We were about to land at Waukesha County Airport, and I sat up for just a second to catch a glimpse of my hometown from the sky. They had made a bed for me on the plane because after my surgery, I wasn’t supposed to be in a seated position for long periods of time.
As the wheels touched down, I remember thinking, Man, I needed this.
Waiting there at terminal for me was Mr. Keefe, husband of the legendary Mrs. Keefe, my fourth grade teacher. I wasn’t allowed to drive, and my hometown isn’t exactly an Uber hotbed, so Mr. Keefe picked me up no questions asked.
It was the beginning of this fall. Normally, I never get to be home in the fall. The leaves were changing. The air was crisp. The nostalgia came over me. As we drove through my hometown, I thought about everything that had happened over the past year.
One broken hand.
One staph infection.
Two torn abs.
Three torn adductor muscles.
One herniated disc. (Twice).
That was my 2015 season. Believe it or not, the scariest was probably the staph infection.
One Friday night last season, I noticed some weird bumps on my knee. I thought it was a rash, so I went and asked our trainer if he had any cream.
He looked at my knee and said, “That looks really bad. We have to get you to the hospital right now.”
I thought he was joking at first. But then I could see in his face that he was serious and actually a bit panicked. As it turned out, he saved me in a big way. At the hospital, they immediately put me on three hours of the strongest antibiotic IVs. I went straight from the hospital to the team plane and we flew to Jacksonville. Once we landed, there were two more hours of antibiotics that night and two more the next morning before the game. The medicine had completely drained me, but I played — and we won.
I remember walking into the locker room after the game and just collapsing on the training table. My body was completely shot, with nothing left to give. As the trainers hooked me up to an IV, one of the guys walking past joked, “You alive?” Later that day on the flight back to Houston, one of the team doctors told me that if our trainer hadn’t recognized the problem so quickly, I could have lost my leg.
People deal with injuries and illnesses every day. In my mind, I was just doing my job, and what anybody would do if they were in my shoes. Unfortunately, that was the start of a pretty dark year for me. We won the division and made the playoffs despite starting four different quarterbacks, but after the season, my body was a mess.
In January, I had surgery to reconstruct the adductors and abs. Then in July, I had another surgery to fix the herniated disc. Then in September, three games into the 2016 season, I had another surgery to fix the reherniation of the same disc. I guess this was my body telling me, “Nice try,” when I pushed the pace of my return.
Some people started to wonder if I was done.
There was a time when I genuinely wondered, “Am I done?”
I didn’t feel like myself. I had never even had one major surgery before, much less three in one year. To have the game taken away from me three times — each time left to wonder if I would ever be the same again — that was hard. That was the first time the word retirement had ever crept into my head.
Then I went home.
Since that last surgery, I’ve spent the past two months recovering back in Wisconsin. Not allowed to play football, not allowed to train, not allowed to do anything more than walk. There were no interviews, no social media, no commercials, no appearances, no anything. For the first time in 18 years, I took a step back, away from everything.
I hadn’t had the months of October and November “open” on my calendar since the fourth grade. I was nine years old then, and in my town, you weren’t allowed to start playing tackle football until you were 10. Only one more year.
One Friday afternoon that fall, Mrs. Keefe walked the whole fourth grade class over to the Pewaukee High gym so that we could watch the homecoming pep rally for the football team. They introduced the players, one at a time, until they came to the last guy. The quarterback.
I didn’t need to hear his name, though. I knew exactly who he was. J.J. Boyke, number 5, starting quarterback of the Pewaukee Pirates.
You see, when you grow up in a small town dreaming of playing football, there’s no superstar in the world bigger than the varsity quarterback. Sure, I watched the Packers on TV, but I didn’t dream of being Brett Favre or Reggie White or Desmond Howard. Whatever was on TV was almost like make-believe. It didn’t seem possible. I dreamed of one thing: being starting quarterback for the Pirates.
I vividly remember standing in those bleachers at the pep rally, looking out at the packed gym, watching the football players and the cheerleaders pair off and do one of those choreographed dances while the band played. Everybody was cheering and having a blast.
I thought to myself, This is it. This is what I want to do. Whatever it takes.
