Right into my shoulder.
I didn’t hear a pop, so I kept playing — just like we were trained. This is the Arena Football League, man. You don’t have the luxury of taking a play off, because the next one has already started.
I was dealing with a broken finger that I suffered during the first quarter, and then in the third quarter, someone’s helmet flew into my already-injured shoulder. That was when the pain really rushed in. I couldn’t lift my right arm or grip with my left hand. But I just wanted to make it to the final whistle. When you’re in the moment, it’s difficult to tell the difference between whether your pain is just a bruise or something more serious. After all, I’d played in enough football games to know that you should expect to feel a little injured afterwards.
But this time it was different. After a few practices, the pain in my shoulder kept getting worse. An MRI revealed that I had a 95-percent tear of my rotator cuff, a front and rear torn labrum, a dislocated shoulder and a torn tendon in my opposite finger.
I knew that was it.
I wasn’t going to come back from this one.
The dream was over.
Now when I refer to my dreams, I’m not talking about the Arena Football League. Like a lot of guys, I wanted to play in the NFL — The League.
I was a multi-year starter on the offensive line at the University of Idaho. During my senior year, we had one of the biggest turnarounds in NCAA history. We went from a 2-10 team in 2008 to an 8-5 team in 2009 and earned the school its first bowl victory in more than a decade. A lot of that success was due to the leadership and experience on the offensive line. We boasted four seniors and held our own against some very good teams.
After my senior year, I spoke with my family about my job opportunities and football prospects. I was about to earn a Masters in accounting and had a prestigious CPA job waiting for me once I graduated. But in my heart, I knew I couldn’t take it. I didn’t have any sort of clear path to the NFL, but I had to at least give it a shot. I knew I didn’t want to be sitting in an office one day, reflecting on my life and wondering, What if?
Of course, there were some issues.
First big issue: No agents wanted to represent me.
No problem. I knew that if I worked hard enough, I could catch a scout’s eye during our Pro Day, and maybe that would be my in.
To gear up for the Pro Day, I went to an open workout with the Spokane Shock of the Arena Football League. Of course, “open workout” technically means anybody can show up, but the people there weren’t just anybody. There were approximately 80 football players with Division I, CFL and/or NFL experience. These were great athletes clinging to a dream, just like me. I might not have had the edge in terms of talent, but I knew wasn’t getting outworked that day.
When the NFL didn’t come calling after Pro Day, the Shock did. I was the only person from that tryout to make the team. In fact, I was the first person in the team’s 10-year history to make the roster from an open tryout.
But just earning a spot didn’t satisfy me. I came into the AFL with a chip on my shoulder, figuring that I would bide my time at that level before accumulating enough good film to get invited to NFL OTAs and minicamps. Back in 2010, that’s what the AFL was — on the surface, at least. Most of the players were people who just got cut from NFL teams. This was the de facto development league for the NFL.
I enrolled in law school months before I joined the team so that I had a safety net of sorts if things didn’t work out. The timing seemed to make sense. The Arena football season started in early April and ended in late August. I’d start law school at the University of Idaho during the fall semester, then be able to train for the next Pro Day, which was going to take place the following March. I felt like if I focused on school and stayed on my schedule, I would have a good shot at getting invited to a minicamp.
As I adjusted to life in the Arena league, I gained an appreciation for the amount of passion shared amongst the players involved. We certainly weren’t doing this for the money. When I played for the Shock, I was getting paid $400 a week, plus housing and meals. Usually breakfast was a box of bagels and one tub of cream cheese for the entire team. We took Southwest flights to our road games. Have you ever tried to squeeze a 350-pound defensive end into a commercial airline seat? It works out about a well as you’d figure.
But there were some perks.
We did get some sweet endorsement deals. I used to do appearances at a local Applebee’s in exchange for $40 gift cards. And our coach Rob Keefe was something else. I have never seen a guy with so much energy. During games, he was practically on the field, and during practices, he used to suit up and play defensive back against our starting receivers. Who wouldn’t want to play for a guy like that?
It was our franchise’s first year in the AFL, and even though we had a good record, we were systematically viewed as underdogs. The Shock were coming from the Arena Football 2 developmental league, which we affectionately called “The Deuce.”
But there was nothing secondary about our fan support. In smaller cities like Spokane, the arena football team is often the only professional team in any sport. And from a fan experience perspective, arena football is damn good entertainment. The way I explain it, it’s as if the NFL and WWE had a baby. There are fireworks, dancers and football at a pace you’ve never experienced before.
