O.K., first things first, I want to go on record with something right here and now. Just, you know, so there isn’t any confusion as to where I stand.
It’s about, well, um….
It’s about cats.
You ready? Here goes:
Cats are … LITERALLY THE BEST ANIMALS IN THE ENTIRE WORLD!
Hands down. They just are. Period.
Come at me if you want. Make your case for dogs or whales or whatever. But I speak the truth.
Cats are the best.
And I’m gonna tell you all about what makes cats so awesome in a minute. (As well as the role cats are going to play in my life when my football-playing days are over, and how I plan to combine my love of cats with a bunch of my other interests so I can live my best life after I retire from this game.) But before I totally, totally go in on cats, I want to share a quick story with you.
It has nothing to do with cats.
It has to do with Spike Lee. And who I am as a person. And creativity. And setting myself up for life after football. But hey, listen, I swear … if you give me a chance, I promise that I’ll bring everything back around by the time you’re done reading this, and in the end it will all make sense — the cats thing, Spike, all of it.
So, O.K., my Spike Lee story….
This past summer, I attended an event where Spike was giving a talk about his most recent film. During the Q&A session, someone asked him whether he thought movies, and art more generally, could change the world. And literally before the person even finished the question, Spike had already answered.
“Yes!” he said. “I do.”
Then he ran down some examples from recent history of movies and music that had an impact on how the country viewed an important social issue.
It was all pretty impressive.
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After the presentation, I was fortunate enough to get a chance to talk with Spike for a little while one-on-one. I told him I was a professional football player, but that, “You know, I’m a bunch of other things, too.”
He sort of cocked his head to the side when he heard that — like he was waiting for me to say more.
“Eventually, I want to write movies,” I told him. “I just really love creative expression. So I want to eventually write movies. And books. Like novels. And I also love photography, too. But, yeah, eventually I want to be creating really amazing stories for the whole world to take in and enjoy.”
Just like with that question during the Q&A session, Spike was ready to jump in before I even finished.
I nodded … super cautiously.
“Man, why do you say ‘eventually’? What’s up with that?”
I didn’t quite know what to say.
“What are you waiting for?” he continued. “Why don’t you start right now? Start writing those stories! Get them down on paper. Don’t wait, man.”
I tried to explain that football takes up most of my time, and that I was a pretty busy guy overall. But Spike wasn’t having it.
“What about the offseason?” he shot back. “And I know you guys have an off day every week, right? Come on now.”
By this point he was basically giving me a master lesson on how to make sure you don’t let your creative energy go to waste.
“You need to write whenever you can, man. Even as busy as you are, you can take 10 minutes before bed — like every single night, no exceptions — to write and be creative. Make that a routine. Stick to it. Then, when it comes time to write that movie, you’re gonna look back and see all the notes from those sessions, and you may already have the makings of a movie right there. Set yourself up now, for when you have more time later.”
What he was saying was so simple, really. But I’d never thought about it like that before. And I definitely never had one of the greatest writer-directors in the history of film ever run things down for me in that way. This was like an artist’s version of the best pregame pump-up speech imaginable. After listening to him, I was ready to run through a brick wall … and then go write the next great American novel. It turned out to be hands down one of the most incredible, inspiring and uplifting artistic experiences of my life—something that I’ll never forget.
Then, that night, before I went to sleep, I put pen to paper for 10 minutes.
I did the same thing the following night. And the night after that.
And I’ve done it every night since.
When you’re a professional football player, people kind of just assume that football is all you do — that the sport is your entire world, your whole being. I play football for a living, in other words, and so what I am . . . is a football player.
It’s hard to blame people who think that. And I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes it kind of feels that way. I mean, I do spend a ton of time and energy on football. Absolutely. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the game. I’m dedicated to it completely. I give it my all. But, at the same time, football is not all that I am.
I’m a writer, a photographer, a literature fanatic, a lover of poetry, a movie buff, and about a hundred other things. It’s like, some people play video games or go bowling when they’re not on the field. Me? I write, or take pictures, or just … create. I genuinely love spending time doing that stuff, just as I love playing football. And I’m convinced that those artistic outlets allow me to be more creative on the field — to see things that maybe other players don’t, or to tap into emotions that allow me to be the very best football player I can be. So, in my view, it’s a total win-win. And I honestly can’t imagine not having that outside outlet beyond football — only having one singular thing that defines who I am. Because then, when you decide to step away from the game, or football is taken away from you, it’s like … what’s left?
If you’re a football player, and that’s it, what happens when football goes away?
It’s actually a pretty scary thing to think about, and I’m very thankful that I’m never going to be in that position.
Thomas Lakes/The Players' Tribune
My art — the things I write, the photos I take, the stories I scrawl down in my notebooks — is a massive part of who I am. And it’s something that I know will be a central part of my life for a long time after my football-playing days are over.
The joy I get from creating art is just … well, it’s really something I can’t even put into words. I can’t really explain it. But when I write something super engaging, or take a photo of something beautiful, it stirs up emotions within me that I sometimes didn’t even realize I could access.
