T he first time I played football, I pretty much hated it.
I was nine years old and my best friend, Sebastian Moore, and I joined the Mighty Men, the local youth team that practiced at Dunbar High School on the corner of 29th and King on the South Side of Chicago. Sebastian’s mom told us that going out for football would be a good way to keep busy and stay out of trouble. And so there we were on the first day of practice, standing in lines as we waited to perform mundane drills in the hot sun.
And these lines were long. There must have been 50 kids out there. We were standing around for what seemed like forever, then we would only get to carry the ball once or twice. It was boring. It was hot. And the coaches kept yelling at us. I wanted to quit.
When I got home, I told my mother I was done. Even though going out for football wasn’t even her idea, she wasn’t going to let me give up after just one practice. My mother is one of the toughest people I know — and I’ve come across a lot of actual drill sergeants. I don’t think she’s ever quit anything halfway through in her life. So she just gave me this look like, No, child. And then she said, “You’re going to practice tomorrow.”
So I went every day for the rest of the summer. And man, I was miserable.
But I stuck with it, and three years later, when I was in the seventh grade, I realized that I actually kind of liked football. Now that didn’t mean I was great at it. In fact, I was a pretty selfish player, only concerned about my own performance. I couldn’t stand it when my teammates would fumble the ball. One day at practice I decided I’d had enough. I got up in their faces and yelled, “How do you fumble the ball? All you gotta do is hold it! Stop letting people take it from you!”
And then on the next play … I fumbled. I was so mad at myself that I punched the ground, which was hard packed dirt. It hurt a little bit, but I didn’t think much of it. Luckily, my team recovered the ball. I was still fuming. But when we broke the huddle before our next play, I went to clap and a pain shot through my right hand. I took a handoff and couldn’t hold on to the ball. When I went to show my coach my hand after the play, the knuckle on my little finger was floating by my wrist. It was a boxer’s fracture.
Coach called my mom and she came to pick me up. She had been at the grocery store, and instead of taking me straight to the hospital, she went back to the store so she could finish shopping. She had me carrying water cases around behind the cart — she didn’t have much sympathy for my broken knuckle, especially after she found out how it had happened.
At the hospital the doctor made me look away while he pulled my finger out and popped it back into place — but I was still peeking. That really left an impression on me. I’m generally pretty calm, but as I watched my hand contort, I realized there weren’t many other things in life where making a mistake made me mad enough to punch the ground. It showed me just how much I cared — I was almost surprised by how much the game meant to me. That was the moment when I knew I would be a football player.
As I write this now, I’m so grateful that my mother made me stick with football. I never asked her why she didn’t just take me straight to the hospital after I broke my knuckle, but I’m pretty sure she was trying to teach me her kind of lesson: In order to be great at football, or anything else, you have to be able to persevere when the going gets tough.
If you want to understand me you have to start with my mother. Her name is Kizzy Collins. She’s one of the toughest people I’ve ever met.
She raised me as a single mom in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. It was rough. When I was a senior in high school, a friend of mine was shot and killed on his birthday. Too many kids that age from my neighborhood met the same fate. I could have easily gone down the wrong path, but there was no way my mom would let that happen.
She worked in the marketing department of the Chicago Tribune from eight to five every day. Then she would go to school to study marketing in the evenings and not come home until 10. We had a pitbull, Mecca, and it actually didn’t know her because she was never home. He barked at her one day because he didn’t recognize her, and she gave him away. Just like that. He was a nice dog, but like I said: My mom is a tough lady.
She came to all of my games on the weekends when I was in middle school and high school. And if I had a game on Saturday she’d cook food beforehand for the kids to eat after they were done playing — just like all the other parents. I never thought about it when I was little, but now I appreciate what it took for her to do that after having worked so hard all week. Did she ever sleep?
Growing up, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with my mother, my grandmother, Mona Collins, and my aunt, Nina Collins. My other aunt, Deneen Collins, and my two cousins lived in the apartment upstairs. Since my mom was at work all the time I spent a lot of my free time with them. My grandmother is the one who taught me how to play pretty much every sport — football, baseball, basketball and volleyball. She didn’t really know the rules of football, but she would toss the ball around with me in the yard and let me run circles around her.
The four women who raised me are the reason I came to West Point (Kizzy Collins, Mona Collins, Nina Collins and Deneen Collins). For a long time I thought I would go to Wisconsin and play football, but I wanted to go to a school where I had a clear picture of what I’d be doing after graduation. I wanted to be able to take care of my family and help others. My mom helped me so much by working hard every day. Now it’s my turn to do the same for her. That’s my main goal in life.
Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/The Players' Tribune
I went to the U.S. Military Academy Prep School before I got to West Point. I was 18 years old, and my goal was to play football for Army. I knew it would be a challenge — that it would test me in ways I’d never been tested before — but I still wasn’t fully prepared for what I experienced early on. I think that’s true of just about everyone who enrolls here, and it starts on Day One.
