Growing up in Ridgeville, South Carolina, pretty much all I saw was people working hard.
My grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors … everyone, basically. My mom worked at Walmart for 33 years straight. Thirty-three years! Day in and day out. My dad? He worked at a steel plant over in Charleston. Night shift. Nine at night to nine in the morning, no joke.
Those two … they just put in work. It’s part of their DNA. For as long as I can remember, it was always like….
Get up. Go to work. Do your job. Don’t complain.
Rinse and repeat.
So when I got to Georgia as a freshman and immediately found myself thinking that maybe things were going to be too tough for me, I knew where to turn.
This was on my first day of training camp in Athens, in 2008. I just remember pulling on my shoulder pads, lacing up my cleats, finally getting out there on the field as a hot-shot, five-star recruit and … dropping tons of passes.
I don’t know if it was nerves, or if I was overly excited. But at one point I was doing a drill and I dropped like two or three passes in a row. Perfect throws, too. Just flat dropped them.
So I go back to my dorm, and I immediately dial up Mom.
Get up. Go to work. Do your job. Don’t complain. Rinse and repeat.
I’m like, “Mom … this is haaaaaaard.”
I’m telling her, “For real … this is rough. I was bad, Mom. This is really, really hard.”
And after that, it’s just….
For two or three seconds.
“No,” she says, all matter-of-fact.
She says it in a way where … I swear I could almost see her shaking her head.
“No, A.J., It’s not. It’s not hard. It’s what you love. You just had a tough day. That’s life. Instead of getting down about it … push through. Tomorrow’s a new day. You will be fine.”
Before she even finished, I knew she was right. Completely right.
“Everyone has bad days, A.J. Not every day is going to be perfect. But don’t try to tell me this is too hard, or that you can’t do it. It’s work. Treat it like that. It’s not meant to be easy.”
Before hanging up, my mom told me to go and work my butt off every day, and said that if I did, she promised that I’d have more good days than bad.
I’ve never forgotten that conversation. It’s stuck with me ever since. And now, 12 years and a bunch of Pro Bowls later … here we are.
My dad started working at that steel plant when he was 16.
They made car parts — catalytic converters, engine parts, stuff like that. My granddad was a manager there, and eventually my dad worked his way all the way up to become his dad’s boss. And then, when their plant closed down, my dad did another 10 years or so loading mixers at a cement plant in Charleston.
When I was a kid, my mom would leave early in the morning for Walmart, and when she got home at around six, my dad would be getting ready to head out for his night shift. It was like that for years and years.
Basically all I saw coming up was them putting in work. They’d never miss a day, even when they were sick.
And my parents always made sure that I understood the importance of not only their work, but also of all jobs, and how everyone’s job has value. They began teaching me about respecting others when I was really young, and helped me to understand that it’s often the people in the background who truly make things run smoothly — the janitors, the mechanics, the street cleaners, the garbage men, the cooks in the back making the food that we ate for lunch at school, and on and on. I was taught from an early age that those people were just as important as anyone else.
And to respect the fact that they show up and put in work … no matter what.
In my neighborhood, people were truckers and teachers and store clerks and bus drivers and everything else under the sun. But what they all had in common was that everyone was dependable and worked really hard. We all got what we needed, but it didn’t always come easy.
Lots of people worked more than one job.
In fact, my dad at one point realized that he needed to do that in order to make ends meet for us, so he opened up a little club not too far from our house. He even had me helping, too.
He needed to sleep during the day. So as a kid I’d head over to his club after school, when the beer shipments would arrive, to open the place for deliveries and stock the fridge. Then I’d go over to my grandparents’ and chop a bunch of wood to load their wood box.
I saw everyone else working, and I wanted to pitch in as best I could.
We all got what we needed, but it didn’t always come easy.
By the time I was old enough to get a job, there was no doubt at all that I’d go to work.
Like any other kid, there were so many things I wanted back then — clothes, shoes, video games — and my parents were like, “So, get to work!!!”
They’d always made it clear to me that if you want something, it’s not just going to be given to you. You need to work for it.
At first, more than anything I remember wanting a necklace.
Nothing fancy, just a plain 14-karat-gold necklace.
So I started working at Zaxby’s during my freshman year of high school in order to save for it. Unfortunately, cooking up fast-food chicken wasn’t my strong suit. All my friends there kept getting promoted to better stations, and I was stuck on the toast machine for weeks and weeks — buttering the bread, flipping it, and making the toast. When I did get moved up, it was only to the chicken-finger station. And I just stalled out there.
My chicken fingers were totally jacked up most of the time — all curled at the edges and misshapen.
The manager would be like, “A.J. These are NOT STRAIGHT ENOUGH! You gotta put the chicken strips between your fingers and lay them into the fryer gently, man.”
I’m not gonna lie, I wasn’t good at chicken fingers.
If you want something, it’s not just going to be given to you. You need to work for it.
By the time I’d earned enough money to buy that necklace, my fixation had fully transferred over to sneakers. And, once again, my parents were like, “You need to put in those hours and save up!”
So at that point I moved over to Steve & Barry’s because I could at least use my employee discount to buy sneakers. When I realized it was taking forever to save up for new Jordans and Air Force 1s at the rate I wanted to buy them, I followed in my dad’s footsteps and started up a second job.
And I’ll admit, mine wasn’t quite as legit as his.
It was more, let’s say … creative.
At my school, you were allowed to leave for lunch if you had your own car, but most seniors didn’t have access to a vehicle. So that’s where I came in, with my two-door 1996 Ford Escort.
My business wasn’t complicated: $20 and you can take my car for lunch.
That was the whole enterprise.
A few people could pool their money, or it could be one person going all-in. It didn’t matter to me. As long as I got that $20. And, man, let me tell you … I bought so many pairs of sneakers by combining my Steve & Barry’s paycheck with my car-rental money.
And my folks? They just thought I was really good at saving money. They didn’t know anything about that side hustle until, well … now.
But I feel like they’ll respect it, you know what I mean?
And I still have a ton of those sneakers to this day.
Looking back on things now, I feel like I’ve always worked hard — and reached a level of success on the football field that I am truly proud of — first and foremost because my parents were such tireless workers. And also because they showed me the importance of being disciplined and reliable in order to make a positive impact on those around you.
When I look back on my childhood, and how my parents raised me, I’m especially thankful in moments like the one we’re all living through now.
Because my mom and dad taught me a healthy respect for hard work — and, just as important, for the people out there doing the hard work — I feel like I have the foundation I need to show gratitude and support and love to all those people out there right now who need to clock in and work, those who aren’t able to just work from home. I don’t take anything going on out there right now for granted. Being an athlete and having the privilege to be able to be home with my family and still make a living … I know that I am very, very lucky.
And I am teaching my two young boys that all the folks out there putting in work during this pandemic … those are heroes right there. They are making sacrifices and putting themselves at risk for the sake of everyone else.
I am in awe of that.
I commend all the essential workers and other employees out there punching the clock. You guys have my utmost respect.
So from my entire family — granddad all the way down to our one-year-old boy, Gunnar — please just allow me to tip my cap and say….