Dear 21-year-old Chase,
I know you hear your phone ringing.
And I also know, as hungover as you are after a Saturday night of barhopping in Chapel Hill, those bloodshot eyes of yours can still make out the caller’s name lit up in blue letters on the front of your flip phone.
So as much as you may want to let it go to voicemail and make some lunch — and bum around that rickety house you guys somehow crammed eight football players into — I want you to remember that your mom is special, and you’ve only got one, and….
Answer that call.
Before you pick up, though, do me one quick favor. Brace yourself, dude. Take a second or two. Get a few deep breaths in.
Then flip open that phone, and just … I don’t even know what to tell you. I guess just do the best you can with what comes next. Nothing I say here is going to help.
Mom, at first she’s just gonna say your name. Nothing else. And it’ll be real low and shaky. Like….
You’ll immediately cringe. By this point — senior year at UNC, 2008 — you’ve been on the receiving end of countless lectures from your parents for doing all sorts of dumb s***. Whether it was for mixing up weird “potions” with buddies in elementary school and accidentally blowing stuff up, or going wild chasing girls in high school, you know all about getting busted by your folks. So in your head it’s gonna be like….
S***, what did I do this time?
But it’s not that. Nope, it’s way worse.
“Come home. Dad died.”
You’ll barely be able to breathe.
Your mentor, your idol, your hero … gone?
You’re gonna mutter “What the f***?” about 20 times before you hang up. You’ll look at your roommate Briggs — who will just happen to be standing right there at the time — and say something you had no idea would come out of your mouth this morning when you woke up.
“My f***ing dad just died.”
You’re not even going to ask Mom what happened. And she won’t mention it. She’s just gonna be crying into the phone, and then tell you a few more times to get in your truck and come home to Fairview.
So do what she says, man.
But as you’re grabbing your keys and heading out the door, I want you to remember a few things that are going to be crucial to your life from here on out. You’re gonna deal with a ton of tough s*** over the next 12 years. There’s gonna be some really incredible highs, sure, and pretty much everyone in the world will see those. But there’s also going to be some lows. And when I say low, I mean really low.
Almost no one will see those. You’ll be on your own. Alone.
Stay strong. And know that deep down you’re a good person. Don’t be too hard on yourself, man. Keep moving forward as best you can.
The other thing that I need you to remember, though, is, well … basically, just all the lessons that Dad taught you.
And, yeah, I’m talkin’ all of them.
But most of all, remember the one thing he would tell you every chance he got. Chase, no matter what — no matter how high or how low you get — remember Dad’s mantra and … Keep God first in your life. When things get really rough, remember Dad looking you dead in the eye, and getting real serious, and telling you that everything was going to work out O.K. just as long as you….
Keep. God. First.
On the three-and-a-half hour drive home to Fairview, you’re gonna flash back about a hundred times to your childhood on that farm outside of Ormond Beach, Florida.
The memories from back then, they’re so vivid. Especially on this day.
Four-wheelers and Jet Ski heaven. Skinny little six-year-old Chase and his dad lining up for a game of front-yard football against your older brothers, Chad and Casey — the sun shining down on the four of you, your way-too-big Dan Marino jersey bringing you good luck. In your mind’s eye, all Dad’s passes will be perfect spirals, and you’ll catch every ball.
That farm, it was like paradise for you and your brothers. Dad always welcomed all your friends, so there were always kids around. He treated everyone who came to the house like family, and always made sure they got their turns on the four-wheelers.
You’ll think about Dad making his way up to heaven and remember that he was always unbelievably close to God. He wasn’t the type to lecture anyone about doing right by God, though. That wasn’t his thing. Dad was a blue-collar man — a racecar driver turned mechanic turned contractor. Salt of the earth. Rough and tumble. Larger than life. He went out and bought his nine-year-old son a Beretta 20-gauge shotgun, after all. Had you in the field hunting birds before most kids even knew how to ride a bike.
Dad wasn’t fancy, and he knew he wasn’t perfect. So he was all about serving God and representing his faith the best way he could. By treating people well.
He always made you feel special.
Hell, he made everybody feel special.