New cadets go to Cadet Basic Training at West Point in the summer before their freshman year. The first day is called R-Day, and it’s intense. One minute you’re hugging your mom goodbye, and the next you’re getting yelled at by upperclassmen. They tell you you’re moving too slow, but then they yell at you if you start running, so you have to walk everywhere really fast. By the end of the day your head is bald, your face is shaved and you’re marching in a parade in your dress uniform in front of your parents. You’re a completely different person. R-Day didn’t really freak me out — I’d been getting screamed at by football coaches since the fourth grade — but there were some kids who were so scared that they started crying and got right back in the car with their parents and went home.
The moment where I wanted to quit didn’t come until the next morning. At about 4:30, this group of cadets came running into our barracks yelling, “You’ve got two minutes to get on the wall!” I was so shaken. We were supposed to make our beds, get dressed and get on the wall in two minutes. We were all outside in T-shirts and shorts. I thought that would be O.K. because it was summertime. But at 4:30 in the morning it was freezing. We stood there for 15 minutes in formation, just shivering. There was still dew on the grass when we started doing push-ups and sit-ups for our morning physical training, so now we were not only freezing, but also wet. It was so uncomfortable.
Playing Division I football is incredibly tough, but nothing compares to the challenge of making it as a cadet at West Point. Whenever I find myself struggling, I try to compare what I’m experiencing to a harder time that somebody I know has gone through. I have thought a lot lately about a family member of mine in Chicago. He was homeless and has since passed away. He stayed with us at our house for a while when I was a kid, but his pride was so big that he wouldn’t stay for long — even though he didn’t know where he was going to sleep the next night or when his next meal would be. I think of my friends from the South Side who lost their lives to gun violence. An early morning drill isn’t much compared to those kinds of things.
During my time at the academy, the way I analyze situations has changed. I’ve learned to speak up when I see something wrong, no matter how big or small. I see it as my professional responsibility to fix issues. As a team captain, a lot of my teammates come to me for advice, and I owe it to them to be honest. I value these relationships and feel that I am in a better position to help them based on my development at the academy. I think speaking up and giving honest feedback are the keys to growth. West Point created an environment where I could develop into the sort of leader that the Army expects and deserves.
When I was just a kid on the South Side I knew I wanted to surround myself with friends, mentors and peers that have good character and high expectations for me. I found that at the academy and for that I am so thankful.
I’m so lucky to be here. To be at this school, to be on this team, to be coached by someone as smart and talented as Coach Monken. He is the main reason Army went from winning two games in 2015 to going undefeated at home this year and being in a position to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time in 21 years. All we’ve got left to do is beat Navy on Saturday — something we’ve only done once in the last 15 years.
But beating them twice is another one of my goals.
We almost lost to the Midshipmen last year. They had scored early in the fourth quarter to go up 17–14. We got the ball with about 13 minutes to go. What I remember most is our determination. In past years, our team might have gotten down and concluded it just wasn’t our year. But this was different. We looked at each other in the huddle and all the guys on the offensive line started grabbing each other and saying, “All right, let’s tighten up! We got this!”
When our offense is working, it’s because every single person on the field is doing their specific job well. It’s kind of beautiful when everything comes together and pretty much impossible to stop. When we walk up to the line of scrimmage, we know we’re gonna run the ball, and the other team knows we’re gonna run the ball, but we do it anyway. Our receivers are some of the most selfless teammates I’ve ever had. They know we’re not going to throw the ball 15 to 30 times a game. But they’re still out there making blocks and playing just as hard as anybody else, with or without the ball.
On that drive against Navy, we held the ball for almost seven minutes. On second-and-eight from Navy’s 12-yard line, I kept the ball and was running around the right edge, behind Andy Davidson, who was my lead blocker. I saw tackle Brett Toth seal the edge and in a split second I made a decision: I wasn’t just gonna go for the first down, I was going all the way. Right before I got to the goal line I saw this guy from Navy waiting for me. I ran full speed and lowered my shoulder. I could feel guys kind of pushing me from the back to get those last few inches. I couldn’t tell if I had made it into the end zone, but then I saw the referee signal a touchdown. That’s when everything erupted. I couldn’t even see faces. Just pure noise and excitement. We won 21–17.
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That play was the play that broke Army’s 14-year losing streak against Navy. That was also the play that started a movement for Army football. It was a breakthrough. Ever since our team has had a different mind-set. We’re more confident, we know who we are, and we know what we need to do to win.
A big part of that, like I said, comes from Coach Monken. He’s gotten everybody to work together in a way only cadets could understand. It’s easy to be an individual in football. Like if I was a receiver and I just ran my routes and didn’t worry about what the other receiver was doing on the other side of the field. But in the military, if I don’t get a certain part of my mission done, it can have serious consequences. Everybody has to do their job, but everybody also has to be molded together.
This Saturday, I’m going to be playing in my final Army-Navy game. It’s the biggest game of my life and I know how big the stakes are. Honestly, that’s the coolest part about it. Everybody from Navy is watching, everybody from Army is watching, and soldiers all over the world are watching, too. Army-Navy is so much bigger than just two teams on a field.
One win isn’t a streak, but it’s a start. The mission is clear, and the objective is in our sights: