You raced to your room and slammed the door and dropped to your knees, and now you’re about to let all your anger out in the form of a prayer.

You’re about to wish that your mother was dead.

And I’m telling you, Vernon — don’t.

Because in less than 72 hours, you’ll get your wish.

***

Over the next few days, here’s what’s going to happen: You’ll stay mad at Mom, and she’ll stay mad at you — all over chores and football practice. But Mom is also going to get sick. Very sick. And not the drugged-out or drug-starved sick you’ve seen too many times. For real sick. She’s going to contract pneumonia — in fact, she’s probably already sick as you kneel at your bedside, she just doesn’t know the extent of it yet. And because her immune system — and her resolve — are so weak from years of drug use and depression, she’ll succumb to this illness, Vernon, and quickly.

And you need to use what little time you have left with her for something other than being angry.

Because if you don’t you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.

After the funeral, everybody will have already left, and you’ll tell your stepdad that you want to stay behind and talk to mom for awhile. When he leaves, the only people at her gravesite will be you … Mom … and four workers standing nearby waiting to put her in the ground.

You’ll sit there for a full hour, just talking to her. You’ll tell her you’re sorry. That you didn’t mean it when you wished she was dead. That you miss her. That you love her.

All the things you never said to her when she was alive.

And she won’t speak back to you, Vernon, because she’s gone. But you’ll still hear her voice. Inside your head, you’ll hear the words she said that day in the bathroom when you caught her shooting up:

“If anything ever happens to me or your father, make sure you take care of your brothers and sisters. Keep the family together. That’s your responsibility.”

You’ll get up, go home and you’ll see your stepdad sitting with his head in his hands, crying. This is a man for whom you’ve built up resentment for nearly eight years for taking you out of Brooklyn — for yelling at and fighting with your mother. But he’s also a man whose family damn near disowned him for taking in a black prostitute and her kids. And he was strong enough to not care what they thought, because he loved your mother.

Now, without her, you see how broken he is.

You’ll walk up to him as he sobs. You’ll put your hand on his shoulder. And you’ll say something you’ve never said before.

He would have given up his own life trying to save Mom. But he couldn’t save her.

“We’ll be O.K., Dad.”

It will be the first time you ever call him Dad.

From that point forward, your dad’s role in your mother’s life will start to make sense. Those nights where they would yell and fight? He was trying to get her clean, and he was frustrated. Moving the family to Staten Island? Everything Mom was caught up in was in Brooklyn. He had to get her out of there. And the reason he took her in, despite what his family thought? Love knows no bounds, Vernon. So love doesn’t see race, age, class — and love can make you do, or at least attempt, extraordinary things.

He would have given up his own life trying to save Mom.

But he couldn’t save her.

And with Mom gone, he’ll be all you have to rely on. And you and Dad together will be all your two brothers and two sisters have to rely on. You’ll know that everything will be O.K. because you’ve already been taking care of them for years. So between you and Dad, you’ll have everything covered.

But in the back of your mind, you’ll wonder: What if something happens to Dad?

***

I want you to know something, Vernon: Your story is not a football story. But football will be a big part of your journey, for a few different reasons.

One of those reasons is that you’re gonna be pretty good.

By the time you reach the end of your senior season, you’ll still be undersized at five-foot-eight and 165 pounds. That’s small for just about any position on the football field, but it’s particularly small for a quarterback.

But that won’t stop you from throwing for over 4,000 yards in your high school career and earning All-State honors in New York as a senior.

One thing you’re probably not thinking about now, is college. But you will soon, because you’ll still have your brothers and sisters to take care of, and you’ll understand that in the long run, the best way to do that is to get an education. And football will be what will put you in the best position to get that education.

I know that deep down, you want to be a running back. Remember Walter Payton? The only reason you’ve played quarterback at all is because coach Fred has a simple philosophy: put the best athlete on the field at quarterback. And as long as you’re at Curtis High, that will be you.

But when it comes time to go to college, you’ll decide to make the switch to running back. And when you tell coach Fred that, he won’t hold back. He’ll shoot you straight.

