My father was a major in the army, and in 1981 we moved to Germany. I never played organized sports in Germany, but my father always kept me active, taking me to work out in the gym or to go fishing. He always stressed self-sufficiency and hard work. “You get out of life what you put into it,” he’d tell me. We’d workout, and often it was the last thing I wanted to do. I’d rather have been playing with my friends. “Keep working,” my dad would say. “Someday this will all pay off.” It’s almost as if my dad had a crystal ball, that he knew I would play professional sports.
In the beginning of my senior year in high school, Dad wanted me to return to the US and try to get a football scholarship to a university. I thought he was crazy. I hadn’t played football since I was 8 years old. My father was encouraging and made me feel that I was a better player than I actually was. So I returned to the States and moved in with my dad’s brother. I started playing football for Westbury High School and eventually did get a scholarship to Texas Southern University. I wanted to quit during my first semester. I went back to Germany for Christmas and brought everything from my dorm room with me. I even took my alarm clock.
When it was time for me to return to school, I told my dad I wasn’t going back. I said that I wanted to stay in Germany and work with him and his transport company. (He had since left the army and started his own business.) After a slight pause, he made it very clear that working at his company was not an option. So I went back to school. Back at college, I realized it was time for me to take all these lessons of self-sufficiency and hard work and put them to use. Three years later, after my senior year, I was drafted by the New York Giants.
The biggest influence for me in football was my first professional coach, Earl Leggett. Going into the game, I really didn’t know all that much about football. In Germany, I watched games with my dad and read the sports magazines. I knew that—from the viewpoint of the defense—a quarterback sack was a good thing, and in high school that’s all I tried to do. I was big enough, fast enough and naturally gifted enough to play football in college, but I had no technique, no sense of the strategy. Thank God for Earl Leggett.
Coach Leggett taught me technique and showed me how the repetition of drills slowly became instinct. He showed me how to think like my opponents, how to anticipate their moves and adjust my game accordingly. He explained the science of the game. You have to be willing to learn, no matter how old you are. You have to get your ego out of the way, and being in the big leagues, you deal with a lot of egos. There are guys who feel they are too big to listen to anyone. Everything becomes a conflict for them. It’s sad. The coaches are only trying to make their team—our team—the best it can be, but to them it’s an insult because they aren’t willing to admit that there are others who know more than they do.
You go a lot further realizing people are here to help you not to hurt you. This applies to so many areas, not just football. In business, in school, in relationships, you’ve got to realize that you don’t have the final answers, that you need other people to help you out. And if you are open to that help, you’ll be a lot happier and more successful. Three last bits of advice my father taught me: One, the best way to break a bad habit like drugs or alcohol is to never start it; two, never ask someone to give you anything—always earn it first; three, if being successful were easy, everybody would do it, so you have to work hard for success.
This is an edited version of an essay that appears in Mentoring USA founder Matilda Cuomo’s reissued book, The Person Who Changed My Life (Rodale).