Letter to My Younger Self

Dear James,

As a child, you are a mama’s boy. And as a young adult finding his way in the world, and then as a grown man with his own family, you will remain one. You will wear that designation with pride, because it honors a woman whose commitment to excellence, unselfishness and sacrifice in the name of her family was unassailable.

She’s always been our family’s Rock of Gibraltar and the biggest influence in your life. Her later years, I’m sorry to say, will be very challenging, as she will battle diabetes and even lose a couple of toes to amputation. Her wind will be very short. She will be on dialysis those last weeks, unable to walk.

Even on her deathbed, unconscious and attached to a ventilator as her system breaks down, mom will continue fighting — she won’t want to leave her kids, but you’ll know as well as she will that she would not want to be in a vegetative state. Your 55-year old self, along with your brothers and sister, will have to make a decision about whether to keep her attached to machines.

When that time comes, understand you’ll have the foundation in place to handle that responsibility.

It will start when you’re young.

See that can of Simoniz paste wax? The kind they use in bowling alleys? You’ll be using it a lot to buff and polish the hardwood floors of the house. That will be your job, along with washing the dishes. (You have a talent for ironing, too, which will come in handy, given a lifetime of business dress ahead.) But it isn’t just about chores. As the oldest of their children, mom and dad want you to set a good example. Your brothers and sister will always pay more attention to what you do than what you say. That you’ll take these responsibilities seriously isn’t just commendable, it’s an extension of the ethic taken from dad working two, sometimes three jobs so mom could stay home and be the excellent homemaker she was.

He was the Joseph to her Mary.

That foundation of work and responsibility will in turn make you a better athlete. There’s an expression from Scripture which says: “Every joint supplies.” In other words, the human body has many different parts, but they all have a useful purpose. The little finger has just as important a role as the big toe or your knee. This truth applies just as much to team sports as it does in the game of life. Find out what your role is, what your gift is, and bring it to bear to benefit the whole.

You will star in basketball at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, recruited by virtually every major college in the country. After much deliberation, you’ll choose Harvard over North Carolina. But then a letter will come from UCLA, requesting a visit. Westwood is becoming the Mecca of basketball under John Wooden. You’ll tell mom about the letter, that you need to visit.

“You shook hands with Harvard,” she’ll say. “You gave them your word. You’re going to be a man of your word and stick by that.”

Decades later, at the end of your contract with Fox, where you’ll serve as co-host of their Sunday NFL pregame show, protracted negotiations will create an opportunity to return to your first network home, CBS. You will shake hands with the CBS folks. Shortly thereafter, Fox will come back hoping to close the deal, but you will have already given your word to CBS. Remembering mom’s credo, you will honor your word.

Pay close attention to what happens at Harvard, because while your experience will provide incredible opportunities and moments of success, it will become the source of your greatest regret. You’ll become a three-time All-Ivy League performer with dreams of the NBA, but your work habits will quietly slide. Selected by the Atlanta Hawks in the fourth round of the 1973 NBA Draft, you won’t make the team. Please don’t blame the coach or the general manager. You’ll think applying yourself in the summer after the draft will make up for four years of being lax towards your craft, and you will be wrong.

The dream of professional basketball will end, but you’ll vow never to allow an opportunity to pass because you were ill-prepared.

In your 20s, you’ll enter the corporate world, lucky enough to land at Xerox, one of the most progressive companies in the country. With a number of other young African-Americans, you will be part of a program called The Corporate Few, mentored by senior management to gain an understanding of what it takes to move up the corporate ladder. In particular, a wonderful man named Jay Nussbaum will take you under his wing. But many in The Corporate Few will feel management is still missing the boat, that despite one or two of you getting quality attention, there is a need for more comprehensive mentoring. And you’ll believe you need to express yourselves in lockstep.

The regional vice president, another man who’ll teach you a great deal, will eventually ask, “You mean to tell me that nobody in this group can raise their hand and say they’ve been getting the kind of help you’re saying you need more of?”

The leadership — the white leadership — will look around, and then dead at you.

You’ll go along with the group.

It will hurt you to your heart that you acquiesced when you should have stood strong on principle and truth. You could have supported the group’s concerns while still acknowledging the excellent help you received. Instead, you will turn your back on men who had been good to you. In essence, you will lie.

I don’t care what the circumstances might be — you always stand on truth. No matter what the tide might be, no matter the trend or how the winds are blowing, you always stand on truth.

A mistake is an opportunity for those open to self-reflection, and you will make plenty. And they will make you better.

That moment at Xerox will strengthen a resolve to always use your voice when appropriate. One day, the NFL will find itself in a very public domestic violence crisis. After listening to hotline center calls from frightened, battered women, then again at the teenage hotline center next door, you will use your platform as the host of CBS’s The NFL Today and Thursday Night Football to speak about the role of men in ending domestic violence. You will challenge them to educate themselves on what healthy manhood is all about, orienting young guys in terms of treating women properly. While most will show support, some will think you are pontificating or taking away from the game. But when it’s the right thing to do, you speak out.

Work. Honesty. Truth. Integrity. Faith. This is the foundation your mom and dad will lay for you to build upon. So in that hospital room, with mom attached to machines, you can look at your brothers and sister, and together, make a decision.

It’s one you’ll be prepared for thanks to a faith yet to be realized. For a long time, you will believe that the definition of success is the accumulation of things, titles and influences. As a young professional, folks will look at you and say, “Oh, you must be doing okay.” You’ll have your sports car and nice clothes. You’ll be a single man with an apartment working in corporate America. You’ll buy into that for a while. But there will be an emptiness in your heart. You’ll know that there is more to life and will find yourself searching for what that “more” is. Eventually, you’ll understand the absolute bedrock foundation is an understanding that God is real, and that you must do everything possible to understand Him as much as you can.

“The Lord will either provide a miracle and mom will revive, or she will pass on.”

You will whisper in mom’s ear, knowing she can hear you despite what the doctors might insist, “Mom, if you want to go home and be with the Lord, it’s okay. We’re going to be fine. You’ve taught us well, and we will continue on from here.”

Shortly after, mom will pass away.

The years afterward will be hard. Two years later, after finally undergoing the necessary counseling with your pastor to face your aching heart, it will hit you like a ton of bricks. Every ounce of liquid in your body will be let out, crying. But you will also be okay, and because you honored the foundation laid for you, you will continue carrying that baton for your family.

After all, you are — so proudly — a mama’s boy.

James Brown hosts CBS’s The NFL Today and Thursday Night Football on CBS and NFL Network. He also serves as a Special Correspondent to CBS News. James has been a broadcaster for over 30 years.