Sixteen years of my life were spent playing contact football. I grew up surrounded by the game; some of my earliest memories are playing tackle football in the backyard with my brothers, and my dad was my first coach. I played from the time I was five years old through high school, where I began to get recruited to play at the Division I level. I selected Northwestern University and began a college career with dreams of playing in the NFL.
Then, only two years into my college career, I medically retired from the game to which I had devoted my life. At the time, the decision to stop playing was the most difficult I had ever made, but it was the correct one. After a long series of concussions resulted in persistent headaches and off-the-field complications, it was time to hang up the cleats for good.
So, now what? I was a football player. That fact was a large part of how I’d defined myself for the past 16 years – it was a large part of who I was. Suddenly, far earlier than I had anticipated, that essential piece of my identity was gone. Contrary to what I had known my whole life, I was no longer a football player. I was just a soon-to-be college junior who hadn’t taken any classes I found particularly interesting, completely clueless as to what I wanted to pursue.
Long developed expectations were dismantled. My life took a hard left when I had expected to turn right; it was uncomfortable and uncertain and I was experiencing intense cognitive dissonance. Of course, my situation was only bleak by the standards of the aspiring professional athlete. The mindset that football was what I was supposed to be doing made the situation appear so dismal. It took some time to change that notion, which was ingrained in my psyche.
My solution was to keep myself busy. I had a lot of new free time and so I began to fill it with things that I thought were productive. In conversation, a friend mentioned how a student in his dorm was starting a neuroscience club and that they were pushing for it to become a major. “Neuroscience” sounded cool; it had a wow factor. I decided to get involved. After only a few meetings I was orchestrating a speaking event for the club.
I also began working at the student recreation center (SPAC) as a customer service representative, and after a few months moved on to the position of building supervisor. After spending a lot of time working there, I realized my background could be very useful. I became certified as a personal trainer and took on a second, separate role.
As I amassed more responsibilities, I realized that being a former football player gave me an upper hand for a variety of reasons. My time management skills were superb. I was a hard worker, and having been a part of a team my whole life, I was an excellent communicator. I stopped viewing my situation as unfortunate and began to leverage my past to help me excel.
Now, a little over two years after I took my final snap as a defensive end, I’m not stressed about my future. My situation is vastly different from what I anticipated at this point in my college career, but I’m happy.
I’m months away from completing a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience. My girlfriend of over a year is my coworker who I met working at SPAC and the graduating president of the neuroscience club is one of my best friends. I also have plans to start personal training independently on the side. I’ve accepted a part-time position during my final trimester with a pending full-time offer from the company upon graduation. I work as a personal trainer at SPAC, and I’m also working with the Przekop Design Company on business development and more.
Although I’m still uncertain of my long-term goals, I know what I’m doing right now, and I’ve come to realize that’s all that matters. My plan is to continue engaging in things I enjoy doing and look for interesting opportunities in those areas.
I’m far from where I expected I would be two years ago, but I’ve grown more than I could have hoped. Out of necessity, I learned how to apply the soft skills I had developed to new and different endeavors. I learned how to manage stress and how to adapt to new situations. I’ve learned that even when very unexpected things seem to alter your path, those experiences can be utilized to guide your future in a positive way.