My dad was a special man, one who was involved in every aspect of my life. He was the type of man who was also always smiling, laughing, making a joke, or asking about how someone else is doing. He was the type of man who put everyone before himself. But most importantly, my dad was a teacher, one who taught me to strive to be the best in everything I do.
My father was the backbone of our family; never thinking about himself, but always putting first the well-being of others. My grandfather was the same way, and both taught me that, although it was hard, there was great value in living a life to serve others.
I was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina; to be exact, I was born and raised just outside of Charlotte, in the town of Matthews, North Carolina. My family has always loved football. My father played, as did my brother, which helped spark and grow my obsession with the game. When I first started playing football, I was a little rough around the edges; back in the early 2000’s, we didn’t have football leagues for any age groups younger than seven. I was five at the time, but having a brother ten years older than me helped in the development of making me tough.
My parents did let me play football, and the first two years of playing were terrible. I couldn’t do anything right, but naturally, I worked hard, because the two most influential men in my life had already instilled in me that there was no such thing as quitting, and to always outwork everyone.
My father put me in track and field at a young age, and when I turned seven, I became way faster than normal, and even slimmed out a bit. Still not that good at football yet, I remember when my little league football team, the Mint Hill Steelers, were going up against the best team in the league. I was so nervous, and so scared; I didn’t know what to do. During the game, I had a chance to tackle one of the best running backs in the league, and I was shaking. So when I met him on the sideline and we collided, I ended up on the ground, while the kid was in the end zone dancing.
After the game, I got in the car to go home, and it was dead silence. In my mind, I felt like I let my dad down, but somehow, my dad turned this failure into a moment to learn and grow. We got home, and that night, my dad called me out of my room. I thought I was going to have to relive that terrible moment I experienced on the field, but I came out of my room to find my dad waiting to teach me how to tackle anyone, no matter what size they were. He had me tackling a pillow that was taller than I was at the time; over and over again, I dove low into the pillows, making sure to perfect my technique each time. From then on, I never got ran over again in a game. He was the greatest teacher I ever had and taught me so much while he was here. As I grew up my relationship with my father really became a man trying to teach a boy how to become a young man. He treated me as if I was a man already and held me accountable at all times. He helped me become strong and independent.
But then, in an instant, I lost him.
When I saw him lying on the ground, having the seizure, I knew it was serious, and that he might not make it. He looked helpless, and I felt like God was punishing me. When he passed, it was like a part of me left my body forever. I don’t know who I was angry at, but I was angry. I was angry because the only person who I felt like cared about me at the time was passing on, leaving me behind.
A couple of months later, my grandfather passed away; and at this point, I had no clue what I was going to do. But I realized that I had been put in the situation not because I was unlucky, but because I was built to withstand the adversity that was being thrown at me. My foundation and teachings in my mind were being tested, and I felt like I was being asked to grow up and be a man at sixteen.
Flash forward to that football season. I was named captain of the team as a high school junior, when I was still emotionally very numb, and had not yet addressed my true feelings about what I had been through. I played well statistically, but as far as being the moral leader and the go-to guy on this team, I felt like I failed my teammates, and as a result, that I had failed my father and grandfather. It wasn’t until I was at a football game at my old middle school that I fully come full circle with my emotions.
My good friend, Kanyon Tuttle, he had a little brother named Kambridge. That day, Kambridge told me that me coming to his game made his day, and that the whole team was so happy that I came out to support them. It hit me so hard because it as the first time that a genuine feeling of joy had been in my body. Something so simple as someone being happy that I came to their game, as if I was a superstar or something. That experience made me feel something. It made me stop feeling sorry for myself, and it helped me grow. I had to release so much emotion and anger built up that were keeping me from being the real me.
My senior year of high school was when I began to connect with my teammates in more meaningful ways. I was happy, healthy, and I was focused on making the team better instead of fighting an internal battle with myself. And it paid off; I was awarded first Team All-State and won a state championship while going undefeated. But most importantly, I felt like I grew into a better version of myself.
Once I got to Yale, buying into the team’s values wasn’t hard because it was about being selfless, and being there to do whatever was asked of me by the team. And truthfully, it was easy because it’s what I’m used to doing. Success comes when you elevate others around you; by doing this, I was able to earn valuable minutes as a true freshman, and help the team win our league championship, losing just one game in the process. College required mental fortitude, and everything I dealt with in high school prepared me for success on the next level.
My foundation and teachings saved me, because through all the death, tears, and pain, I continued to grow because of the support I had from family and friends. It took a while to open up to the people I love, but I’ve found a way to express my emotions; it felt so much better to share things rather than keep them inside, which is why I’m telling my story. I know that if I would have talked to someone who went through similar experiences, I would have opened up sooner, and probably saved myself a lot of heartache. My relationship with my family is better, and although you never stop feeling the pain of our loved ones being gone, I have learned to cherish time with the family still here, and to never take their presence for granted.
And until the day I hang up my cleats, I’ll be out there on that field, making my father proud.