“I don’t think we’re gonna find a big school that’ll take you as a running back, Vernon. Not at your size.”

You’ll shoot him straight right back.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m gonna find someplace.”

So coach Fred will go to work for you. And I’m telling you, Vernon, the hours this man will put in — writing letters, cutting highlight films and sending them all over the country — it’s unbelievable what he’ll do for you. You know as well as I do that you’re not the best student, but coach Fred will make sure you’re taking the right courses to get your grades up. And when you come close to not graduating, he’ll not only make sure you’re enrolled in summer school, but he’ll make sure you have a ride to and from every day.

You don’t know this now, but that man will be one of the most important people in your life. So listen to coach Fred, Vernon. And trust him. He will always have your back.

And besides, he’s right: You’re not going to have your pick of schools. In fact, you’ll find yourself visiting a small private school in Tennessee. An NAIA school called Carson-Newman College.

You’ll come in, a black kid from the boroughs of New York, and you’ll step foot on this mostly white, southern campus and think, There’s no way in hell I’m coming here …

Then, you’ll sit with the head coach, Ken Sparks. He’ll show you the playbook for his run-heavy offense. He’ll think you’re a perfect fit. By the time that conversation is over, coach Sparks and the running backs coach, Dennis Webb, will have you convinced that Carson-Newman is the place for you.

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But it’ll be tough on the family. You’ll be about a 12-hour drive away. How’s that going to work?

That’s when Dad will step up. You’ll probably think this is crazy — like it’s something he’d never say or do — but trust me, this is what he’ll say to you:

“You gotta get out of here, Vernon. You have to go and live your life. You’ve been acting as a parent to these kids for so many years. It’s time for you to go and do your own thing.

“You go. I got this. We’ll be O.K.”

Like I said, he’s more of an amazing man than you realize.

And with that, you’ll give him a hug, say goodbye to the rest of the family and head off to play college football and get an education.

It’s going to be strange not being home. But you’ll call every weekend to make sure everyone is doing well and that your younger brother, Jemal, who’ll basically take over as caregiver alongside Dad, is handling it O.K. And you’ll catch them up on what you’re doing, too. Like how you’ll start showing out at practice right away. And how, just a few weeks into the season, you’ll earn the starting running back job.

Then one day, you’ll call, and Jemal will pick up.

“I was just about to call you …”

“What’s up?”

“Dad had a stroke.”

“What?… How bad is it?”

“Pretty bad. He’s in the hospital.”

I’ll be honest with you, Vernon: This will scare the shit out of you. You’re 12 hours away, so you can’t go see Dad. He’s not in great shape, so you can’t call him. You’re worried about how your brothers and sisters are handling it. They’re probably scared, too.

In that moment, there’s nothing you’ll be able to do except trust in Jemal to keep you posted. And you’ll do what you will have become accustomed to doing whenever you’re scared, angry, confused — or feeling just about anything other than normal.

You’ll play football.

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The best way I can tell you what happens next is to tell you exactly how I remember it going down.

The practice field at Carson-Newman is like a big bowl. You have to go down a flight of cement stairs to get down to the field. So I’m sitting on the ground stretching before practice, and I’m facing those stairs. The coaches are standing to my right, about 30 yards away. And I see the receptionist from the football office walking down the stairs.

I’m sitting there, staring at this woman. I don’t know why. I can’t take my eyes off her for some reason. I just have this weird feeling as I watch her walk down the stairs and over to the coaches.

The receptionist walks away, and coach Webb starts walking towards me. I turn away from him, hoping he just walks past me. But he comes up to me and says, “Come with me, Vernon. I need to talk to you.”

So we go up the stairs and over to the football office.

You don’t wear your cleats inside the football office. It’s the law at Carson-Newman. No exceptions. So I sit down on the bench outside the building and start unlacing my cleats. Coach looks down at me and says, “I don’t want you to worry about that right now. Let’s just go.”

