I have three incredible sons. When each was born, I laid them in their crib, and next to them, I placed a teddy bear. A Michigan Wolverines teddy bear. Then I reached down, pressed the teddy bear’s hand, and the little band inside its belly played the Michigan fight song, The Victors.
Whispering along, I’d sing:
Hail! to the victors valiant
Hail! to the conqu’ring heroes
Hail! Hail! to Michigan,
the champions of the West!
That was the first song my boys ever heard.
New dads do crazy things …
When you’re a new father — and you think you might have a son — you feel like you have a pretty good idea of what you want to provide for him. First, you want to protect him — guard him from the mistakes you made and shield him from all the bad things in this world. Second, you want to give him all the good things you had in life — the experiences you feel lucky to have had and that shaped you into the man you are.
And if you were me — and I’m sure it’s like this for most athletes — you want him to play your sport and go to your alma mater. You want him to continue your legacy.
But then life happens. Over time, you watch him grow and develop into a young man. A young man of his own. And that becomes what you want him to be. His own man.
With Tyrone Jr., my eldest son, I got the best of both worlds.
We all know “that dad.” The one who’s hanging on to the past. The one who’s living vicariously through his kids. The one who pushes his kids so hard that they lose the love for the game he loves before they even have a chance to truly develop. I didn’t want to be that dad. So there was a struggle in our house for years. My wife always wanted me to go out and coach my boys.
“You played basketball, football and baseball. Why don’t you go coach the kids?”
“No,” I’d say. “I’ll go play with the kids. But I won’t coach them. I just wanna be ‘dad.’ ”
I wanted to be a voice in my boys’ lives, but I didn’t want to be the only voice. I always thought it was important for them to take coaching from someone else — learn how to be coached and not to look at their dad as someone who’s always coaching them or coming down hard on them. The last thing I wanted when I walked out into the yard was to have my boys think … Here comes dad. Put the ball down! Hide!
So we had a five-minute rule. After every game my boys played, we’d sit in the car and talk about the game — for five minutes. That’s it. After that, we’d talk about other things. I didn’t want every waking moment in our lives built around sports. I didn’t want that to be our only common interest.
I also didn’t want them to look at my on-field successes — at Michigan or in the NFL — and compare themselves to me or feel the weight of continuing my legacy. I wanted them to carve their own paths.
I remember when Tyrone Jr. — we call him T.J. — was in fifth grade. He was maybe 5’11” and he wanted to play AAU basketball. I wasn’t going to coach him, but I did have one piece of advice.
“I’ve been 6’1” since the sixth grade,” I told him. “I’m basically the same height today as I was when I was your age. If you’re going to play basketball, you need to learn the little-man skills. Learn how to dribble. Learn how to pass the ball. Because you could stop growing, and those will be the skills that will carry you later on.”
There’s some height on my wife’s side of the family — my sons’ grandfather and uncle are 6’6’’ and 6’7’’ — so there was a chance T.J. would get taller. And secretly, I was hoping he would.
Then, one day later that year, I was at home in our kitchen talking to my wife, and T.J. came walking through. Leaning down and resting my elbows on the kitchen counter, I looked up at him. Then, I stood up straight, and I was still looking up at him. That 5’11 fifth-grader somehow shot up to 6’2’’.
“Yesssss!” I said with a fist-pump.
My wife noticed I was celebrating and said, “Oh, you’re excited because he’s getting taller for basketball?”
But that wasn’t it. I was excited because he was outgrowing the running back position — the position where I made a name for myself. The way I saw it, if T.J. played a different position, he’d never have to live up to a particular legacy. He could follow my lead without following my footsteps. It felt like the first step in him carving his own legacy.
That realization was one of my happiest moments in watching his growth. Literally.
I view the college years as some of the most crucial in a young person’s life. I call it “walking through the woods.” It’s where you start to define who you are and what you are. That’s how it was for me when I went to the University of Michigan in the early ‘90s. When it came time for T.J. to decide on what college he wanted to attend, it was a roller coaster for me. I had just joined the Michigan coaching staff as running backs coach a month before he was set to make his decision, and he had a few offers from different schools.
That young father standing over his son’s crib whispering the words to The Victors wanted him to choose Michigan. Continue the legacy. Hail!
