Dear NFL GMs,
Everything you need to know about me you can learn by going back to when I was eight years old.
So let me take you there.
It was a Friday night in St. Petersburg, Florida, and I was sleeping — or at least I was trying to. My mind was going crazy because my twin brother, Shaquill, and I had a football game the next morning. He was in the room with me, and he couldn’t sleep either, because if we won the next day, we’d be in the playoffs. I had my covers pulled up over my royal blue home jersey — that’s right, I was sleeping in it. When I was a kid, I always slept in my football jersey the night before a game. That’s how ready I was to play every Saturday.
So the next morning, when we got to the field — since it was youth football and there were weight restrictions — we had to weigh in. And I don’t know if they still do it this way, but back then, each coach would weight the opposing team’s players, and if you were too heavy or too light, you weren’t eligible to play. I had to drop a couple of pounds to make weight for that game, and I had weighed myself the night before and again that morning, so I knew I was good to go.
But when the opposing coach weighed me, he said I was too heavy.
He told me I couldn’t play.
So I was heartbroken, right? I mean, I was devastated. My coach put his arm around me, told me everything was gonna be O.K. and took me back into our locker room and weighed me himself.
This time, I was not overweight.
I was thinking the other coach’s scale must be broken or something. It didn’t even occur to me that somebody might deliberately try to keep me off the football field. I was just a little kid, you know? Too young to understand that people got motives.
So my coach took me back over to the guy who weighed me in so we could do it again, and — now, this is a long time ago, so I don’t remember exactly what was said, but basically, the opposing coach said that it wasn’t about my weight.
It was about my hand.
He said I shouldn’t have been allowed to play football at all.
Because football is for two-handed players.
Mind you, I didn’t even know this guy. So I didn’t know why he had a problem with me playing. I had been playing for a few years and I was pretty good, so maybe he just wanted to keep one of our team’s better players off the field so his team had a better chance to win. I honestly don’t know.
But this was the first time I ever had to deal with somebody telling me I shouldn’t — or couldn’t — do something because of my hand. Like I was defective or something. Like I didn’t belong.
And that was the moment I realized I was always going to have to prove people wrong.
I’m not going to get into an explanation of the condition I was born with that prevented the fingers of my left hand from fully developing. Or talk about the time when I was four years old and I tried to cut my own fingers off with a kitchen knife because I was in constant pain. Or about when I got my left hand amputated shortly after. That’s stuff you probably already know about anyway — and if you don’t, you can Google it. The story is out there.
And it’s not some sob story or anything like that. It’s not even a sad story — at least not to me.
It’s just … my story.
I’m blessed to have thick skin. But I’m even more blessed to have a family that never let me make excuses and who raised me to never listen to anybody who told me I couldn’t do something — especially because of my hand.
My dad used to build all kinds of contraptions to help me lift weights. We had this one thing — we called it “the book,” and it was basically a piece of wood wrapped up in some cloth that I would hold up against the bar with my left arm when I bench pressed so my arms would be even. We had another block that I used for stuff like dips and push-ups, and I had chains and other straps to hold dumbbells for things like curls and shrugs.
And my dad used to work me, Shaquill and our older brother, Andre, hard.
In our backyard, we had a couple of stacks of cinder blocks with a stick across the top, like a hurdle. And when we would run routes, we would have to jump over the hurdle and do other obstacles mid-route. Then my dad would throw us the ball, and he’d throw it hard, right at our chest. And every time we dropped it, he would say, “Nothing comes easy.”
That was kind of his motto — not just for me, but for all of us.
Nothing comes easy.
Man … I hated those workouts. There were definitely times when I wanted to quit. Sometimes, when my dad threw the ball so hard that it bounced off my chest or it hit me in the face, I would be like, “I don’t wanna do this anymore.”
But he never let me quit.
“You’ll thank me one day,” he’d say.
At the time, I didn’t believe him. Now, I understand, and I thank him every chance I get, because all that work in the backyard helped me to develop the mentality that I can handle anything — that whatever you come at me with, I can come back at you even harder.
