Get Back Up

This was what it was all about. This was destiny.

I glance across the locker room, and there’s Jordan Shipley, Texas’ all-time leading receiver. He’s ready. I look all around me, and there’s this intense focus amongst all guys — a quiet confidence. You can feel it.

We’re going to win this thing.

All those countless hours running sprints in the West Texas heat — that was for this moment. All those early mornings I’d spent training and chugging protein shakes in front of our strength coach — about to pay off. And that decision I’d made, the one that had been scrutinized by so many people, to put off going to the NFL so I could stay in school for my senior year — well, it was about to be validated.

I’m the son of a farmer and a Texas high school football coach. To me, football is much more than just a game. In many way, it feels like what I was born to do. And heading into the final start of my collegiate career, I’d never felt more prepared, more composed and more certain of my abilities.

I grew up in a small town of 714 people called Tuscola. In order for my high school to field a football team, just about every kid in my grade needed to play. And now, I was about to take the field at the Rose Bowl in front of almost 100,000 rowdy fans.

I never figured I’d make it to this point. How does someone possibly dream that big? I still have no idea what Mack Brown was thinking when he extended a scholarship offer to a kid who was barely six feet tall and weighed 180 pounds holding dumbbells. Not the build of your typical All-American quarterback.

Late in my junior year of high school, my buddy Jordan had told me UT was hosting a mini-camp and he wanted me to come with him. I’ve known him since we were kids because our dads went to college together and are both football coaches. Initially I was on the fence because I had a track meet on the same day as the camp and had a chance to go to state if I won. I’d also already gotten a handwritten letter from coach Dennis Franchione at Texas A&M offering me a scholarship. There were a few reasons I could have talked myself out of it … but this was Texas. I had to go.

So, that Saturday I woke up early with my dad and we drove over to Burnett, where we hopped in a truck with Jordan and his dad to go to Austin.

I ended up having a good day. A really good day. And on the ride home, I remember turning to my dad and saying, “I want to play football in college, and I want to do it at the University of Texas.”

Getting that scholarship offer was definitely a big moment (I remember saying yes immediately and then Mack getting serious before telling me “O.K., Colt. That’s great. But this is like marriage now. We’re engaged. I just put the ring on your finger. That’s what a commitment to Texas means.” Heck of a recruiter.) But just getting on campus wasn’t my goal. I wanted a degree and I wanted a national championship.

As soon as I arrived in Austin, the real work started. My freshman year I redshirted and the coaching staff basically just told me that I needed to get bigger and better. I was going to work out, gain weight and learn the offense better than anybody else in the program. I started lifting at 6 a.m. with our strength coach, Jeff Madden (who goes by the nickname Mad Dog for a reason), every day of the week. By the end of that year, I was sick of him and he was sure sick of me. And when I wasn’t working out or in class, I was with Greg Davis, our offensive coordinator, going through signals and plays. After that, I just watched Vince Young. I had a front row seat during his junior year and I was a sponge. While I knew I couldn’t recreate how he played — nobody could, there’s only one Vince — what did stick with me was how he led the team. The confidence and body language that made everyone in the stadium — his teammates, the fans and the opposing players alike — know that he was in control and would find a way to win the game.

I had to compete for the starting job that next year, and eventually the coaches told me that I’d earned the right to start the first game of the season. They wouldn’t commit to anything more than that. But honestly I remember thinking, Yeah, forget that. If I start this game, I’m never coming off the field. I only completed 12 passes, but three of them were for touchdowns. And from that point on, it was my job.

I made steady progress each year — each month, really — and then when I was a junior, everything kind of came together.

Honestly, I think we were the best team in the country that year. But one last-second play against Texas Tech resulted in our only loss and ultimately cost us a shot at the national championship. Can’t pretend I’m not still heartbroken over that one.

At the end of that season, I sent in paperwork to the NFL to see what round I’d potentially be selected in the draft. I got a late first-round grade, which generally means it’s time to go to the league. But when I sat with coach Brown and my parents, and weighed my options, it was complicated. I still had a team full of guys that I loved, the opportunity to graduate and a realistic shot to win a national championship. All of those things that I’d gone to college hoping to accomplish were still right there.

So, against the better judgement of some, I decided to give it one more shot.

We didn’t really dominate teams during my senior year. There were a lot of close games that we just barely won, and that didn’t impress many people. In the NFL, a win is a win. But in college, those style points mean a whole lot.

Going into the Rose Bowl, we were coming off a really close win over Nebraska. There’s no sugarcoating it, we looked awful that game. We didn’t have any answers for the Cornhuskers defense. Ndamukong Suh spent most of the day tossing me every which way around the field. And even though we won, and secured a chance to play for a national championship, we felt a little embarrassed.

Waiting for us in California was none other than Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide. These guys had just dominated the SEC and were loaded top to bottom with NFL talent. If you listened to most people, we didn’t have a shot against this team. They thought we didn’t even belong on the same field as Bama.

