This year, thousands of students will graduate from high school and enroll in some college where they have already given their letter of intent to play football on a full-ride scholarship. Over the next six months or so they will have some of the best days of their lives as they party with other young folks, get into some trouble (hopefully not too much!) and then say goodbye to their "childhood" for good as they become 18-year-old "adults". (Also known as "barely legal") These high school athletes are heroes at home for only a little while longer, until some of them will go off to be heroes somewhere else. Some will make it, some will not, but for today these 18-somethings are nothing other than on top of the world. If they're lucky, they won't take a single second of it for granted.
I graduated in 2001 without having taken the SATs because I knew I was going to the community college right down the street. I had a low GPA and an even lower self-esteem, which I guess would mean I had a self-esteem of like 2.15? I don't know, I'm too stupid to figure it out. I didn't have any high school sweethearts and I never went to prom and I quit football when I was a junior because I was bad at it and out of shape. I would get no scholarships.
By the time their first full season of college football is over, some of these kids will be on top of the world. One could hardly imagine that even the riches of the NFL could ever compare to the feeling of playing in front of 100,000 screaming fans - literally 100,000 screaming fans - while you lead your team to a potential upset of the number one school in the nation and being one of the most revered athletes in the country while you are still a teenager. You could pay a college athlete, and many people do, but what's the price of having an entire fanbase in the palm of your hand? Johnny Manziel won the Heisman trophy two days after he turned 20.
When I turned 20 I was midway through my second year at BCC and having to decide what I would do next with my life. I worked full-time at Best Buy during the holiday season to pay my way through the world. I only applied to one four-year university, Washington State, because I knew that my grades were good enough to get in. That's not to say that it's an automatic bid to get into WSU, I had actually garnered straight A's after I had realized that now school cost money, but I also knew that most schools would want me to take the SATs or put in some sort of additional effort. I had worked one more job during the summer before leaving for Pullman, still having to pay my way.
The fastest, strongest, and brightest college athletes will enter their names into the NFL draft and some will be lucky enough to be selected, leading to a guaranteed contract for many and a six-figure income before they're legally able to rent a car. They were heroes in their hometowns and they went onto college. They were stars in college and they kept moving up from there. Now they only have to carry the weight of some U.S. city with a population in the millions, and many more fans around the globe. Not all will make it, but just the opportunity is something to be honored and respected, whether you are the Rookie of the Year or just a practice squad player that got to be active for a couple of games. In 2012, Bobby Wagner,
Bruce Irvin, Jeremy Lane, Greg Scruggs, and Jermaine Kearse were all 22-years-old.
When I was 22, I had one more year of school left. I had never actually completed my two-year AA degree at BCC and it would take me another three years to actually complete my bachelors. I kept my grades up but focused harder on my partying than on my studying and I found myself drowning deeper and deeper into a pool of self-destruction. I finally graduated after five years, not getting the lowly 3.0 math credits that I needed until I was at the 24th hour of college. When I left school, I had put on over 100 pounds in three years, I had no college sweetheart girlfriends, I had a regular degree in a field that had almost no opportunity for employment outside of Los Angeles or New York. My only reward was moving back in with my mother.
For some players, the world knows early on that they are going to be something special, something different. Many NFL athletes are in the league for less than five years. Hell, five years would be lucky. Michael Boulware was not in the league for five years. Marcus Tubbs was not in the league for five years. You could start off hot and quickly fade. You could do your job and still blow an ACL. There are no guarantees. But still, with some players, you just know. "This guy is going to have a long career. This guy just gets it." Russell Wilson is 24.
When I was 24 I was working security at a casino. Well, I was either working security at a ghetto casino in Sea-Tac or I had graduated to working surveillance at Freddy's in Renton. Either way, I was a college graduate making $10 or $11 an hour at a casino and no, I did not get my bachelors in "casino security" though you would think Wazzu might offer that program. I was still living with my mom as I tried to get onto my feet after graduation. It's funny to think about, how you need to get onto your feet after graduating from college, but it can be a difficult climb for many young adults. While I worked for free towards a career that I wanted, I was working 8 PM to 5 AM at a job that I hated. On the bright side, I had lost about 130 pounds and had an actual real-life girlfriend. Congratulations? What's that joke about how people never congratulate others for never doing drugs in the first place?
At a certain point, some players have managed to navigate through their "cheap" and "reasonable" rookie contracts to the point where they won't only get to keep a job as a professional football player, but they are due for a massive raise. "Cheap" meaning that they might have only earned a few million dollars in a few years. The really high profile draft picks might have "only" made $15-$20 million on their rookie deals under the current CBA. But for many, they've made Pro Bowls, maybe even an All-Pro team, and are considered to be among the very best by their peers, coaches, and fans. Not only do they have their own luxurious pad, but they have managed to live a dream that many non-athlete Americans dream of, being able to give back to their parents by buying them their own luxurious pad. Maybe even giving back to the schools and communities that did so much for them growing up. While it might seem cushy now, many of these players also grew up with nothing and now, finally, they had something. More than something. Marshawn Lynch, Sidney Rice, Matt Flynn, Zach Miller, Max Unger, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Brandon Mebane, and Jason Jones are all 27 or younger.