We go into his office, I sit down and he closes the door behind me. He picks up the phone.

“You need to call home. Now.”

I call. Jemal answers.

It was my dad.

He didn’t make it.

He was dead.

I froze. The thing that broke me from my trance was Jemal’s voice.

“When are you coming home?

“I’ll be home as soon as I can.”

Coach Webb looked at me from across the desk.

“We’ll book you a flight. Go pack your things.”

***

The only thing you’ll think about on the flight home will be those words Mom said that day in the bathroom while she was shooting up:

“If anything ever happens to me or your father, make sure you take care of your brothers and sisters. Keep the family together. That’s your responsibility.”

At that point, you’ll think your football career is over. You never thought the NFL was in your future anyhow, but you’re not even through your freshman year. How can you stay for the next three years? You’ll have your brothers and sisters to not only look after again, but also to provide for. How will food get on the table? How will the rent get paid? You’ll have to be the one to handle that. You’ll have to get a job. If you don’t, they’ll get split up and put in foster homes.

You can’t let that happen.

You made that promise to Mom.

This is going to be a pivotal time in your life, Vernon. You’ll have to make some tough decisions, and so will some other people in your family. Because you can’t do this alone.

You’ll call your aunt. You know, Aunt Pat, who lives in the Bronx. She’s the only person in the family who has a good job and would be able to step in and care for your brothers and sisters while you go finish school.

The next day, you’ll be sitting on your front porch in Staten Island with your head in your hands, wondering what the hell you’re going to do, when Aunt Pat walks up.

“You need to go to school.”

She won’t need to say anything else.

Nobody accomplishes anything alone, Vernon. That’s another lesson. Dad stepped up when you wanted to go to college, and Aunt Pat will step up and take care of your brothers and sisters while you go off and finish your education.

You’ll start selling your electronics, cutting hair — anything to make a dollar or two to send back to Aunt Pat to buy yourself some time.

You’ll get back to Carson-Newman and pick up right where you left off. You’ll cruise through your sophomore and junior years, and you’ll put together a decent career on the field and move towards getting your degree off it. You’ll still be keeping an eye on your brothers and sisters from afar, grounding them over the phone from your dorm room when Aunt Pat calls to say they’re getting out of line.

But at the beginning of your senior year, you’ll get another phone call from Aunt Pat, and it won’t be to tell you the kids are getting out of line again.

It’ll be to tell you she’s had enough. That it’s too much. That financially and emotionally, she just can’t do it anymore.

You’ll beg her to stay, Vernon. This will be one of the most desperate moments of your life. You’ll tell her to sit tight. That you’ll figure something out. You don’t know what … but you’ll do something.

But you won’t have many options, and you’ll have to find a way to make some money, and fast. So you’ll start selling your electronics, cutting hair — anything to make a dollar or two to send back to aunt Pat to buy yourself some time.

You’ll have a lot of sleepless nights around this time too, Vernon. You’ll often wake up in the middle of the night in panic and won’t be able to go back to sleep. Sometimes, turning on the TV will help. One morning, you’ll turn it on, and you’ll see football highlights — NFL highlights — and you’ll just say to yourself, Why the hell not?

You’ll pick up the phone and call coach Fred.

“I’m going pro.”

He won’t even hesitate.

“Well then let’s get you an agent.”

You won’t have the slightest bit of confidence that you’ll make it to the NFL. But you’ll have no choice. It’ll either be that, or watch your brothers and sisters get split up and sent off to foster homes.

“Keep the family together,” Mom said. “That’s your responsibility.”

So you’ll go for it.

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You’ll be about halfway through your senior season when you make this decision. You’ll finish strong, winning a third NAIA national championship in your four years. After the season, you’ll only take four days off before starting to prepare for the NFL draft, which at that time will be 12 rounds.

Part of your training will be studying different training regimens to make sure you’re doing the right workouts. You’ll be sitting in the school library one day reading a football magazine, and you’ll flip to an advertisement and see a familiar face.

Walter Payton.