One of the beautiful things about the post-surgery break was that it gave me the chance to go back to Pewaukee and watch the Pirates. Feuerstein Field is still sacred ground as far as my eyes are concerned. It doesn’t matter how many stadiums I play in, from the Big House to the Superdome, I will never forget the feeling I had when we would run onto that field wearing the red and black. I still remember running through the tunnel of cheerleaders for the first time in 5th grade and then scoring a 90-yard touchdown on the opening drive …
… Only to have it called back for holding. (No, I’m not still bitter or anything.)
When I started playing varsity ball, my best friend and I had the same game-day routine for almost three years. After school, we’d drive with the windows down blasting music, and we’d feel that fall chill in the air. That fall chill, to me, is still a signal to my brain that says, “It’s football season.”
We’d always drive to the same little Stop-N-Go gas station on the corner because they had a Friday special. Soda was only 25 cents a cup. Then we’d drive over to Noodles & Company to grab our pregame meal (what a great game-day nutrition plan this is shaping up to be). We’d take the noodles to-go and drive back to school for the pregame walk-through. But before we headed into the locker room, we’d stand by the fence near the north end zone eating our pasta, watching the pom squad warm up on the field and the janitor place the orange yard markers on the sidelines. Man, those were the times.
After the game, we’d either go to Denny’s for a late-night breakfast, or to a bonfire in somebody’s backyard. We’d rehash every play and every series. We’d talk about everything from that time Joe missed a block and literally yelled, “Look out!” to the quarterback, to the time Coach Iverson tried to Floyd Mayweather a metal locker at halftime and sprayed the whole first row of players with blood. We’d be so sore and so tired, but those nights were the best feeling in the world.
If you grew up playing in Texas, or California, or Florida, you probably had a slightly different routine, but it’s all the same feeling.
When I was in fourth grade, I wasn’t dreaming about money or fame or awards. I was just chasing that feeling.
So fast-forward 17 years later.
There I stood on that same field. This time as a 27-year-old with three Defensive Player of the Year awards and a hundred-million-dollar contract. I had traveled the world, starred in commercials, and eaten dinners with presidents. I had achieved more in my short life than I ever even knew was possible for someone from my hometown.
But as I stood there on that field, none of that mattered. At that moment, all I wanted to do was go back in time and be that kid again.
Just then, as I was reminiscing, a group of kids ran past where I was standing. One was wearing a 99 jersey with my name on the back and another was wearing shoes with my logo on them. They were running to the spot behind the bleachers where my friends and I used to play two-hand touch football. They picked sides and started up a game of their own.
It was like I could see it all in split-screen. On one side, my friends and I were running around on the lumpy grass underneath the old, rickety wooden bleachers, screaming at one another, “No way, you only got me with one hand!” On the other side, the kids were running around on the new asphalt underneath the nice, renovated bleachers, wearing Watt jerseys.
In that moment, I had a realization. I was actually overwhelmed by it. Football has been everything to me since I was 10 years old. For the past few months, all of that has been taken away. It’s been like a mini-retirement. And I realized that the money, the fame, the awards, the people talking about me on TV, none of that matters. None of those things have any effect on why I love this game and why I give everything I have to it.
Don’t get me wrong, those things are nice, and I appreciate how fortunate I am to make the kind of money I do and experience the things I get to experience, but that’s not what I crave. What I crave is that feeling of being completely and entirely spent. When you walk off the field at the end of a two-a-day in the middle of August drenched in sweat, completely exhausted. When you finish a 6 a.m. workout before school and you’re fighting to keep your eyes open in first period. When you sit around the bonfire after the game with your boys, and your body has nothing left. You’re almost numb. And you know you laid it all on the line.
That’s what I miss. It’s the pep rallies. It’s the music blasting on the drive to the game. It’s that first fall chill in the air.
Standing there watching those kids, all of that hit me.
Yes, over the last year, I’ve been through some dark times, and my body was beat up more than most people probably realize. But I’ve learned that a life without adversity is a boring life to live. I’ve experienced the highs, and I’ve experienced the lows, and both are better than living in the middle.
The kid in me is back.
Am I done?
I’m just getting started.