When I was 27 or younger, specifically when I was 26, I had re-gained 50 lbs and my girlfriend of two years had broken up with me. I had a better job than working at a casino, but I quit and therefore I was jobless. I moved down to Los Angeles, California and much like the dumbest joke of the last two years - I had no jobs, no cash, and no hope. Well, I did have hope but that slowly gets crushed after six months of realizing that the job market is absolute shit. Like many Americans, I may have had qualifications and ambition, but you simply can't make a square peg fit into a round hole when that hole is full of California's debt. After complaining about working at a casino, I now would have welcomed it back with open arms but you couldn't even find a job at Subway. After six months since quitting my old job, scraping by on savings and a few odd jobs as a camera man, I had $20 in my bank account and a load of new debt.
For many players, or really many people in all walks of life, sometimes it takes a lot of hard work and time to get where you want to be in life or in work. Maybe your best gifts weren't being utilized in the right ways, maybe it took awhile for you to figure out what was missing, maybe you just needed a change of scenery. But finding that solution could be the key to millions of extra dollars at a time when others never thought that would be possible. If you scrape long enough though, if you work hard enough even if you weren't the high-profile prospect coming into the league, maybe that plus a little bit of luck will get you where you always expected or wanted to be. This could be one way to describe Brandon Browner, Alan Branch, or Red Bryant, all of whom were 28 last season.
The day that I had come down to $20 left in my bank account was also the day before I would be receiving my first real regular paycheck in six months. I had scraped by for as cheaply and conservatively as I could that year until I finally had to make contact with my old company and ask for an opportunity with our L.A. branch. It wasn't exactly what I would have called ideal and it certainly wasn't the career that I had moved to California to pursue, but it was a good job and most importantly, it paid. The most important thing to me though was that I didn't give up, I didn't go back to Washington with my tail between my legs. If I had run out of money entirely then I would figure something out or become homeless. But in the end, everything was okay. I had even dropped that 50 lbs and then some, I was in the best shape of my life. When I was 28, I was doing okay. Maybe more than okay.
For many professional athletes, especially in football, there is no such thing as "working when you're 30." Bodies give out much quicker than minds do and you will likely not be as fast, or as cheap, as the new guy. The only positions that really can last well into your 30's aren't the high-profile, high-paying (relatively) gigs. Hence, why Jon Ryan at 31 is one of the oldest Seahawks. Coupled in the over-30 crowd in Seattle with Ryan is Leon Washington (30), Chris Clemons (31), Marcus Trufant (32), Leroy Hill (30) and Heath Farwell (31). Clemons faces a long uphill battle in return from ACL surgery. Washington could find himself as a cap casualty, especially as a player that relies so much on his speed and athleticism, with many fans already licking their chops at the idea of a younger player returning kicks despite the fact that Washington was just invited to the Pro Bowl. Many more fans are ready for the replacements of Trufant and Hill, while few others probably realized that Farwell was either A) over 30 and B) on the team. It is actually perfectly reasonable to assume that the only Seattle Seahawk players to have an impact on the 2013 team and be at least 30 years of age will be Ryan and Michael Robinson. As a matter of fact, here is also something to chew on for a moment. If you are 30-years-old when you read this, you are older than:
- Michael Robinson
Even Lofa Tatupu only turned 30 last November. You are also much older than Felix Hernandez. It's incredible to think about how we view athletes as being so much older than they are. Is it status? Respect? Admiration? Or are we just in denial about our own age?
I turned 30 myself in December. I have a hard time believing that I have been alive for that long, but at the same time I can't believe that I am so young. I have a safe and secure job (for now, but we never take that for granted) and I've got a reasonable amount of personal happiness. I may still be single, but I also have plenty of years before I have to think about starting a family. About two years ago I started writing for SBNation and then that started to snowball into more and more opportunities. Though I had been writing and blogging since high school, I had never stuck with it on a consistent basis and really nothing is as valuable as practice and persistence. At a certain point, I was probably writing too much, if anything. At 30, I feel like I am at the beginning of my career. At no point should a torn ACL end my dreams of being a writer, though I'm sure I could probably drink myself out of a job. Every career has it's dangers. I would also never claim to have lived a life full of hardships just because I was fat, lazy, and bad at finding X when there are so many in the world that have less. Rather, I find that my life, while unique, is actually quite average and to find that the average life has that much disparity from the wild ride of a professional athlete, it's something to marvel at. Both the highs and the lows.
Life doesn't have a singular set path for everybody that has the same dream. Justin Bieber and Susan Boyle are two of the most successful singers in the world, and they got their starts in massively different ways. We also don't attribute success to what you have accomplished by your 25th birthday anymore than we measure how successful you are when you've turned five. We have, quite literally, a lifetime to decide that and even then, it is entirely relative.
Relative. To compare ones life to another's based on age and only age, seems quite silly. Life doesn't work like that, age doesn't work like that, careers don't work like that. You will always get out of of life what you put into it and for some it comes quicker while for others, it fades much, much slower. There's something that we can all appreciate.
Still can't believe I'm older than Braylon Edwards though.
Follow Kenneth on Twitter- He's only just begun