By the time you started to get good at football, you guys will have moved up to Carolina for Dad’s work. But not a ton changed. He kept on showing you by example how to be a good man.
For whatever reason, memories from that undefeated eighth-grade team are going to come flooding back when you think of you and Dad. And they won’t even really be about football.
Your team didn’t get scored on the entire regular season. You were the middle linebacker, the linchpin of that defense. Then, when it was time to go on offense, they’d hand you the ball and just let you barrel over people. It was like something out of a movie.
Dad, though, he always had a way of keeping things in perspective.
Driving down the interstate, somewhere between Greensboro and Winston Salem, your mind’s going to take you back to the first game of that season, in 1999, against Enka. The final was like 60–0. You were a tackling machine, man, and when you got the ball as a runner, it was like, I don’t know, three touchdowns? Maybe four. It was the first time in your life when you were one of the best players on the team.
So you’re on the team bus, and as it’s pulling out of the parking lot you spot Dad over by the truck. You can see it all so clearly in your mind. Dad, he’s running toward the bus.
You slide down that window and, man….
That look on his face!
It’s pure joy. And pride. He’s just overflowing with pride.
“Great game, son!!!!! Unbelievable!”
So you just … go with it.
“Dad … all those touchdowns!!! Can you believe it? I was unstoppable. I did it, Dad!”
Then, in an instant, Dad’s facial expression totally changes.
The gigantic grin is gone. He gets real, real serious. Then he points his finger right up at you.
“Hey!!!” he yells, all firm. “Chase….”
“You turn yourself right around and go thank those offensive linemen. Thank your teammates.”
Dad was so excited junior year when you followed in the footsteps of Chad and Casey and won a state title at A.C. Reynolds High. But in your head you’ll keep coming back to how that time period was a little rough on him.
Like everyone who loses a parent, after you get the news you’re gonna spend some of that first day regretting a few of the boneheaded things you put him through over the years.
By the time you won that state championship, you were one of the most dominant players in the state. D-I offers were rolling in. But while it was all happening, there was something inside of you that wouldn’t allow you to just go with the flow. You were a leader of the local Fellowship of Christian Athletes group, clean-cut, all practiced up on your “yes, ma’ams” and “no, sirs” when you were talking to adults. The star athlete. But at the same time, deep down….
You wanted to be mischievous as hell.
Like most kids that age, you drank a little on the weekends, and sometimes got caught doing dumb, immature s***.
Dad and Mom, they experienced all that in real time — the image of their perfect son shattering before their eyes. And each time they sat you down for a big talk, you could see the hurt on their faces, the disappointment. But, for whatever reason, you kinda just kept doing dumb s***.
You saw you were able to wiggle your way out of stuff, and cover things up, and keep your reputation intact. So that’s what you did. But that desire to be the wild child … it just wouldn’t go away.
At UNC, it would be the same deal. Only multiplied.
For football’s sake, you held off on drinking freshman year for as long as you could. But then, on the last day of classes, you ended up going to a party and drinking for the first time that year.
From there, you didn’t look back.
It was like….
Hell yeahhhhhh! College! Party time!
It couldn’t have been easy on Mom and Dad. But, looking back on it, I guess the upside of that lifestyle, long-term, was that all the partying meant music became a central part of your life.
It was Toby Keith at Walnut Creek Amphitheatre down in Raleigh. Kenny Chesney shows. And way too many loud dive bars to count. You became the biggest country music fan on the team.
When you heard your teammate Ben Lemming playing guitar that summer in the Granville Towers residence hall, you didn’t really think too much of it at first.
Then, for some reason, you started really … listening.
You headed over to Ben’s room. He had a Taylor 814ce acoustic-electric. And dude loved him some Dave Matthews Band.
Pretty soon, you’d be singing while he played. Then he’s trying to teach you the G chord. Then a D chord.
Ben Lemming, man. God bless that dude.
Thanks to him, you went out and got that s****y Seagull guitar — remember that one? Real s****y … 300 bucks. And then you studied. You watched a million YouTube videos to learn country songs. But at the time it was just for fun. By your junior year, you had become a leader of that Tar Heel defense, a tackling machine. The NFL was the goal.
Then, first game of that junior season, 2007 … your damn ankle snaps.