But we knew better. This wasn’t our first big game or the first tough team we’d ever faced. We’d played the best and we’d beaten the best. Alabama is a fantastic program. That’s unquestionable. But you know what? We’re Texas. And we play some pretty dang good football too.

By the time the game rolled around and we’d been listening to people tell us how bad we were for a few weeks, the whole team was extremely motivated. We were going to show the nation something. I’ve never experienced a better week of practice than our team had leading up to that game.

Inside that locker room, it was so clear that we were completely locked in. Everyone was on the same page.

When we finally took the field, we weren’t nervous or scared. We were excited.

We’re going to win this thing.

Early on, we punched Bama right in the mouth. Our defense stuffed them on the first possession, and then we picked it off when they attempted a fake punt on fourth down. Then we marched down the field on that defense that everyone thought would chew us up and made it all the way to the one-yard line before settling for a field goal. At that point, there was no question in our minds that we could play with these guys. Our confidence was high. Next we converted an onside kick to get possession back and then we took it down inside the 10-yard line. We had all the momentum. This was happening.

On first down inside the 10, we called a speed option. Simple play. My job was just to get to the edge and pitch it to the running back, who would try to get around the corner. Problem was that Bama’s defensive game plan involved taking the running back away, so when I got to the edge, our guy was covered up. I just had to put my shoulder down and try to grind out a few yards.

As soon as I made it to the line of scrimmage, Marcell Dareus, a big defensive tackle who now plays for the Bills, hit me on my right side.

You know, still to this day, what strikes me the most was how normal the hit was. It was the same hit I’d taken a million times growing up on those dusty fields in Tuscola. My dad didn’t let me even play football until I was in seventh grade because he wanted me to learn the proper way to hit and be hit. So I’d taken enough shots to know there wasn’t anything particularly special about this one.

But for one reason or another, this tackle was different. This hit would change my whole life.

I remember immediately after the collision my only thought was, “What just happened?”

I didn’t have any pain in my right arm. I didn’t have any feeling at all. It was just entirely numb.

I turned towards the huddle first, but then looked to the sidelines. I needed to get off the field.

I went into the locker room and they discovered that the impact of that hit had messed up my shoulder real bad, but I still couldn’t feel anything at all.

Here my team is out there, and I know they need me, but I can’t even reach up to take my helmet off because my arm won’t go above my shoulder. It wasn’t one of those things where I was in too much pain or even that I was knocked out. It might have been easier on me emotionally if that was the case. But I was completely present, and all I could do was watch as my friends did their best to win the biggest game of our lives without me.

I came out for the second half in full uniform. Changing out of it would have been too painful both physically and emotionally. I wasn’t ready to take it off yet. So I just tried to be the best cheerleader I could for the team. I’ll be honest, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was so heartbroken. I just wanted to be out there, fighting with the team. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.

After we lost the game, the conversation turned to whether I’d ever play football again. I had severe nerve damage, an injury that takes years to fully recover from. I remember for a month after the hit, I couldn’t so much as lift up a bag to put in my truck. Meanwhile, guys are at training facilities getting ready for the Senior Bowl and the combine.

I wasn’t working on my bench press or deep throws. In fact, I had to entirely reteach myself how to throw a football. Imagine that. I went to two Heisman Trophy ceremonies, and now I couldn’t even throw a football. It was humbling. Actually, it was pretty scary.

Nobody really understood the severity of my injury. Making it more difficult was the fact that I appeared to be fine if you looked at me. I remember going to the combine, and how frustrated I was because I couldn’t really do anything. People thought I was trying to hide something by not working out — trying to preserve my stock. They acted like I was making up some excuse. I was so fed up with it all that even though I hadn’t trained for it, I went out and ran the 40-yard-dash, limp shoulder and all. It didn’t go well, naturally, but that wasn’t the point. I just wanted to do something.

I didn’t even know if I’d get drafted. I was getting all of these nerve tests, and it wasn’t looking good. At the very least, I knew I wasn’t going to get picked early. Why would I? I couldn’t even throw a football.

Right before the draft, I threw for the first time at Texas’s pro day. I basically just willed myself to go out there and do it. I didn’t throw anything down the field because I couldn’t. I just tossed short and intermediate passes to my teammates. But they didn’t drop a single one of them. I think I completed 59 passes in total. Of course I wasn’t out there putting on a show for teams. I was just proving that I could still propel a football forward with some accuracy.

I knew that if I had time, I could be a good NFL quarterback.

The honest truth is that the idea of playing in the NFL never really occurred to me until my junior year of college. Before that point, it seemed like this sort of impossible thing. Guys like me generally don’t make it that far. I thought my destiny was winning a national championship. That was the plan. But what I didn’t realize was that my time in college was just the beginning of my journey in this sport.

When the draft rolled around, Cleveland ended up taking a chance on me late in the third round. They told me I’d get to spend my rookie year rehabbing my shoulder and getting back to normal. But … once again, things didn’t quite go according to plan.

As it turned out, the Browns would need me earlier than they thought they would. Both quarterbacks ahead of me on the depth chart got hurt early in the year, and I was flung into the starting role in Week 6. The thing was, I was only getting to practice two or three days per week because I still had issues with my arm the day after throwing. Being a rookie with a bum shoulder and limited practice reps in the AFC North wasn’t exactly a recipe for success.