And the really exciting thing is knowing that I’m going to have the ability to experience those sorts of moments for the rest of my life. I mean, even though I’m still young, I really do spend a great deal of time thinking about the future, and what my life will be like after football. I want to play this game as long as I can, and I look forward to getting better and better at it for many years to come. But I also realize that I can’t play football forever.
With art, though, there really is no definitive endpoint or age limit. You can do your best writing at 50, or 60, or 85, or take your best photos at 90. I mean, you can literally be 100 and make the best, most amazing piece of art that anyone has ever seen. That’s super exciting to me — the idea that with art, you can always stay getting better, and never really be done — because I really do feel like I’m just getting started with my writing and photography. I’m constantly thinking of new stories and coming up with new ideas.
And I honestly can’t wait to write, and photograph, and create so many amazing things for the rest of my life.
Now, I know what you’re thinking at this point.
O.K., cool, you like being creative, taking photographs and making art. But, Dante, um … what does any of that have to do with cats?
I haven’t forgotten. Trust me.
So, the short answer is that my plan for a creative life after football is at least somewhat centered around, and inspired by, my never-ending, all-encompassing love of cats.
In a lot of ways, I feel like me and cats have a ton in common. I mean, they’re generally introverted like I am, and they’re just so multi-dimensional. They’re always planning. Strategizing. Learning.
And I really do think that they are largely misunderstood.
What I mean by that is: A lot of people seem to assume that because cats aren’t always looking to play, or pining for attention, it means that they’re unfriendly or not as loveable as other pets. But that’s really unfair. It’s not in cats’ nature to be like that. Cats aren’t begging for your friendship and approval. They don’t need it. They’re too cool for that. If they like you, they’ll go up to you and let you know it, but if they don’t like you, they’re going to let you know that, too. They’re real with you. No pretenses. And I love that.
Aside from all that, they’re also just extremely agile and beautiful and crazy smart. I mean, cats can turn on faucets and find a way to get up on the roof of a house just so they can just, like, chill in the sun and look badass.
In summary: Cats. Are. The. Best. Period.
It’s safe to say that when I retire from football cats are going to be a big part of my life.
I haven’t had cats in a while because I was so committed to the draft process and to getting acclimated as a rookie, and I wanted to make sure that if I had cats, I could take care of them and give them everything they needed. Now that I’m settled in, I just got two new cats, Mowgli and Bagheera.
I’ll probably get more at some point, too. Honestly, if I could have as many cats as I want, I would probably do that. But at the same time, I know it’s a little crazy to get like 60 cats. I don’t want people thinking I’m insane. I realize there’s gotta be some limits in place. So instead of owning a zillion cats, I’ve kind of come up with a layered approach to my future with felines.
I especially love big cats — lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars. So, first off, I’d love to combine my obsession with cats and my love of photography by working as photographer for Nat Geo WILD. I basically think that would be the coolest job ever, just going to amazingly beautiful places, checking out these breathtaking animals, and then sharing my experiences with people around the world. And I already watch all their shows. I’m very up-to-date on what Nat Geo Wild does. I’m a fan. I feel like it would be perfect if we teamed up.
With or without that job, though, I’d definitely love to create an animal shelter to help abused or sick and injured big cats. It would be so wonderful to create a center that can in take those animals and give them a safe place to roam around and have fun, and maybe even integrate them back in the wild if that’s possible.
So yeah, that’s what I’m thinking.
Over the next decade or so, hopefully I can just keep getting better at football each day, and can help the Niners win a few more Super Bowls, while at the same time continuing to improve as a writer and photographer in my spare time.
Then, when my career comes to an end, I can turn my full attention to creativity and art as well as my love for cats. Hopefully Spike was on to something and by that time I’ll have written a book or two, or scripts for a few movies, and things will just take off from there.
In addition, I’d really love to launch and run an art foundation for inner-city kids. It really is a shame how lots of public schools throughout the country are cutting funding for art programs, and I’d love to do what I can to help pick up some of the slack — connecting young people with artists in their communities, supporting efforts to earn college scholarships and grants for artistic achievement, stuff like that.
There’s just so much I want to do down the line.
Thomas Lakes/The Players' Tribune
If I had to sum it up, I’d say that my life after football is going to be marked by these three words:
Cats. Cats. Cats.
Ha, naw, I’m just kidding. In reality it would be:
Art, and creativity, is something that I know will be part of my life forever — whether Nat Geo offers me that job or not. I’ll always be a writer, and a photographer. And, soon enough, I’ll be someone helping other people explore their own artistic passions. Which, of course, leads to … Impact. I’ve always wanted to do all I can to change people’s lives for the better, and after my career is over, I feel like I will be in a great position to do that — be it through the development of a charitable foundation, the building of a big cat wildlife sanctuary, or any other number of ways.
In the end, for me, it all comes down to Love.
I’m very big on love — giving love to everybody, loving what you do, helping foster love among people all over the world. This world needs more of that, if you ask me.
We all need to give each other more love.
And hey … you know who will be getting a lot of love from me going forward?