That’s what I did that day when that youth coach told me I shouldn’t be playing football.
I ended up being allowed to play that day, and I remember it like it was yesterday. It was near the end of the game, and we were ahead. I was on defense, playing linebacker. The outside receiver ran a slant route, and I read the play, jumped the route, dove in the air and caught the ball, flipping over onto my back to secure it before I hit the ground. It was the first time I had ever intercepted a pass in a game, and it basically sealed the win for us and sent us to the playoffs.
I got up and ran off the field, holding the ball up in the air with my one good hand and thinking that from that moment forward, nobody was ever going to tell me that I didn’t belong on a football field.
And nobody was ever going to tell me that I couldn’t be great.
Nobody was ever going to tell me that I didn’t belong on a football field. And nobody was ever going to tell me that I couldn’t be great.
I rode that mentality all the way through high school.
I got picked on because of my hand and I had guys trash-talk me and stuff like that, but most of the time, I just ignored it. On the football field, I got off to kind of a slow start adjusting to the high school game, but eventually I grew to be a leader and a team captain.
But right here, instead of talking about the success I’ve had, I think I would rather tell you about some of the more difficult times in my life — the lowest points. Because I think that’s when true character shows. That’s when you find out who people really are — what they’re really made of.
And the lowest points for me came when I was in college.
I went to UCF thinking I was going to play as a freshman, and everybody was going to know my name. I was so confident.
But it wasn’t like that at all.
My freshman year, I got redshirted. The following year, I played well in the spring and worked my way up to second string on the depth chart.
Then, right before the season-opener against Penn State, I got bumped down to third string.
The next week, I got moved to the scout team.
And nobody told me why.
Whenever I asked one of the coaches why I was being demoted, they just said things like, “Keep working,” and, “Stay focused,” and, “Your time will come.”
So that’s basically what I did for my first three years at UCF.
I think the hardest part about those first few years was watching Shaquill play on Saturdays. We’ve always told each other since we were kids that no matter what either of us is doing, we live through each other. His success is my success, and vice versa. And we meant that.
I didn’t travel with the team much those first few years. When it came time for the team to go on the road, my brother and our two roommates, who were also on the team, all went. So on Saturdays, it was just me, alone in our dorm room watching the game. Sometimes the game wasn’t even on ESPN or FOX or anything, so I had to stream it on my laptop. I’d be sitting there on the couch, alone, the whole dorm silent except for the game commentary as I was watching my brother play … and living through him.
I used to tell my mom all the time that college was a negative place for me. Not UCF in general — I love my school and I’ll represent it forever. It was just … that dorm room, man.
Unit 412, Room C.
I spent so much time those first three years in Orlando sitting in that room, wondering why I wasn’t getting an opportunity to play on Saturdays. It got to the point where that dorm was just so full of negative vibes, because I pretty much kept everything to myself. I didn’t really talk to anybody about what I was feeling — especially not to Shaquill.
It’s a tough spot to be in, right? I mean, my twin brother was doing his thing. The dream was happening for him, and he was earning every single bit of it, working hard and showing out on the field.
I wanted that for myself so badly, and even though I felt like I was good enough, and I was doing everything my coaches asked me to, I wasn’t even getting an opportunity. And the last thing I wanted to do was dump all my negativity on Shaquill and bring him down. So I made sure I was always positive around him. I never talked to him about how I was feeling those first three years.
The lowest of the lows was probably the summer before my third season, when the coaches had most of the guys stay in Orlando to work out while other guys went home for the summer.
They kept Shaquill at UCF for the summer.
They sent me home to St. Petersburg.
It was the first time Shaquill and I had ever really been apart.
I spent that summer working with my dad and Andre. My dad has a tow truck, so I would wake up at 7 a.m. and go to work with him, towing cars. I would get off around 6 p.m. and go to my old high school to work out with the track team, then I’d meet up with Andre around 8 p.m. and work with him until midnight, cleaning offices at the local Chevy dealership.
I did that every day, Monday through Saturday, for the entire summer.
