Former Players

Earlier this year, the NFLPA Former Player Services Department launched an essay contest on one simple premise: “What I Wish I’d Known: A Conversation With Your Younger Self.” They received many incredible entries and awarded the following prizes: Caleb Campbell (1st Prize), Walter Bernard (2nd Prize) and W. Patrick Manus (3rd Prize). Caleb received a cash prize and his winning essay is published below.


What I Wish I'd Known

By Caleb Campbell


So what are you doing now?” the elderly man, who didn’t know the difference between a curl and a squat but yet somehow managed to combine the two, unashamedly asked me. 

Not only did he ask me the question in the middle of his workout that would put any contortionist to shame, he asked me in the middle of mine.

God bless him.

I’ve ran into him a few different times in the gym. On one encounter, he finally asked me why my neck was bigger than most people’s thighs and why I always responded with “Sir.”

Being an avid sports fan, he remembered my story and the 2008 NFL Draft.

Pulling out the one earphone I had in while taking a deep breath to combat the tension that usually arrives at the sound of this question, I smiled, placed my hand on his shoulder, and prepared myself to respond.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve been asked the simple but yet relatively dreadful question, “So what are you doing now?”
In the matter of seconds, you go from standing in the comfort of your protective armor to being stripped down to the vulnerability of being fully exposed. Revealing once again our greatest desire but yet deepest fear–to be known.

I’m not going to lie. There was a time in my life when I loved being asked this question. I loved seeing the expressions on people’s faces change from a curious anticipation to thoroughly impressed.

From West Point to the United States Army to the NFL with a quick stop in between to do some training with the USA Bobsledding team, I always took advantage of the free opportunity to talk about myself.

However, upon walking away from my childhood dream and moving to Buffalo, NY, in a desperate attempt to understand the frequent internal angst that continually suffocated the life out of any hope of a prosperous future, I found myself shying away from the question– like I was avoiding the plague.

It’s not that I didn’t want to share with people what I was doing. Or that I was ashamed of the fear, anxiety, and suicidal precursors that were part of my everyday life, I just couldn’t effectively communicate it.

In a loud and noisy world, I couldn’t find my own voice.
But deep down, I knew that I didn’t want to completely let go of the image that I had spent the last decade of my life perfecting. At the time, it’s all that I had. It was my life’s resume.

It was the way that I found acceptance, validation, and affirmation in this experientially cold-hearted world.

I knew that every time I honestly answered this question, I died a little bit more—my self-perfected image falling to the wayside along with the burning stench of my false motives, selfish ambitions, and unquenchable thirst for significance.

So, once again, I found myself at a crossroads with this man intently staring back me. I could give him the run around answer, which would allow me to salvage the little bit of image that I had left and delay the inevitable; or I could finally break up with this fickle way of life that was full of empty promises and a constantly broken heart.

In the matter of seconds, the greatest tug of war this world has ever seen just took place in my heart. The tension found between holding on and letting go was almost unbearable.

It was time. Change it is.

“Truthfully, sir, ” I tripped over my words as if I was a toddler learning to speak. “I traded in my cleats to come to terms for the first time with who I am apart from the game, ” I responded, nervously smiling like you do when you receive a present you don’t like and don’t know how to act.

The wave of unexplainable peace that rushed through my body felt like a cool crisp breeze brushing across my face on a hot summer day.

And there it was–the soft, gentle whisper.

“Behold, I make all things new.” Revelation 21:5

When I walked away from football, I knew it was time. The purity of the game had been compromised. No longer was it just a childhood love and display of talent, but now a need for identity, a source of happiness, and a weight to bear that these shoulders were never meant to carry.

After spending the last few years intently focused on understanding the problem behind the problem, it’s evident what I wish I knew when I started out. 

More specifically, I wish I knew that excuses kill more dreams than the lack of talent ever will.

It’s easy to stand afar looking at every reason why your life is not the way you had once envisioned as a child. Whether your coach isn’t giving you a chance, you don’t have enough money in the bank, or your father abandoned you as a child, pointing the finger and making an excuse is the real impediment to your life not moving forward. 

Unless you’re willing to silence the ego and come to the place of taking full responsibility for your life, in a world of endless galaxies and unchartered waters, excuses will be your ceiling.

But, I get it.

Deep down you won’t want to confront that the problem might be with you. That the fear of never measuring up to the expectation of others is actually the locked door keeping you out. Or, that the unforgiveness you’ve harbored for the things that happened to you as a child is actually what’s sabotaging your life.

But, it’s in that place of responsibility where true victory awaits.

A victory that destroys limitations and gives you a fighting chance to live out your full purpose for this life.  

A victory that no game can ever offer you and a purpose that’s bigger than you.

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