I was completely exhausted. I’ve never ran that far on a football field in my life.
But that run changed everything.
When I saw the football pop loose, instincts took over. I scooped the ball up and ran as far as I could for an 85-yard touchdown.
It gave our team six points, but it gave me so much more.
That was my redshirt sophomore season at Memphis, and prior to that fumble return, I wondered if I had what it took, you know?
Memphis is a fantastic program, but did I have the talent to compete and be a contributor on the field?
Those questions of self-doubt were running through my head constantly. I had some low moments, but I never looked back after that scoop and score. It was the opportunity I was searching for and desperately needed.
A funny thing happened after that.
Not only did I become a better player because I started to believe in myself, but I became a better leader, too.
After that fumble, I understood what my role was on this team going forward. I recognized what I needed to do on the field, but even more so, I understood the responsibility I had off the field to do my part to elevate this program.
Reaching a turning point
When I first arrived on campus during my freshman year, Coach Norvell gave me a blueshirt. I know everyone’s heard of the redshirt, but a blueshirt is a little different.
A blueshirt meant I had to earn my scholarship once I got on campus. Believe me, this was going to be easier said than done.
I play on the d-line at defensive end, and to say I was buried on the depth chart would be a bit of an understatement.
It was more than a little daunting.
But I was always raised by my stepfather and mother to work for every opportunity. Coach Norvell was giving me a chance to earn my place on the team, so it was up to me to take advantage and make the most of it.
Slowly but surely, I began to climb my way up the depth chart.
After redshirting my freshman year, I finally made it onto the field a bit for my second season under Coach Silverfield, who was promoted when Coach Norvell took the job at FSU.
As fate would have it, in a year that was terrible for so many, the COVID year in 2020 would turn out to be the turning point in my collegiate football career.
Growth on and off the field
Like I mentioned before, I wasn’t in a great headspace heading into the 2020 season, which would be my redshirt sophomore year.
I still hadn’t felt like I’d proven myself yet. I was sitting on the bench far more than I was playing.
As an athlete, when you lack confidence, that’s about the worst thing that can happen to you. If you’re not in a good frame of mind when you step onto the field and believe you can compete against the best of the best, you’re not going to succeed.
That’s why that fumble return was almost divine intervention.
In one singular play, out of nowhere, all my prayers were answered seemingly in the blink of an eye.
From that point forward, I finally felt like I belonged.
I shared snaps with another guy during that COVID season, then I started every single game last year and became a key contributor.
My confidence was at an all-time high, and it showed on the field. I also knew that while tackles for loss and sacks are amazing, I had far more to offer.
In the last year, I’ve embraced my leadership role on this team. I’ve learned that being a leader doesn’t mean you have to yell and scream and give these rah-rah speeches.
More than anything, leadership is about just being there to listen and understand what others are going through.
I’m proud of myself for climbing the ladder to be a starter and difference-maker on this team, but it’s the contributions I’m able to make in the locker room and off the field that give me the greatest sense of fulfillment.
I graduated from Memphis with my undergraduate degree this past May, and that was one of the most defining moments of my life.
What brought me the most joy was seeing my parents’ faces as I had that diploma in my hand.
The thing about my parents is, they don’t really care about football.
They love watching me play and succeed on the field, but that always came secondary to the degree.
To have my entire family make the trip up to Memphis to see me graduate meant the world to me.
Words can’t describe how much my stepdad and mother mean to me. They’ve been there for me every step of the way, and I hope they know that I don’t walk across that stage without the love, support, and guidance they’ve provided me my entire life.
With that degree in hand, I also had a big question that I needed to answer. What’s next?
Do I hang up my pads for good?
Should I give the NFL a shot?
Or, do I come back to Memphis for a fifth year and finish what I started?
While my answer didn’t come overnight, after some soul-searching and long discussions with my family, I had my answer.
A purposeful season
No matter if I stayed at Memphis for one more year, or proceeded to the next chapter in my life, I’d always call Memphis home.
That’s a given.
That being said, I wasn’t ready to leave home just yet.
I had some work here that I still needed to complete, so I decided to come back for my fifth season this year.
This season, my goal is to be a leader both on and off the field. I know the importance of strong leadership, and I want to bring out the best in my teammates.
I see myself in those younger guys who doubt themselves. I remember what it felt like to question whether I belonged at this level. So I pour everything I have into helping them realize their potential.
If it wasn’t for a fumble I returned 85 yards to the house, I don’t know what kind of player or leader I would’ve become. I’m not sure if I would’ve continued playing football.
But it was the opportunity I needed, and I can say that one play truly changed my life in so many different ways.
It reminded me that if you work hard and give everything you have, you’ll be rewarded for it when you least expect it. That’s something I plan to constantly relay to the younger guys on this team.
There are few things more powerful than believing in yourself, so in my final season, here’s to spreading that message and leaving a legacy that goes beyond the game.