Roughly 37 years ago, time expired on my playing days as a senior in college. I left the field for the last time at Beloit College. Once we lined up, shook hands, and huddled in the end zone, I went for one last walk.
Side to side.
Last Friday, just before we took the field, I went for that same walk on that 100 yard piece of heaven just the other side of the tennis courts. Up. Down. Side to side.
Tomorrow night will be no different. Though I know August will come again soon enough, this time of year has always been difficult.
Those fields – whether the one in my hometown, Galesburg, Beloit, Nicolet or Cedarburg – are like home to me.
I suspect that I am not alone in that sentiment.
It feels like that because all that time I spent there has served a larger purpose.
Prepared me for a much bigger game.
The one called life.
It taught me about the power of choices. The all-encompassing value of effort. About making an intensely personal investment. How to practice perseverance. Deploy courage. Employ character. And exert leadership. On that field, I learned how to relentlessly pursue purpose with passion.
It helped me fit in. Find myself. And connect with others. Not just to those that were with me in high school and college. But with everyone that has ever played. To all of you in this program.
And when next season begins, to those that have yet to play.
I am now a small part of something much bigger. And as a member of a large extended family – bound together by the shared experience made possible on that field – I remain humbly indebted. For what I learned. Gained. And am becoming to this very day.
I still owe this my best.
While I may have had to leave it forever as a player 37 years ago, that field has yet to leave me.
For being the greatest game ever invented, football sure has the shortest season. A scant 9 weeks out of the 52 on the calendar to prove yourself, come together and pursue a purpose with passion, as one.
But choose to expend the effort and make the investment those other 43 weeks, and you might gain a play. Practice perseverance and deploy courage for all 120 minutes of each practice and you may extend a drive. Employ the character needed to exert leadership 24/7/365, and you just might be able to earn one more of those precious Friday nights under those lights.
Nothing is ever guaranteed. It is meant to be a grind. You just have to keep at it. And believe with the utmost conviction that good things will happen.
That isn’t just football.
That is life.
Perhaps that is part of its design. What sets our game apart. Lessons instilled to inspire, drive and guide each member of this family to recognize its inherent opportunities. Not just through those challenging instants during one’s playing career. But into, through and beyond the adversity that is sure to be encountered in those moments yet to come.
When you choose to play the game, you are surrounded by individuals of all shapes, sizes, speeds, backgrounds, personalities, talents, abilities, limitations, reasons and aspirations.
At first glance, one would think that such a random conglomeration would preclude a group from coming together and enjoining fully in its mission. But in reality, none of those differences really matter. Because once you step onto that field, it’s level.
All that matters on that piece of grass is effort. Investment. Perseverance. Courage. Character. Leadership. And the relentless pursuit of purpose with passion. Choices each and every one of you are capable of making. Regardless of who you were, where you came from and what you had done before. On that field, you are all empowered to make those choices. To act upon them. And affect positive and lasting change in you and those around you.
So even a fat, un-athletic kid existing on the periphery of the school social structure in Hinsdale could choose to work at it, fit in and make a difference.
Someone that never had the opportunity could expend the effort to be part of something much bigger. Go on to achieve. Excel at a higher level. Succeed. And create a positive and lasting impression on those around him in the process.
Considerations I was only vaguely aware of when I first started.
In time, they were the qualities I learned to emulate and embrace thanks to the guidance of my coaches and teammates. Became the attitudes I found I could trust – because of what started to happen in me. The attributes I wanted to possess because they made such a difference. And eventually aspirations I pursued – even to this day – because I chose them to define me. All of which became the values I now cherish because they made me who I am today.
None of this happened because of who I was. Where I came from. Or what I did before.
It was all born of choice.
Choices that once enacted wrought lasting change in me. Precisely why that field will never leave my life.
In about 24 hours, we will all be together. To relentlessly pursue our purpose with passion. On that field in Cedarburg.
It makes no distinctions as to who you are.
Where you come from.
Or what you did before.
All that matters is your effort, investment, perseverance, courage, character and leadership.
Other than that, the field is level.