I guess I’d describe my first two years in the league playing for the Browns as … an education. They happened to coincide with a time when Cincinnati was solid and Baltimore and Pittsburgh were winning Super Bowls. Off the top of my head, I can’t tell you how many picks I’ve thrown in this league. But what I am certain of is that at least half of them have to have been to Ed Reed and Troy Polomalu. Those guys are first-ballot Hall of Famers, and I probably didn’t hurt their cases at all.

But like I said, it was an education. I learned so much about the game of football while I was in Cleveland. Jake Delhomme really helped me understand things at this level. And honestly, he didn’t have to. I was the young draft pick, and he was clearly the veteran I was intended to replace. But he never acted like that. He never viewed me as the bad guy. In fact, we did just about everything together when I was a rookie. I used to swing by his house and pick him up in the morning, then we’d drive to work together. After practice, we’d drive home together. During the week, we’d watch tape together. He’d show me how to read an NFL defense, what subtle cues to pick up on. This was a guy who had been in the league for a long time — heck, he played in a Super Bowl — and he was completely open with his knowledge. And that really is amazing, because we were competing for a job. He didn’t treat me like a threat. He treated me like a teammate. That taught me a lot.

We weren’t a very good football team, but it was never for lack of effort. The guys in Cleveland gave it everything they had. But some weeks, we were just outmatched.

Late in my second season, I was the starter and we were playing against the Steelers. In the fourth quarter, I took a shot to the helmet from James Harrison and suffered a bad concussion. I went back into the game, and I shouldn’t have. I couldn’t even stand the lights in the postgame press conference. They felt like knives in my head. For several weeks, I had a lot of bad symptoms. Sensitivity to just about everything and these awful headaches. There was plenty of controversy surrounding how the team handled it and how I handled it. I figured I would recover, and move forward as the Browns starting quarterback the following season.

But looking back the writing was on the wall. I’ll admit I was pretty surprised when the franchise used a first-round pick that off-season to draft a quarterback. I’d been getting positive signals in the building, I thought that I was going to be the guy. All I wanted a chance to compete for the starting job, but I wasn’t given that opportunity. So I spent that year as a back up, working on my game and being the best teammate I could be.

That following off-season marked yet another regime change. There was a new coach and new front office. Felt like a new franchise, really. I told them right away that if they wanted me to be part of the plans moving forward, I had a year left on my contract and would absolutely honor that. But I wanted an honest shot at the starting job. If I wasn’t in the plans, all I asked was that they see if there was a team that might be interested in me. I think that’s a fair thing for an employee to ask.

I showed up for OTAs and was there for a day when they asked me how I felt about San Francisco. Not long after that, I was traded to the 49ers.

Looking back, there’s no part of me that feels any sort of bitterness towards Cleveland. Actually I loved the team and I loved the city. I became a much better football player there. I just wish we could have been… better.

My story’s pretty common. Team drafts a young quarterback, starts him before he’s ready and it doesn’t work out. But I think what gets taken for granted is that we all improve as players the longer we’re in this league. Just because a guy has some struggles early on in his career, doesn’t mean he’s never going to be ready to play at this level. But this isn’t a league that lends itself to patience. Production is everything.

After my year in San Francisco, I spent the next off-season exploring my options. What drew me to Washington was Jay Gruden. I’d played against Cincinnati when he was the offensive coordinator and got to see firsthand how he helped Andy Dalton develop. I thought he could help me.

I knew I wasn’t going to start. In fact, that quarterback room was pretty crowded. But this was an opportunity to get better, so I took it.

My choice to sign with the Redskins was the right move then and it’s the right move now. I’m entering my third season in the same system and that’s something I’ll never take for granted in this league again. My first five years in the league, I had to learn five different offenses. Each offense is basically its own foreign language — it really takes time to master. But the opportunity to really familiarize myself with Jay’s system has given me a comfort level I haven’t experienced since I was in college.

As a result, I’m the best football player I’ve ever been. Physically and mentally, I’m ready to contribute. I’ve spent every waking moment studying the offense and getting every detail down. I also watched carefully how our receivers run their routes, seeing where they like the ball. Everything clicks now.

I’m now more thankful than ever that Jake showed me how to be a truly great teammate. I learned how to contribute in so many ways, even if it’s not on the field every Sunday. Every week during the season, I offer Kirk whatever notes I have on the opposing defense, just like Jake did for me. But I also prepare like I’m going to start, because that’s the only thing I know. I treat my work with the scout team like it’s a game. It can be a little draining, all that preparation without knowing when you’ll get a shot. But it’s also comforting knowing with certainty that I can step in a make a difference when the time does come.

Like I said, I’m the son of a coach and a farmer. That means I truly love football, and I’m not afraid to work. It’s been quite a ride up until this point. I’m not going to pretend to know what happens next. I just know it won’t be easy. But that’s fine by me. I wouldn’t know what to do with easy.