I remember one time, when I was working with my dad, we towed this one guy’s car, and when we dropped it off, the guy pulled a five-dollar bill out of his pocket and went to hand it to me. But before I took it, he pulled it back and ripped it in half. He gave me one half and put the other half back in his pocket. I didn’t know if I was supposed to laugh or if I should have been mad. I just kind of looked at the guy.
He looked back at me and said, “Keep on working, son. Because nothing comes easy.”
I still have that ripped-up five-dollar bill somewhere at my parents’ house because I never want to forget what that guy said to me that day — it was the same thing my dad always used to say when I was a kid.
Nothing comes easy.
And looking back, at the time, I think I needed to be reminded of that. Because if sitting in my dorm room alone and watching games on my laptop was a low point, towing cars and cleaning out trash cans in those office cubicles at night was even worse.
Honestly, that summer was the first and only time since I was a little kid jumping hurdles and trying to catch rockets from my dad in the backyard that I thought about quitting football.
Those were pretty dark times for me.
Then, after I went back to UCF for my third season and we went 0–12, Coach Frost came in and brought me back into the light.
You probably know what happened next: Over the next two seasons, Coach Frost turned an 0–12 program into an undefeated, national championship team. (That’s right, I said national championship team. And nobody can convince me otherwise.)
Along the way, he gave me the opportunity I had been waiting for ever since I first arrived at UCF.
And I took advantage of it.
I think that what I did on the field, especially this past season, speaks for itself. So I don’t feel like I need to get into all that. I’ll let the tape do the talking.
Besides, I don’t define myself by my successes.
I define myself by adversity, and how I’ve persevered.
I don’t sleep in my jersey the night before games anymore. But I did sleep at the football facility for basically the whole preseason camp this last season. I went out and bought a blow-up mattress and a comforter, and then I went to Publix and stocked up on drinks and snacks and stuff so I had everything I needed. And instead of going back and forth to my dorm during camp, I slept at the football facility and lifted weights and watched extra film at night.
I just knew it was going to be my last camp at UCF, so I wanted to get the full experience, you know?
I just think that as guys progress through their football careers, they start thinking about the game differently. They start thinking about getting their college paid for, or making it to the NFL so they can take care of their families. They start looking at it as a job — and they should, because to excel at the highest levels, you have to take the game seriously. It’s a big responsibility.
But I think some guys forget about why they started playing back when they were kids — how they loved the game so much that they’d sleep in their jersey the night before a game.
I started playing football because I loved it. And yeah, just like anybody else, my view of the game has definitely changed as I’ve gotten older.
But it hasn’t turned into a job or an obligation.
It’s developed into a purpose.
I feel like all the boys and girls out there with birth defects … we have our own little nation, and we’ve got to support each other.
I’ve had people doubt me my whole life, and I know that there are a lot of kids out there with various deformities or birth defects or whatever labels people want to put on them, and they’re going to be doubted, too. And I’m convinced that God has put me on this earth for a reason, and that reason is to show people that it doesn’t matter what anybody else says, because people are going to doubt you regardless. That’s a fact of life for everybody, but especially for those with birth defects or other so-called disabilities.
The important thing is that you don’t doubt yourself.
I feel like all the boys and girls out there with birth defects … we have our own little nation, and we’ve got to support each other, because everybody in this world deserves to show what they can do without anybody telling them they can’t.
I know there are some scouts and coaches — and even some of you GMs out there — who are probably doubting me, and that’s O.K. I get it. I only have one hand, and because of that, there have always been people who have questioned whether or not I could play this game.
If you’re one of those GMs who believes that I can play in the NFL, I just want to say thank you. I appreciate you, and I’m excited for the opportunity to play for you and prove you right.
And if one you’re of those who is doubting me … well, I want to thank you, too. Because you’re what keeps me motivated every day to work hard and play even harder.
Back when I was eight years old, I played because I loved the game. I still do. But now, I also play because I believe it’s my purpose. I know that it won’t come easy. Nothing comes easy. But I will fulfill that purpose. I have no doubt.
University of Central Florida
2017 National Champions (13–0)