But a more mature side of me — the one who wants his son to blaze his own trail and carve his own legacy — didn’t care where his son went. He just wanted him to make the decision that was right for him.
So when he chose to attend Michigan and wear the Winged Helmet, I was excited, but also worried. I thought, Did he sit down and go through the pros and cons and choose the school that’s best for him, or did he choose Michigan because of me?
I’ve always thought about Michael Jordan’s kids. What in the world would it feel like to be MJ’s child? Or Walter Payton. How do you follow in those footsteps? How do you ever live up to that?
Now, I’m no Walter Payton, and I’m definitely no Michael Jordan. But it all goes back to wanting my son to create his own legacy. It’s hard enough for a young man to figure out who he is without having a constant reminder of what he’s being compared to.
At the end of the day, only T.J. will know if he made the right decision — the decision that was best for him. Because as a dad, I can’t make decisions for him. I can only provide him with the guidance and knowledge required to make good decisions. The rest is up to him.
And I trust his judgment.
It was 2002 and the Raiders training camp was a couple of weeks away. I was going into my eighth season in the NFL. Al Davis sat in his office chair and I sat on the other side of his desk.
“I’m going to retire,” I said.
His response was quick and emphatic.
“ … What do you mean, No?”
“No,” he said. “I need you. We’re about to make an incredible run. I need you in the locker room. I need you on the field. I need you to help get this team where it needs to be.”
Then Mr. Davis proceeded to name retired veterans: Tim Brown, Jerry Rice, Steve Wisniewski, Eric Allen, Andre Rison — all of whom I used to tease for making the “All-Tecmo Bowl team,” from a video game I played in high school. By the time I arrived in Oakland, they were the old guys. “The veterans.” “The leaders.” Al made me realize with the vets gone, I was the veteran. I was one of the old guys. And he was right. You need guys like that in a locker room.
Al Davis was a guy who didn’t take “No” for an answer. I signed a new deal, understanding that my time in the NFL was winding down. I began to look ahead and put my future in order.
I’m always writing things down. Notes. Ideas. Reminders. After I signed that new deal, I was still thinking forward to what my life would be like once I retired. I wrote down five things I wanted to do — five goals that I could really look forward to after my playing days were over.
This is exactly what I wrote down:
- Go back to the University of Michigan and coach track.
- Go back to my high school and be the head football and track coach.
- Coach in the NFL.
- Go back to Michigan and coach football.
- Be a college head coach.
Three years later, I retired from the NFL. Since then, I’ve checked off the first four of those goals on that list, in order. The only one left is to be a head college football coach. It’s almost spooky to look back at that list today and think about how things have unfolded. I completed No. 4 on that list when I came back to coach football at Michigan just a month before T.J. decided to attend the university. The experience has allowed me to have a front-row seat to watch his development on and off the field. To watch him “walk through the woods.”
When I go out to practice every day and I see T.J. in the Winged Helmet, I don’t get the nostalgia of, Oh wow, he’s in Michigan gear. My son is a Michigan Man. I’m looking at it strictly from a dad’s perspective. I’m the running backs coach and he’s a tight end. I’m not his coach. When he comes to me for life advice and to talk about the transition to being a college football player and student, I’m here for him, like any dad would be. When he comes to me with a football question, or if I notice he has a poor practice, I don’t step in and coach him. I tell him to go see his tight ends coach.
A Michigan Man is a lot of things. He’s hard-working. He’s driven. He’s loyal. He carries himself with pride and dignity. I learned what it means to be a Michigan Man when I played here in the early ‘90s. Now, I’m passing those lessons on to my children.
T.J. comes to work every day in a Michigan uniform and goes to class every day in the Michigan halls — the same halls I walked when I was a student here. He’s a Michigan Man. But my other two sons — Tyrique and Terius, who both play high school football here in Ann Arbor — also have a little Michigan Man in them, whether they attend Michigan or not.
Because that’s how I’ve raised them.
Coach Kevin Tolbert, the Michigan strength coach, has these workouts called Get Right Sundays. As a redshirt freshman, T.J. doesn’t travel with the team for road games, so he stays back in Ann Arbor and does these workouts. The first time he did one, he came into practice the following Monday, and came to me and said, “Dad, I can’t move. How does Coach Tolbert expect me to move when he killed me with yesterday’s workout?”
I answered him the same way I’d answer any player.
“Welcome to college football, son.”