Done for the year. That NFL dream….
Pretty much over, even though you didn’t know it at the time.
And now, less than a year later, you have Mom calling you to tell you your dad is gone.
Without any real plan B, and without Dad to give you his advice on what to do next with your life, at this point you’re basically just left with….
What the f*** now?
That black F-150 of yours is gonna haul ass.
Mom told you not to speed. And to drive safe.
But that’s easier said than done when you’ve found out that the man you looked up to more than any person on the planet just died out of nowhere.
Remember how many times you asked, “What the f***?” a few minutes ago on the phone with Mom? Well that’s gonna be nothing compared to the number of times you say it — both in your head and out loud — during the drive home.
You’re gonna call Chad, your oldest brother, soon after you get out of town and on the highway. In between sobs, it will be….
“Did he fall off a ladder or something? What the f*** happened?”
“Nah … heart attack, man.”
When you talk to Casey soon after, he’ll be asking the same question you are.
“Chase, is this really happening?”
But check this out, man. There’s gonna be a point during the drive when something happens that, to this day … I honestly don’t even know if it was real or not.
It’ll be raining and cloudy the whole way. And you know how most of the drive from Chapel Hill over to Asheville on I-40 is pretty flat right up until you get to Hickory and hit the mountains? Well, right when you start seeing those mountains on the horizon, you’re gonna see this big-ass circle near the top, where it looks like the sun is shining down.
For a second, you’ll kind of laugh and think: “Maybe that’s a sign from God. Maybe that’s Dad.”
But you won’t think anything more of it.
You’ll go back to thinking about him teaching you how to ride a dirt bike, or those Christmas mornings with the family that Dad loved so much.
Then, 20 or 30 minutes later, you’ll have made it up that mountain. You’ll be at the very top, right where you saw that bright light. And as soon as you get up there….
The bright light will start shining once again.
“What’s up, Dad?”
And right then … that’s when it’s gonna get really strange.
You’ll look in the rearview mirror and….
Look man, I know this sounds crazy. I really, really do. But you’ll look in that rearview, and the only thing you’ll be able to see is this huge rainbow streaming down into the bed of the truck. It’ll be red, blue, bright yellow, all the colors.
For real, dude. A full-on rainbow. As bright as can be.
Not the toughest thing you could imagine, but Dad always had a way of bringing you down to Earth.
And you’ll look back a second time after shaking your head thinking, What the hell was that damn thing in my truck bed?
Then, after that second look….
It will disappear in a flash.
The funeral … it’ll all be a blur.
Before you know it, Dad’s gonna be in the ground. And you’ll be back at school a few days later.
Back to normal, right?
Keep it movin’. Life goes on. Right? Right?
No, Chase. Just … no.
Looking back on it with some perspective now, I can tell you that you’re going to be in a bad place real soon. As much as you won’t want to admit it, you’re gonna be massively depressed all of senior year.
Sad. Angry. Still injured. Riding the pine. Pissed at everyone and everything around you.
You’re gonna talk all this junk about dedicating the season to Dad, but — and it really does hurt me to tell you this — you won’t play worth a s*** the whole year. Dad wouldn’t have liked what he saw, on the field or off.
You’re gonna be a bitter, bitter man, dude.
It’ll be like: F*** my ankle for costing me my starting job. And f*** the coaches who just screwed my career up. And f*** my dad for dying. F*** everybody. F*** the world.
And there’s not really going to be anyone to help you work through all that. The team will send you to a therapist for one or two visits, but that’ll be a waste of time. Mom? She won’t be able to help. Chad? Casey? F*** no. You’re all gonna be equally miserable.
The only saving grace at all is going to be your guitar.
That and the first song you write … of course, about Dad.
It’s gonna get ugly right around that point, Chase. Real ugly.
You’re going to basically sit in your room with your guitar. Alone. Isolated. Depressed. In your own head. Not wanting to talk with anybody on Earth.
It’s gonna be unhealthy.
You will drink more than you ever have before. And that’ll seem like a good idea at the time, but it’s just going to make the depression hit even worse.
Your friends are going to worry about you. They’ll be scared.