Unlike other sports, there are also fewer barriers between the fans and the players. The people in the stands can interact with the guys on the field during the game. That also extended off the field. This isn’t a big, faceless organization. We live amongst these people. We talk to them at the grocery store and at restaurants. We really couldn’t be any more accessible.
This was especially true during the week of the ArenaBowl (which, as you might surmise, is the AFL’s Super Bowl). That’s right, in our franchise’s first year out of The Deuce, we made it all the way to the ‘ship. Even better, we happened to be playing the game in Spokane.
It was all an amazing experience, but the timing turned out to be less than ideal.
The game was on a Friday in Washington, and my first day of law school was that Monday in Idaho. And I had 150 pages of dense reading to do for that first day of class.
I had that looming in the back of my mind as I prepared for the ArenaBowl. This one was big for us not only because we had the home crowd, but also because it was being broadcast on the NFL Network. How about that? Here we were, this upstart team playing an old-school powerhouse, the Tampa Bay Storm, and our game was being broadcast on national TV.
And we won.
Following the game, there was confetti raining down on us for what felt like forever. Then the fans got to storm the field and celebrate with us.
Yeah, this wasn’t the NFL, but we all knew it was definitely something special.
But unfortunately, my celebration was pretty short — I had to start studying. Idaho Law had made an exception for me that allowed me to miss orientation, so I knew I had to be ready for my first day of classes. In law school, they use the Socratic method (read: they pick on you randomly). I didn’t want to make a fool of myself.
That year became one of the most demanding of my life. I’d ride to campus via 50CC Yamaha Zuma (my “motorcycle”) at 7:30 a.m. every day and get some studying done before going to class. Once class was out, I went to the football facility to do strength, speed and position-specific conditioning with my coaches for nearly three hours. After that, I’d head back to the law library to study until 9 or 10 p.m. This was my seven-day-a-week daily routine for several months. My light at the end of the tunnel was that next Pro Day. That’s when it would all pay off.
When March rolled around, I was ready. A week before our Pro Day, I hit 225 pounds on the bench press for 30 reps, and that was without the adrenaline of being in front of scouts. That’s a benchmark for a solid “A” rating for a lineman. I was also working with an Olympic track coach and different strength and conditioning coaches for agility. I was in the best football shape of my life at the perfect time.
When the big day came, I went to my law school classes in the morning then headed to the Dome and started preparing my body and mind for the workout. Finally, I went into the weight room, where the scouts were. I filled out all of the paperwork, got my height, weight and body parts measured. Right when I was about to do the vertical jump, one of the scouts got a phone call. The Pro Day was on March 12, 2011, a date that might sound familiar to some football fans.
That phone call was the scout finding out that the owners had just shut down league operations.
The NFL lockout had started.
The scouts apologized to the free agents in the room, then abruptly kicked us out. They were not even going to test us. That was that.
I went immediately to play darts at a one of my favorite bars, then went to a pizza joint and got an extra large pie. I ate the entire thing. I don’t think I’ve ever felt worse, and it wasn’t because of the pizza.
I figured I would do my best to stay in football shape in hopes that the lockout would end soon and I could finally prove my worth. As I waited, my first year of law school ended, and I decided to go back home to the Bay Area and join the local AFL team, the Sabercats. Shortly after that, my shoulder was shot, and so were my dreams of playing in the NFL.
In retrospect, it might seem like I just got taken down by dumb luck. But now I realize that my injury was really a blessing in disguise. Yes, there was a month where I was just completely depressed. Losing football was a really tough breakup. But because I couldn’t really move as a result of my injuries, I had a lot of time to think. I had a lot of time to reflect on my career. I thought back to when I was doing those Applebee’s appearances for $40 and how common my story really was. I realized that my career reflected that of the vast majority of American athletes. We generally relate the term “professional athlete” to huge contracts and glamorous lifestyles. But for a lot of people trying to make a living in sports, it’s not an easy life. The paydays are usually not as big as you might think, and most have to take on part-time jobs just to stay afloat financially.
Balancing law school with football seemed nearly impossible, but now it’s led me to what I think I was meant to do. I now realize my experiences have equipped me to help athletes more as an advocate than I ever could as a player. After I finished up law school, I began working with athletes on everything from branding, to tax and legal issues, to, yes, endorsement deals that are worth more than a $40 gift card (not to slight Applebee’s, I love a good Sampler).
I do this because I think it’s important. I want people to know that for every superstar, there are thousands of regular people just like me, doing whatever they can to make it.
Adam is an attorney, founder of AthletesLTD, and Team Captain of Team On 3. You can find out more about his journey here.