All the ’80s babies out there will know exactly what I’m talking about when I tell this story. The early-’90s babies, too. Basically, if you grew up without the internet, then you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Every Saturday morning, my family would go to the grocery store, and I only had one thing on my mind. I’d hop up onto the front of the cart like I was the captain of a pirate ship or something, and I’d point my mom in the direction of Aisle 9.
But she wasn’t having it. First we had to get the boring stuff. Veggies. Bread. You know, all that stuff.
Then we’d finally get to Aisle 9, and it was on.
The greatest aisle in the world.
The cereal aisle.
Before the internet, if you were obsessed with sports the cereal aisle was everything. Maybe all the millennials out there won’t totally understand what I mean. But in the early ’90s, me and my brother used to rush down the cereal aisle looking for the orange boxes. It was a thing, man. It was a huge deal. We’d be running down the aisle, like, “WHO’S ON THE WHEATIES BOX?”
Actually, if I’m remembering it right, Ken Griffey Jr. was on the blue Honey Frosted Wheaties box. Man, I’d be begging my mom to let me get the Honey Frosted just so I could put the box up on display in my room.
Remember the MJ Space Jam box from 1996? That one was a classic.
I can’t really explain the feeling that it used to give me. I guess it also has something to do with memories of my family. We used to sit around the table in the morning, before school, or before baseball games, and we’d set up the box in front of us. You know what I mean? You’d always make sure the front of the box was facing you so that you could look at MJ hitting “the Shot” while you ate your breakfast. I see these kids now and they got the spoon in one hand and they’re playing games on an iPhone with the other hand.
But back in the day, we’d just sit there and look at a picture of MJ for 10 minutes, like … Man, some day. Some day that’s gonna be me.
Actually, when I was young, my dream was to be Junior. I was all about baseball. So I’d be standing in front of the mirror with the hat on backwards, trying to mimic that classic swing.
Football was just a thing I messed around with between Little League tripleheaders — just launching the old Wilson TDY to my buddies. I kept asking my parents to let me play in middle school, and finally they let me go out for a practice. I wanted to play quarterback, but there was already a really good QB, and he was going to start no matter what.
But then something pretty crazy happened. During the the very first game, on the very first play, I’m sitting on the bench and the quarterback takes a nasty hit and ruptures his spleen. Down for the count. The coaches were like, “Russ! You’re in! Let’s go!”
And I didn’t know any of the plays. Nothing. I had only been to one practice. It’s funny — I don’t care if you’re 12 years old or if you’re 29 years old — the feeling is exactly the same … you’re in the huddle and there’s 10 guys looking you right in the eyes, like, O.K., what’s the plan?
I had no idea. So I had to fake it. I did what I saw in the movies. I bent down and started drawing up plays in the dirt, literally.
We won like 56–14.
I don’t care if you’re 12 years old or if you’re 29 years old — the feeling is exactly the same.
From that day, I wanted to be a quarterback. I wanted to play in the NFL. I wanted win the Super Bowl. It wasn’t even a dream. It was more like, I’m going to do this.
The only problem was, I kept waiting for the growth spurt, and it never really came. By the end of high school, I was really good, but I was still a too-small African-American quarterback. And when you’re a too-small African-American quarterback, there are always going to be people who are going to say, “What about another position?”
But I owe my father so much, because he used to tell me three words that shaped the way I thought about my entire life. Just three simple words — but they meant everything to me. Whenever someone was doubting me, or I was doubting myself, he used to say, “Why not you?”
People are going to tell you no. People are going to say you can’t. That’s just the way life works. And if I didn’t have my dad, maybe I would’ve listened to those people. But my dad planted that fundamental thought in my head, and it’s the most powerful thing that happened in my life.
Why not you?
Why can’t you be a D-I quarterback?
Why can’t you play in the NFL?
Why can’t you play for the Yankees?
Why can’t you live your dreams?
It might sound simple, but when you’re a kid, that’s a really, really powerful thing to hear. I’ll never forget when I got to NC State my freshman year and the coaches wanted me to move to safety. They thought I was too small to play quarterback. We had a meeting, and I told them honestly: “I’m going to play quarterback here. I’m going to make All-ACC. I’m going to play quarterback in the NFL. I’m going to win multiple Super Bowls. And hopefully I’m going to be in the Hall of Fame someday. Those are my goals.”
I was 18 years old. It wasn’t about being arrogant. I just had to stand up for myself, and for my dreams.
I ending up winning the starting job, and I made the All-ACC team, and I was on my way to accomplishing a lot of my goals. But three years later, I was faced with the hardest moment of my life. My father was on his deathbed, and I was standing outside his hospital room with my mother. He had been fighting for a really long time. He had held on long enough to see me reach so many of my dreams. He had held on to see me get drafted into the major leagues, and to see me finish my college degree, which was so important to him and my mom. He even got to see my brother get married. He held on for his family.
I’ll never forget it … I was standing right outside his room with my mother, and we were talking about family, and about faith, and about life … and it was like the spirit came between us. We had a feeling at the same time. Like, We have to go back and be with dad.
I turned around and the first thing I did was look into the room at the EKG monitor. It was like a habit. He was doing fine. Everything was normal.
I took one step into the room, and I said the words, “Dad, I’m here.” And at that exact moment, the line went flat, and I heard the noise …
You know … people tell you all the time, “Your life can change in an instant. You have to make the most of every second.”
But until you experience a loss like that, it’s really hard to understand what that means. My entire life changed with one step. I lost my dad when I was 21 years old. But those 21 years shaped me in every way that you can imagine. And even in death, my father taught me an extremely important lesson about the power of love, and the power of dreams, and the power of the time we have on earth.
It’s not long.
It’s always shorter than we think.
So why not you?
The most important gift we can give our children is the belief that no matter who they are, and no matter what their circumstances, they can do anything. The reason that I’m sharing all this is because the other day, I found out something that gave me goose bumps. Life moves so fast that it’s pretty rare that you have a moment when you take a step back and think about how far you’ve come, and all the people who helped you get there.
But then the other day, I got a text, and it put it all into perspective.
It said, “Hey Russ, guess what? You’re going to be on the Wheaties box.”
It took me back. Way, way back. Back to the days of playing one-on-one football with my brother out in the snow. Back to the days of rocking the backwards baseball cap like Junior. Back to the days of hopping on the front of the grocery cart and having my mom push me around the store.
Now that I’m a father myself, I have a new appreciation for the idea that my father put into my head when I was a kid. I truly understand how powerful it is. He convinced a too-small African-American wannabe NFL quarterback to look at a picture on a cereal box and think, “Why not me?”
It’s still the greatest gift I’ve ever received.