But I’m gonna be straight up with you: The scariest thing about that time in your life is that you’re going to completely turn your back on your faith. You’re going to stop talking to God altogether.
You’re gonna be totally lost, Chase.
Even at your most isolated and pissed, though, you’re still going to have people reaching out to show you love. And when an old coach from UNC calls you up after senior year and asks if you’d like to work as a NASCAR pit-crew member, it’ll be like….
Sure. Why the hell not?
It’s not like you have anything better to do.
And we’re talking Hendrick Motorsports, the best race team on the planet. The real deal. Exciting stuff. Right from the start.…
You’ll hate it.
You’ll be pissed the whole time. And not great at the job. You’ll half-ass everything. And punch a guy on your team one night at Martinsville Speedway after a race. It’ll be a whole thing.
But I’m not going to pile on here. You’re gonna be doing your best given everything you’re dealing with.
And let’s focus on the positives here for a sec. As much as you hate the job, every day after work you’re gonna go home, sit in your hotel room, and write songs. You’re gonna pour everything you have into that. You’ll love the craft of it, but also, looking back on it now, it’ll clearly be you throwing yourself into something that helps take your mind off the pain.
The other positive is that you’re going to use the two-week fighting suspension from Hendrick to get in touch with an old little-league soccer buddy named Brian Kelley.
Remember that dude?
You don’t realize this now, Chase, and it’s gonna blow you away when you hear this … but before long that guy’s gonna be a f****n’ star.
And, if you play your cards right from here on out, who knows…?
As much as you hate the job, every day after work you’re gonna go home, sit in your hotel room, and write songs.
Brian ended up in Nashville, living over at Belmont and playing guitar. You’re gonna go visit him in 2009.
You’ll play some songs, and do some writing with him and his boy Tyler, and get piss drunk at Tin Roof every night.
But before you know it you’re gonna have to leave Nashville and go back to being miserable in Charlotte with those pit-crew dudes who never liked you to begin with. So you’ll need to catch a break. And fast.
This time it won’t be a phone call that comes out of nowhere and changes your life. It’ll be a text.
And this time around, it won’t be bad news.
It’ll be from a friend who played volleyball for the Tar Heels when you were at UNC.
“Hey! Would you want to be on Survivor, the TV show?”
You’ve never even seen the show. You know what, though?
Sure. Why the hell not?
You’ll half-ass the tryout just like everything else in your life that isn’t related to making music, and then … you’ll still make the show.
Now, here’s what you gotta do at that point, Chase. Listen up. Make this your plan. You ready? Here it is. Step by step:
1) Win Survivor somehow.
2) Use the prize money to move to Nashville.
3) Make it big in country music.
Easy, right? No biggie. You got this, dude!
Looking back on it now, you’ll be one of the worst Survivor players in history.
As soon as you get to Nicaragua for the show, literally as soon as the show begins filming….
You’ll hate it. (Starting to see the trend here, dude?)
You’ll love the adventure of it. But everything else? The manipulation and the sneakiness and all the behind-people’s-backs stuff? Nah.
You didn’t grow up that way.
And, looking back on it now, you’ll be one of the worst Survivor players in history. (Or at least you think so.) But you’ll get real lucky and somehow get second. Or, more to the point, you’ll get….
“Cruise” is gonna come together fast.
You’ll be living with Brian and Tyler. They’re gonna be known as Florida Georgia Line at that point. And they’re going to take you under their wing. You’ll write a ton. And you and Brian are really gonna click.
One afternoon, this is gonna be like early 2011, you guys will be writing a slow song called “When God Runs Out of Rain,” and out of nowhere Brian is gonna randomly hit the first chord of a different song and start humming a new melody.
It’ll be pure magic, man.
In 45 minutes you guys will have something that you’ll call … “Cruise.”
As much as the two of you will try to stay excited about that slow song, you’ll both immediately be freaking out about the new one. Brian will start talking about making it Florida Georgia Line’s first single on their debut EP.
And after the song comes out….
It’s straight up gonna be hold on tight.
Before “Cruise,” publishing companies are going to be like: “Oh, you were on Survivor? Cool. Come back after you have six more songs written.”
