Let me get two things straight right off the bat.
One: As a player, I never looked for external motivation. The flames of inspiration can be fanned by teammates, fans, coaches and even the media. But that fire starts in your gut. No one can start it for you.
Either you have it or you don’t. But this is what happens — from pregame speeches, to catchy sayings and phrases painted on cinder-block locker room walls across America, we force-feed motivation.
So that’s one: Don’t look for motivation. Find it within yourself.
And two: A football team is a family. Everyone in a foxhole, risking the same potential embarrassment, heartache and loss, all for a chance at that addictive feeling of accomplishment.
So I’ll admit that I never cared much for anyone outside the family trying to motivate the family.
G Fiume/Getty ImagesBut I’m not trying to motivate you. I’m here to give perspective. And I may not be in the foxhole with you, but we share the same DNA. Because Virginia football is in my blood.
The first bit of perspective I can offer involves “soaking it all in.” Sounds good in theory. But in reality?
Not gonna happen.
Whether you like it or not, the Capital One Orange Bowl will be the biggest 60 minutes of football that Virginia has played in 30 years. And it will be over in a camera flash — like a night on The Corner, or your first day on Grounds — and there’s nothing you can do to slow it down.
In the NFL, I was lucky enough to be a part of two teams that earned the right to be called Super Bowl champions — f*** that … world champions. More than seven billion people on Earth, and we got the parade. And there’s no feeling — no drug, no on-demand experience — that can replicate that … that can make you feel that alive.
So you soak it in right? The media day, the jitters, the big plays, the confetti. You store it like a file on a computer so you can recall it later and feel it all over again when you’re an old man.
But that’s not how it works. Because if it worked that way, you’d never have to do anything meaningful again. You’d just sit around replaying your finest hour, like a movie. That’s why they call it “once in a lifetime.” You live it once … and then life goes on.
Case in point: I failed to commit that first Super Bowl with the Patriots to memory in true detail. It’s all one beautiful, chaotic blur. Luckily, the following year, I found myself in the same position, competing for another ring. This time, I told myself I would “soak it in.”
That year, in Philly, I was a part of one of the most improbable championship runs in football history — and the city’s first Super Bowl. And still … it’s all one beautiful blur. I remember sights and sounds. Fleeting images. A few words shared between brothers. But just two years removed, it’s like trying to remember a dream.
Photo: Grant Halverson/Getty Images; Video: Duncan Sullivan/The Players' Tribune
So what I’m saying is: Don’t try to soak it in. It’s pointless. Your mind is only capable of absorbing so much. The memory will be made either way.
Stop and smell the oranges, for sure. Enjoy it. But focus on investing in a memory — in a reality — that you can be proud of. Because years will pass, and that memory will be all that’s left. And down the road, when you look in the mirror and reflect, you might remember the dude staring back at you as someone who played with an effort — a violent and dogmatic commitment fitting of the occasion. You’ll remember him as someone who played with conviction. And conviction … it doesn’t run on catchphrases, or even pregame speeches (even though I’ve given a few myself). No … conviction is fueled by the work you’ve already done, your love for what you’re doing and for who you’re doing it with.
I absolutely believe in your conviction and your purpose as Virginia football players. And your commitment to the outcome of this game will be much more important than the outcome itself.
I talked about our DNA as Virginia Cavaliers. Well, I grew up a few miles from Scott Stadium, and to this day I still call Charlottesville home. As a kid I watched players who did the Sabres proud, from the Barber twins, to Patrick Kerney, to Thomas Jones, to the gold standard himself, Anthony Poindexter. Now, those men — as well as myself — are all watching you guys, and doing it proudly.
On the occasions when I do wander over to the McCue Center to watch you work, visit my brother Coach Hagans, or just marvel at the culture that Coach Mendenhall has implemented … I always walk away motivated. Y’all may be much younger than me, but the example you set continues to push this has-been to be better every day. And I’m sure I speak for all of us dinosaurs when I express my gratitude for how you carry yourself as men.
Thank you for that.
It’s an honor to watch you work.
And with all that said, let me give you one last piece of advice: Don’t expect a fairy-tale ending. No one owes you shit. Football — like life — can be beautiful, or it can be indiscriminately ugly. Teams and people who feel like they’re owed something for showing up end up bitter and empty-handed. Because there are no guarantees.
Jared Wickerham/The Players' Tribune
My senior year at Virginia, they called us the “Cardiac Cavs.” Picked to finish last in the Coastal, we nearly won it. And we won a crazy amount of swing games and survived a lot of close calls along the way. It felt like we were a team of destiny.
But there’s no such thing.
In our bowl game that year, as the opposing kicker booted a game-winning field goal and the clock struck zero, the rest of the seniors and I walked off the field dejected.
About a year ago, I felt the same way with the Eagles as we fell just short in the Superdome in the divisional round of the playoffs, ending another improbable playoff run. A loss never stung quite like that before.
But football didn’t owe us anything.
That day in New Orleans, I walked off the football field for the last time. I’ll never put a helmet on again. And just like strolling off the field for the last time in a Virginia uniform, I barely remember the details of that walk. But I’m at peace with it — because I played with conviction.
So if you’re willing to sacrifice as much as y’all have already, this is gonna be a breeze. When you take the field … go play with conviction. Love each other and don’t fear shit for 60 minutes — failure, bodily harm, nothing. And let the chips fall where they may.
Because eventually, today will be just a memory, whether you like it or not. That’s the way it goes. And it’s absolutely going to fade. It might get a little grainy over time, but an old picture is still a reflection of reality. And all you’re owed is a picture.
What’ll be in that picture … is up to you.