Dear 18-year-old Danny,
I know it still stings. But if there’s one thing I know about you it’s that when you get knocked down, you don’t stay down for long. Now, as you begin your freshman year of college football, the only thing greater than the disappointment of not getting a scholarship offer to play at Nebraska is your excitement to join your older brother, Ben, and follow in your father’s footsteps at Division II Chadron State College.
When one door to college football closed, God pushed another one open.
Remember that. It will become a theme — a mantra, almost — for your football career.
Every kid who has ever played youth football in the state of Nebraska has had the dream of running out onto the field at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln with the N on his helmet. You were no different. You played at North Platte High in the fall and went to the Cornhuskers’ football camp in the summer. You broke state rushing records. You were named the 2003 Nebraska player of the year.
But none of that materialized into an offer. Nebraska looked at your five-foot-seven, 175-pound frame and — like other D-I colleges — thought you were too small to play running back or even wide receiver. Instead, they invited you to walk on … as a kick returner.
All you’ve ever wanted to do was play football. You’ve known it ever since you were a little kid writing jersey numbers on the backs of cowboys and Indians and hosting mock football games on your bedroom floor. You knew it when you moved those games out to the living room, where you colored a football field on the carpet with a green marker (Mom and Dad loved that). You knew it when you started playing football in the fourth grade, and when you became a ball boy at North Platte High, where Dad coached.
But I know you’ve thought mostly about playing at Nebraska, not in the NFL. Not because you don’t think you can play professionally, but because you try not to look too far ahead. You know God has a plan for you, so you try to focus on what’s right in front of you and run through the doors He opens.
When Nebraska didn’t offer you a scholarship, you handled it well, Danny. That door had closed. No sense dwelling on it. Yes, it was frustrating. But you handled it with poise — and without animosity.
You’ll be glad you did, because there will come a time when you’ll need some help from the Cornhuskers, and they’ll be there for you. I’ll get to that later. For now, let’s talk about the sting of performing at a high level, only to be overlooked.
It’s a feeling you need to get used to, Danny. You’ll feel it again when — even though you’ll graduate from Chadron State as the all-time NCAA rushing leader — you aren’t invited to work out for NFL scouts at the combine.
Say what you will about God’s plan, but He’s remarkably consistent.
But so are you — both in your play on the field and in how you overcome adversity.
When the invitation to the combine doesn’t come — even though you’ll run for almost 8,000 yards in your college career and win two Harlon Hill trophies, the D-II equivalent of the Heisman — you’ll be disappointed. On top of that, NFL scouts won’t be interested in attending a pro day at tiny and remote Chadron State, so the school won’t host one.
That’s where Nebraska will come in.
As you’re reading this, Mom is working for a mentoring program called Teammates. It was founded by legendary Huskers coach Tom Osborne. He and Mom, one of the organization’s regional coordinators, work together, and he will see your ability firsthand when he attends a game at Chadron State. After he becomes the athletic director at Nebraska in 2007, you and Mom will ask him if you can work out at the Cornhuskers’ pro day — and he won’t hesitate to invite you.
So the same school that didn’t offer you a D-I scholarship will still play a huge role in your life by providing the only venue where you can display your talent to NFL scouts.
And just like you did with your opportunity at Chadron State, you’ll take advantage. You’ll run a 4.33 40-yard dash, which will be one of the fastest times among NFL prospects that year, combine or otherwise. Your other numbers will stack up well, too.
But if you haven’t picked up on the pattern by now, scouts won’t focus on your on-field numbers. They’ll only focus on what shows up when you step on the scale and when they roll out the measuring tape.
So you can probably guess what draft night will be like for you.
The rounds will come and go, and you’ll be sitting there, waiting for your opportunity. Then, towards the end of the seventh round, you’ll get a phone call. It will be from New York Jets coach Eric Mangini.
But the Jets won’t draft you, Danny. By that time, there will only be a few picks left, and the Jets won’t own any of them. Mangini wants to see if you’ll sign with New York as a free agent after the draft.
So the door to the NFL through the draft will close. But you’ll find another that’s open, and you’ll run through it by agreeing to sign with the Jets.
I wish I could tell you that you’re going to take the NFL by storm and have a long, successful career in New York and everybody is going to live happily ever after. But just because your life will be going according to God’s plan doesn’t mean it’s going to be a fairy tale.
A couple of days into your rookie training camp, you’re going to get carted off the field.
Done for the year.
It’s over, you’ll think. I’m never going to play football again. It’s not like you to be pessimistic, but it’s a pretty rational thought to have. I mean, what NFL team wants an undersized, undrafted rookie who just missed a full season after ACL surgery?
You’ll talk to your wife, Stacia … your wife. That sounds crazy, right? The two of you have been dating since freshman year of high school, and she’ll be there for you through everything — through the four years you’ll spend apart at different colleges eight hours away from each other; through pro day and draft night. She’ll even be the one helping you as you hobble around on crutches after your ACL surgery. She’ll always be there. So that will be the first call you make after your injury.
The second call you’ll make will be to God.
You’ll pour your heart out in prayer — the frustration, the disappointment, the fear that your NFL career will be over before it has ever begun.
Suddenly, all that fear and doubt will leave your mind, and you’ll feel a complete change come over you. Over and over in your head, you’ll begin to think, I will play next year.
Maybe it’s God speaking to you. Maybe it’s you realizing that you have to stop feeling sorry for yourself, get back to work and trust in God’s plan. Nobody said making it in the NFL was going to be easy. And every time a door has been slammed in your face, you have found another that’s been open. Why should this be any different?
When all is said and done, tearing your ACL will turn out to be the best thing that could have possibly happened to you.
I know that sounds twisted, but hear me out….
During your year of rehab and recovery, you’ll have time to learn how to live with Stacia as a newly married couple, so the time off will benefit your relationship tremendously. It will also benefit your NFL career, as you’ll get to sit back and learn from veterans Leon Washington, Thomas Jones and Tony Richardson about how to conduct yourself as a pro, how to study, how to take care of your body — things other rookies will have to learn on the fly while still performing on the field.
You’ll learn how much work you have to put in to make it in the NFL. And when the next season comes around, you’ll not only make the team as a practice squad player, but you’ll eventually get moved to the active roster and even make it on the field for a few games.
But remember, your career is not going to be a fairy tale.
In fact, after surviving final roster cuts before the 2010 season, the Jets are going to release you in Week 2. You’ll hit waivers, and no teams will claim you. So every team in the NFL will have a chance to grab you, and they will all pass.
At this point, as you and Stacia are driving back to Nebraska from your New Jersey apartment, a familiar thought will creep into your mind: Maybe it’s over.…
Then, back in Omaha, you’ll get a call from your agent. He’ll say he has the Patriots on the line, and they want to sign you.
Like I said, you’re not a pessimistic guy. But this call will come on a Friday, two days before the Patriots are supposed to play the Jets. So your first instinct will be to think that they only want to sign you to get some information. You may not have been in the league long at this point, but you’ll know enough about how it works to know that this is something teams do.
But let’s face it: You won’t be in any position to turn down an NFL team. So you’ll hop on the next flight to New England to sign that contract. You’ll have until 4 p.m. EST to sign the deal to get paid that week … you’ll get there at 3:50 p.m.
Then, you won’t join the team for Sunday’s game. You won’t even talk to the Patriots’ coaches until Monday — the day after the Jets game.
So maybe they didn’t want information from you after all.
Now, as you’re reading this, it’s 2004 and the Patriots have just won their second Super Bowl in three years. Well let me tell you something: They’re going to win it again next year. Then they’ll get back to the Super Bowl a few years after that. And when you get to New England in 2010, they’ll still be the class of the NFL. So you’ll feel pretty good about where you’ve landed.
And the timing couldn’t be more perfect, because in that game against the Jets, their top receiving back, Kevin Faulk, will tear his ACL. As much as you will hate to see that happen to another player — especially a guy you’ll go on to become good friends with — it will be a big opportunity for you. That Monday, the first day you meet with the coaches, they’ll give you a playbook and tell you to start studying.
The following Sunday, you’ll take the field for the first time in a Patriots uniform, and you’ll score your first NFL touchdown.
Like I said, Danny … you’re not going to set the NFL on fire. But you’re going to do everything you’re asked to do and you’re going to work your butt off. And that’s how you stay in the league for a long time. Talent will only get you so far.
But you are going to have some big moments.
In 2011, your second season with the Patriots, you’re going to play in the Super Bowl.
Yes, you. The 18-year-old Nebraska kid who couldn’t even get a D-I offer is going to play in the Super Bowl.
But that’s not even the best part. As the second quarter winds down and you’re trailing the Giants 9–3, you’re going to score the go-ahead touchdown, releasing out of the backfield and catching a four-yard dart from Tom Brady.
It will be the greatest moment of your football life. But there won’t be a fairy-tale ending to this one, Danny. Because despite your big moment, your team will lose the game, 21–17.
I know Dad — being a coach — has taught you that it’s always about the team, never the individual. I know you’ve always played that way, too. So even though that touchdown will instantly become the highlight of your football life, every time you think of it after that night, you’ll wish you could trade it in for a Super Bowl ring.
One thing you’ll never want to trade for anything is your time in New England. You’ll spend three amazing seasons there playing with one of the greatest quarterbacks in history and learning under a genius of a coach in Bill Belichick. Your teammates, the fans — New England will hold a special place in your heart.
Even so, after three years, you’ll decide to leave the Patriots.
Let me tell you what free agency is going to be like: Excruciating. You won’t be a top-tier free agent, so you’ll have to wait until the first wave of signings pass before teams start calling. At the beginning of free agency, teams will be able to start negotiating with players on Saturday and start signing them on Monday. You’ll get an offer pretty much immediately from the Patriots to re-sign. But since it’s your first time as a free agent, you won’t sign right away because you’ll want to see what else is out there.
So you’ll wait.
Now, the longer you wait, the greater the risk of the terms of the contract offer changing, or it being taken off the table completely. That’s why it’s so excruciating.
Tuesday will pass, no offers.
Wednesday will pass, nothing.
Thursday morning, you’ll talk to Stacia. She’ll suggest setting a deadline.
“How about we just pray about it, and if nothing happens by 11 a.m. tomorrow, you’ll call your agent and tell him you want take the New England deal.”
Sure enough, 11 a.m. Thursday will roll around, and the Patriots will be your only offer. So you’ll call Chris, your agent.
“Hey Chris. I prayed about it, and I really feel like at this point, I’m supposed to go back to New England.”
“O.K.,” he’ll say. “Anything else?”
He’ll cut you off before you even have a chance to respond.
“Wait a second,” he’ll say. “San Diego’s calling.”
He’ll hang up with you and answer the call. In that moment, even though you won’t know if the Chargers are truly interested in you, you’ll know in your heart that you’re going to San Diego. The timing will be too perfect … it has to be part of God’s plan.
Chris will call you back, and within three hours, you’ll be a San Diego Charger.
That’s where I’m writing you from, Danny. I’m writing you from my home in San Diego as I prepare for my ninth NFL season. I know that’s hard for you to believe. I mean, I’m living it, and it’s still hard for me to believe sometimes. I still thank God every day for the blessings I have in my life. It’s been an incredible ride, and I’m hoping I still have four or five years left to play the game that I’ve loved my entire life.
It’s not going to be easy for you to get to where I am, Danny. Your road from North Platte, to Chadron State, to New York, to New England and finally to San Diego is going to be filled with disappointment. There will be obstacles to overcome, and a lot of people will doubt you along the way.
Do yourself a favor, Danny: Let it bother you. You don’t have to be that chip-on-your-shoulder, I’m-gonna-prove-everybody-wrong guy. Just keep it to yourself and use it as motivation to work harder than anybody else. Because that’s what it’s going to take.
That’s how I got here.
Work hard. Be a good teammate. Laugh at yourself and don’t take yourself too seriously. Enjoy your time at Chadron State, a place that you will always hold close to your heart. Enjoy the time you’ll spend playing with your brother. And when you get to the NFL, enjoy that, too. I know I am. Nine years sounds like a long time, but it’s going to fly by. So soak in every moment.
And finally, trust in God’s plan. When one door closes, don’t get down on yourself. Because He will open another. And when He does, do what you do best and run through it.