“Holy s***? That was you? Let’s work together!”
Before you know it, you’re going to be signed with Sony/ATV and doing shows with FGL. You’ll get an introduction to a real party scene. Like VIP-type s***. Expensive booze. Supermodels. The whole nine.
But between you and me, that’ll be the worst possible thing for you right then.
You still won’t have come to grips with Dad being gone. You’re still as sad as ever. And now you have easy access to every vice imaginable.
Within a year’s time, you’ll have the No. 1 country album in the nation. And it’ll debut at No. 1. Like No. 1 straight out the gate. You’ll be blowing up.
And … sinking down.
It’s not gonna be good, man. All that success? Everything you’ve ever wanted? It’s somehow just going to make you even more miserable.
The drinking will have gotten even worse. You’ll be partying so much, and talking so loudly in so many bars, that you’re going to start experiencing really bad voice problems. You can’t go out every night and expect your voice to be cool with that, Chase. You know that, dude. Come on.
You’ll get to the point where your vocal chords will actually be bleeding. There’ll be polyps. You won’t be able to sing. It’ll be a mess. A big, painful, depressing, angry mess. And every night before bed you’ll be asking yourself the same questions.
Why aren’t I happy?
Why isn’t this as amazing as I thought it’d be?
Why does my life suck so bad?
One Christmas you’ll head home to North Carolina and you’ll even end up being a dick to your family … to Mom of all people. You’ll be on your phone the whole time, texting with about six different women back in Nashville. Not paying anyone or anything at home any mind. Not connecting. Not giving a f***. Just caught up in your own little world.
Mom will notice.
How could she not?
She’s gonna write you a letter and put it in your journal. When you get back to Nashville and read it, your heart will sink.
I’m gonna spare you all the details. You’ve got enough to be sad about right now. But it’s gonna be bad, man. Brutal. She’s gonna tell you that it seems like you’re not even part of the family anymore. She’ll compare you to some big-time sleazeballs.
It’ll bring tears to your eyes.
Heck, at one point you’re even gonna end up having a falling out with your boys Florida Georgia Line. And over some music-industry bulls****. Y’all are best friends. What the hell is wrong with y’all? I mean….
You just won’t be yourself. And it’s going to seem like a snowball that can’t be stopped.
This one night you’re gonna wobble home from the bars, drunk off your ass, grab your journal, and write something that, to this day, is just really, really scary.
“I no longer want to be alive.”
It can go one of two ways at that point, Chase.
And the bad one of the two … it’s bleaker than bleak.
So I’m gonna tell it to you straight. Direct.
Get some help.
You’ve never fully dealt with the death of your father. Never fully grieved. Never made peace with it. None of that.
All the success with music? The hit records? The money? The women? None of that helped. It wasn’t going to make things better. It was never gonna bring Dad back.
All the success with music? The hit records? The money? The women? None of that helped.
So you know those voice problems I was just telling you about … let them open a door for you to begin digging into the bigger issues here. When Jenny at the Vanderbilt Voice Center notices your demeanor — your whole “I’ve given up on life” vibe — she’s gonna hand you a Post-it note with the name Al Andrews on it.
“Chase, I want you to go see this guy,” she’ll say. Nothing more.
She won’t even tell you who he is or what he does. But her heart will be in the right place.
Don’t question it. Just go see Al.
Start putting in some work. Start trying to get better.
It’ll be make-or-break for you, man. And I need you to buy in 100%.
When you do, this guy Al — a counselor over in Franklin, Tennessee … who kind of looks likes Tom Hanks — he’s gonna listen to you talk for about 10 minutes about everything that’s happened, and what’s been going on. He’s not gonna say a word, just listen. Then, when you stop talking, he’s going to come right out and tell you something that you already know, but that you’ve been trying to ignore or pretend wasn’t true. Al’s gonna look you in the eye, give a half-smile, and say….
He’ll say it as calm as can be, too.
In your head it will be like: What the f*** are you talking about? I’m not depressed, I’m good. I’m fine. F*** you.
But … you know he’s right.
Tom Hanks has you figured out.
You’ll start thinking about how you’re living. And how you feel. How four or five days out of the week you don’t even want to get out of bed. And about how someone could possibly have two top-five songs on the radio and still feel completely sh***y.
