Letter to My Younger Self

Dear Lenny,

Right now you’re only eight years old, so you don’t really know what your body is capable of. You know that you can run, you know that you can jump, and you know that you like to win. That’s actually something you’re just discovering in yourself now. Whether you’re playing basketball, chess or backgammon, you’re competing as hard as you can. There’s a reason the kids in the schoolyard are choosing you to be on their team. You don’t realize it now, but one day that drive you have inside of you is going to guide you to places you can’t even imagine.

When you start playing organized sports, your coaches are going to notice your natural ability and determination. And it’s going to dawn on you that this is what you want to pursue for a living. You’ll try to convince your dad that you’ll be dunking on guys on TV one day, but he understands the reality that right now you’re in tiny Franklin, Louisiana, living nine miles from the Gulf of Mexico. As it is, you couldn’t be much further from the bright lights of New York City (but more on that later). In Dad’s view, this is a farfetched dream. But once you convince him to come watch you play in a championship game for your basketball league, his opinion will change. When the trophies start piling up, he’ll be as convinced as you are that you’re going to make it one day.

Early on, basketball will be your sport. The only problem is that you won’t be able to make it through a full game without fouling out. It isn’t that the refs are being too hard on you (although that’s an easy excuse), but rather that you’re playing the wrong sport. When you’re 14 years old, one of your basketball coaches, Edgar Bario, is going to deliver a message that will leave a great impression on you. He’ll say, “Lenny: you’re tough, you’re smart, you’re athletic and you’re willing to compete. Those are the four things you need to really be successful in sports,” and then he’ll look you in the eye. “You got it, son. You got it. You just need to learn how to use it — when to turn it on and when to turn it off.” He knows you have promise at basketball, but Coach Bario will encourage you to contact the coaches of the football team, because he thinks you can help them out.

He’s right.

Up until high school, you’ll look at football just as an excuse to stay in shape while hitting people you don’t like. But football is your opportunity, Lenny. It’s what you were meant to do. You look up to guys like Clinton Burrell and Lyman White, who are among those special few athletes who played football at Franklin High School and went on to get drafted by the NFL. I’m here to tell you that if you follow the right path, you’re going to be mentioned right alongside them one day. You got it, son.

That’s not to say it will be easy. You’re going to have to make tremendous sacrifices, some you aren’t even conscious of at the time. But below is the best advice I have for you to live the life you’re hoping for.

For starters, college is going to be a tremendous growth period for you. Bear Bryant is going to do all he can to try to make you a member of the Crimson Tide, but staying home to play at LSU will be one of the best decisions you ever make. Your friends there are going to call you Bootsy, after a member of a band you’re going to really dig called the Parliament Funkadelic. As far as nicknames go, it’s not so bad.

You should think of LSU as a springboard to whatever success you’re hoping to achieve. If you put in the work there, you’ll transform from being a kid with a dream to becoming a man with an objective. The key is to keep moving forward. You know if you blow this, you’ll end up being an old man in Franklin, sitting on the corner talking about woulda, coulda, shoulda. As long as you’re green, you’ll continue to grow, and when you think you’re ripe, you’ll start to rot. Never feel ripe.

Your approach to school, sports and relationships should be consistent. Never think you’re better than anybody else. The better person never has to brag or boast about it. If you’re the better man, it will come out naturally. It’s in your DNA. Keeping that ego in check is what makes you a professional.

And speaking of being a professional, when you do finally make it to the NFL, don’t put your jersey number and name on the license plate of your car. Your teammates are going to tear into you for that one! C’mon Lenny, you should know better than that. You’re a rookie with the New York Giants, so I get that you’re excited, but you still have no concept of the sacrifices it takes to call yourself a professional football player. You’ll learn all about those in due time.

While you’re with the Giants, you’re going to meet this guy from Williamsburg, Virginia. His name is Lawrence, but most people will know him by LT. He’s a little crazy now, but the two of you have a lot in common. He also came up from a two-parent household, a strong African-American family. The guy is as talented as any athlete you’ll ever meet and he’s one hell of a competitor. But when he comes into your life — and this is important — just try to compete with him on the same level. Don’t try to outplay him, outperform him, or outdo him at anything. Just compete with him. By doing that, the two of you will make your team much better and elevate each other’s talents to another level.

When it all comes together for you, you’re going to be a damn fine football player.

In 1984, you’re going to toss Dwayne Crutchfield of the Rams backwards for a 3-yard loss to help seal a playoff win for the Giants. Trust your mind on that play. The whole stadium will think the ball is going to Eric Dickerson, but your film preparation will tip you off on the fact that Crutchfield is getting the carry. This is what’s possible when you combine your talents with preparation. It’s in those big moments where you’ll perform your best. That win is going to change the entire outlook for the franchise, and two years later, you’re going to celebrate your first Super Bowl victory. You’re going to have great memories of that ticker-tape parade thrown for the team by the fans.

These amazing moments are waiting for you, but it’s worth remembering that to whom much is given, much is expected, Lenny. Your first year in the league, you aren’t going to have the right approach, and you’re going to pay for it as a result. Your reputation is an easy thing to seal, and a near impossible thing to change. Your coaches are going to get the wrong impression of your attitude early on and try to break you as a result. Many practices will be like a boot camp with a ruthless drill sergeant trying to get you to quit. There will be times when you’re forced to battle in contact drills repeatedly as other players are rotated in and out. Two or three other groups will take turns, and you’ll still be involved in the drill. Is that fair practice? No, but that’s what they’ll do to you, because they can get away with it. It’ll force you to compete and push yourself further than you thought you were capable of. As a result, you’ll turn into a great football player, but you’ll also damage your brain in an irreparable way.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy.It probably looks like a big confusing word to you now, but it’s going to become a term that haunts you. It’s a disease that affects brain function as a result of multiple hard hits to the head and concussions — and later in your life you’ll be diagnosed with it. You won’t even be aware of the damage you’re causing at the time. But if you knew ahead of time that all those two-a-day practices spent banging your head like an animal would put you in a position to develop CTE, you might’ve taken a different approach to the game and a different approach to how hard and how tough you practiced as a professional. You’ll wish your teams would’ve practiced a lot smarter, and took better care of the players’ bodies, because that damage you’ll inflict on each other will add up.

So given the fact that you now know the damage football will cause, do you still think you should play?

When you weigh the consequences versus the opportunities, you’ll conclude it was worth it.  Not only did football provide you with the experiences I’ve listed above, but it will help you take care of your family and put your siblings through college.  The things football will do to your body are terrible, but what it will help facilitate for those around you will leave you with no regrets about your decision.  Even if you do end up as that guy sitting on the corner because of all that you’ve had to endure, you won’t be wondering woulda, coulda, shoulda.

You got it, son. You got it.

-Leonard Marshall

Leonard Marshall played in the NFL for 11 seasons, during which he accumulated 83.5 sacks and two Super Bowl titles. He is now an entrepreneur and serves on the National Diversity Advisory Board at his alma mater, Louisiana State University.