It’s an ad for some kind of fan club, and it has an address on it. You’ll decide to write a letter to Sweetness. You’ll tell him your story. The incredible odds you’re up against. How he inspired you and how you’ve tried to emulate him on and off the field.

And three weeks later, Vernon, you’ll get a letter back.

Now, you won’t know if it’s actually from Sweetness or not … but the letter will prove to be invaluable.

It’s not a stock response. It references your specific situation. And it includes encouragement in the form of some new training regimens designed to improve your speed, quickness and explosiveness — things you’ll need to improve to have any chance of making it to the NFL. And you’ll use them religiously. You’ll train like a madman. Three workouts a day. You’ll pack on 15 pounds and get up to 185 — still small by NFL standards, but a huge step.

And even though all 12 rounds of the draft will go by without your name being called, you’ll get a phone call from the Broncos with an invite to camp. John Elway, Shannon Sharpe … I know you don’t know who these guys are, but trust me: It’s something to get excited about.

I don’t have to tell you to work hard, Vernon. Your work ethic is already second to none, and you’re only 15 years old. But don’t forget about the execution. The hard work only pays off if you can execute. And it’ll be your lack of execution — difficulty catching the ball and fielding punts — in the final preseason game with the Broncos that will get you cut and leave you wondering if you’re going to get another shot.

Luckily, you will.

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You’ll get a phone call from the Bills, who will want to sign you to their practice squad.

It’s not John Elway, Shannon Sharpe and the Denver Broncos. But you know what it is? It’s an NFL paycheck. And that will be reason to celebrate.

You’ll go back to Staten Island and you’ll get together with your brothers and sisters — Jemal, Sharlene, Brian and Ellen — and you’ll just hug and cry. They’ll cry because they’re happy and excited for you because you’re playing in the NFL. But your tears will be for something much greater.

You’ll cry because you’re making good on your promise to your mother. You’re making sure you take care of your brothers and sisters. You’re keeping the family together. Because without Mom and Dad, that’s your responsibility.

Your siblings don’t understand that. You never let them know how close they were to being split up.

Because you knew you’d never let that happen.

You’ll do everything you ever wanted to do for them, Vernon. You’ll pay off the house. You’ll keep enough money from each paycheck to pay your rent in Buffalo and have some extra cash for yourself, and you’ll send everything else back home to Staten Island to Aunt Pat and the kids.

And you know what? You’re going to have some pretty great moments as a pro football player, too. You’ll never be Walter Payton — nobody will ever be Sweetness — but you’ll get promoted to the Bills’ active roster as a rookie. You’ll be deactivated for the playoffs, but you’ll be on the sidelines and part of the team for Super Bowl XXV against the Giants. You’ll then spend a couple of years with the Rams and eventually move on to Detroit and then Tampa Bay, where you’ll return the first punt for a touchdown in the franchise’s history.

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You’ll play six years in the NFL, Vernon. And each night during that time, when you go to bed at night, you’ll still think of this moment you’re living right now, at 15 years old, where you’re on your knees, wishing your mother dead.

That’s how much it will haunt you.

I’m 49 years old now, and it still haunts me every day.

Like I said, I’m going to leave this earth with a broken heart.

At the end of the day, I don’t have a lot of other advice to give you, Vernon. You already work hard and will stop at nothing to get what you want. You don’t need me to tell you to do that. You got that in you already. But there are some people in your life that are either going to be very good to you, or gone far too soon. Some of them will be both. Be good to them. That’s my advice.

I’m 49 years old, and I have no regrets.

Except one.

It’s what you’re about to do.

Please, take my advice. Get up. Get up off your knees, Vernon. Don’t pray for your mother to die. In fact, do the opposite. Go tell Mom you love her.

Then tell her again.

Then again.

Because you never know when someone you love will be taken from you.

So get up, Vernon.

Do it for Mom.

Better yet … do it for me.

***

Vernon Turner is a six-year NFL veteran and author. His autobiography, The Next Level: A Game I Had to Play, is the inspiration for a film that is currently in development.

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