There’s finally gonna be a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.
Go all-in at that point.
Do the two-week, 24/7 intensive retreat out in Arizona.
Fly out there and, man … get ready.
You’ll think you’re there to talk about your drinking, and chasing girls, and partying. But guess what, Chase.
It’s gonna end up being all about Dad.
Out there in Arizona, 1,600 miles away … you’re finally going to let it all out. And it’s gonna pour out of you. For two weeks straight. You’ll go all the way back to your childhood, and be bawling your eyes out day after day.
Boy, is it ever going to be needed.
After that, you’ll finally be able to envision getting back to enjoying life again.
But this work, it’s gonna be ongoing. So buy in. Don’t fight it. You can’t stop just because you cried your eyes out in Arizona. There will be more therapists, more rehabs, more retreats. And you know what? That’s fine. Realize that you’re human. You’re not above reaching out for help.
Being on the radio, making music videos, having people recognize you at the mall … none of that changes the fact that you are a human being.
Just do your best.
You’re never gonna be completely fixed, Chase.
So prepare to put in work for the rest of our life.
Before I get out of here, and let you go pick up Mom’s call and begin this crazy decade I’ve been telling you about, let me end this with some really good news.
After all of that … stuff, when the spring of 2020 rolls around, you’re gonna be feeling good — happy, content. And I’m not a psychologist, but you’re not gonna be feeling like you’re depressed anymore.
You’ve shown Mom that you’re a changed man, you and the FGL boys will have mended fences, and you’re gonna be releasing new music that you couldn’t be more proud of. You’ll also continue to fill your life with good people who can help you work through all your s***.
And, Chase … you’ll even start having conversations with God again. You’ll realize how important he is to your life. To your happiness. You’ll finally realize that when you’re not staying close to God, your life goes to s*** pretty fast.
You’ll begin to truly understand what Dad was talking about when he said to put God first, and you’ll open up your heart.
You’re gonna be in a good place, Chase.
Actually, wait … let’s say, “a pretty good place.”
Because you’re definitely still a work in progress. You’ve still got lots to do.
On the music side, as much as it’s been a dream to do shows with Kenny Chesney and Garth Brooks and some of the best to ever do it, it’s time to step it up and headline arenas on your own. You’re ready now. The music is finally good enough. And the band is definitely good enough.
It’s time. Period.
Then, when it comes to your personal life, you’re not married. You don’t have any kids yet. No family of your own.
So that’s something that’s gotta come, too.
But as I sit here writing you this letter … I know I still have lots of work to do in order to become the type of husband and father I need to be. I’m not rushing it.
The cool thing, though, is that I feel like maybe I’m gettin’ there. And honestly a lot of that has to do with feeling like, with each passing day, I’m becoming more like Dad — even down to using some of his old catchphrases. Damn, he always warned me I would! And now I have people telling me I’m looking more and more like him.
I feel like as time continues to pass, even more similarities will crop up. And maybe some of those things will help me know when I’m ready to settle down and start a family.
But, at the same time, Chase, I gotta tell ya … you’re not gonna miss that man any less 12 years after you put him in the ground.
That hurt … it will remain.
And the guidance, his wisdom, the accountability he brought to the table, you’ll miss all that when you run up against tough times in life. Even at 34, you could still use the occasional kick in the ass, or a lecture on what it means to be a good man.
You’ll miss all that stuff like crazy.
And you’ll never stop wondering what it would’ve been like to grab a beer with that guy and just talk — man to man — about family, and what it was like for him growing up, and about the people who made him the man he was, and what they passed on to him in the form of advice. Or just to see him smile, and knock one back, and hear him tell you one last time that he loves you with all his heart.
As sad as it is that that’ll never happen, I can tell you for certain that Dad is watching over you at all times, Chase.
Every morning when I go out on the front porch and spend some time talking to God, I know Dad has a smile on his face.
And every time I step on stage, no matter how good or bad I’m feeling, no matter what s*** went down that day, I do it wearing the same necklace with the same three words that Dad tried to teach me.
The three words that I feel like I fully understand now.
Keep God First.