Thursday September 10th, 2015

116, 12, 7.

Those three seemingly random numbers have all the meaning in the world to me. During the 2015 NFL season with the Giants, I made 116 total tackles; good enough to tie for 12th in the entire league, in my seventh year playing professional football. Based on all of that, if you had asked me a week ago what I would be doing this weekend, I would have told you to tune in to Sunday Night Football to find me wreaking havoc against the Cowboys.

Only, I won’t be suiting up to chase Tony Romo around in the season-opener. Quite the contrary, actually. Now that I find myself out of a job, I will be watching the game on television — just like everybody else.

Ultimately, this isn’t a story about numbers. It’s about the reality of today’s NFL, a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world where statistics are not nearly as important as the dollars and cents tied to production and, more importantly, perception.

When the phone rang mid-morning on Saturday, I knew immediately. Final cuts were going down, and someone from the Giants’ personnel office wouldn’t be calling me unless the news was bad. Everyone knows how it is from watching Hard Knocks: “We need you to come down to facility with your iPad and playbook. Coach wants to see you right away.”

As a professional athlete, you never think you aren’t good enough. You never acknowledge to yourself that there’s even a chance that you won’t be with your teammates when the bell sounds — at least not consciously, anyway. And you certainly don’t expect to be released after you just played the most consistent season of your NFL career.

Then again, nothing much shocks me. A team of doctors once told me I would never play football again after I suffered a severe spinal cord injury in 2012. So much for that prediction. So, while no one in the Giants’ organization made me any promises, I wouldn’t have believed them if they had. I don’t take anything for granted. Not with the way I grew up.

I’m from North Philadelphia, and my upbringing didn’t start out all that different than those of a lot of black kids from the inner city. My father was out the picture. He was incarcerated over a laundry list of violent crimes, and I never knew the man.

That left my mother to take care of my sister, my brothers and me, and though she did the best she could, our family was often one step away from being homeless.

It’s probably hard for most people to relate to what we went through, but picture yourself wearing the same pants for three months straight. Imagine yourself as a child — innocent and somewhat naive — not only without a roof over your head, but with no idea where your next meal is coming from, or on what dusty floor you are going to be forced to sleep on at night.

When you come from a place like that, you truly have no perspective on how “regular people” live. All you see is your situation, and your friends and their families struggling, too. Oftentimes, it’s a grandparent or an aunt that is filling in for an absent mom and dad.

When things finally reached a breaking point for us, just as we had pretty much lost all hope, my family turned to The Salvation Army for shelter. I didn’t really understand what was happening; as far as I knew, everything we were enduring was normal. It simply didn’t occur to me our struggles weren’t typical for other kids and their families.

That’s not to say that living in a shelter was comforting — not by a long shot. We had no privacy, and strangers would cycle in and out daily. While I never really feared for my safety, it became clear very early on that what few possessions I did have needed to be kept close if I wanted keep them.

Sleeping with one eye open became routine. Literally.

All around me, I began to witness firsthand what happens to kids with no guidance, no structure and no opportunity. It started with acting out in school and bullying. It progressed to stealing and vandalism. Eventually, many of my peers turned to drugs and gangs. Of those, more than a few ended up dead. In truth, I was well on my way down that path, too.

Luckily for me and my siblings, when I was 14, my aunt and uncle opened up their home to us, and everything finally began to change. No longer having to worry about the things that people take for granted, the newfound security freed me to focus on my education and athletics. I quickly discovered that it was OK to hope for a better future, and if I worked really hard, circumstances that were out of my control would no longer conspire to keep me from achieving my goals.

It wasn’t until 2003, though — when I first stepped foot onto the Syracuse University campus as a freshman — that it became clear to me just how different I was, and how impossible the world I came from would seem to those around me. Just seeing the diversity, the maturity, and, honestly, the wealth, it was like I had been dropped into another civilization entirely. Kids had their own cars. They took exotic trips for winter and spring breaks. They walked around without a care in the world or a sense of how lucky they were.

I wasn’t the only one whose eyes were wide open. The majority of Division I football players are black, and many of us come from the same types of broken homes and impoverished urban backgrounds. For us, being exposed to “normalcy” was as eye-opening as it was tempting. Lots of guys believed they were ticketed for the NFL or NBA, so for them, school was just a pit stop on the way to the accompanying fame and fortune, a place for them soak up the attention so many of them had not received growing up.

I had other ideas. I understood what a precious gift I had been given, and that no matter what doors athletics might open for me, an education was the only guarantee I would have to ensure that I never again would have to rely upon the kindness and charity of others just to survive.

Sadly, not all of my teammates and friends felt the same way. For them, particularly when we reached the NFL, the fame and fortune that came along with being a professional football player was the most intoxicating thing they had ever experienced. I wasn’t immune to the pride and privilege that came with being a member of the Ravens, my first team, but given what I had endured as a child, I was not programmed to allow myself to get wrapped up in the spoils.

I have always given consideration to life after football, and how to best position myself to support my family over the long haul. It’s why I have been very responsible with my paychecks. It might surprise you, but a lot of athletes actually do pay attention to what’s going with players who are no longer in the league.

As former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe points out at The Cauldron today:

In October 2012, ESPN Film’s 30 for 30 program ran an episode titled “Broke,” which took an eye-opening look at the many ways professional athletes lose their money. The sheer numbers were shocking to people unfamiliar with what goes on behind the scenes of an athlete’s life: 78 percent of NFL players, broke within just two years of ending their careers. 60 percent of NBA players, broke within five.

Even if those figures are only half-true, they are eye-opening and scary. Keep in mind, there was a time when I had to stretch $1.25 to feed myself for an entire day, a challenge even if you are eating off the value menu. Huge houses and fancy cars are nice and all, but I’ll skip the real estate tax and mechanics’ bills to make sure I don’t end up as just another statistic; another sad story of wasted riches and no appreciation for the amazing opportunities I’ve been given. I’ve lived in that other world, the world that no one likes to talk about.

And I’m never going back there.

So now, as my agent and I consider interest from other NFL teams, I can truly say that I don’t bear any ill will toward the Giants, Mr. John Mara, coach Tom Coughlin or GM Jerry Reece; nor did I toward the Ravens, who released me after the 2013 season, but also gave me my shot in the league.

I consider myself fortunate to have played for two of the best, most well-run, and winningest organizations in the NFL, and not only do I have a Super Bowl championship to my name, I can also look at myself in the mirror knowing that I have always given it everything I had, on and off the field.

What comes next? Hopefully, another shot to contribute to a team that needs a hard-working linebacker that puts team first. And if that call never comes? Well, that’s the great thing about coming from nothing: Once you’ve lived a life “without,” everything that happens thereafter is a blessing; every day is just another tick in the win column.

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