A career-high 235 carries. 1,266 rushing yards. Eight touchdowns. A Pro Bowl selection. A three-year contract with the Baltimore Ravens. After years of scuffling as a football player, it was all happening. Just like I drew it up, right?
The truth is, my NFL “arrival” during the 2014 season would not have been possible if I hadn’t first started to understand what real adversity looks like. Let me explain.
Just over a year earlier, my season had been cut short by a foot injury. The Jacksonville Jaguars placed me on season-ending injured reserve, and despite having been cut by three teams in my first six seasons, despite the seemingly never-ending “he’s too small” explanations, despite every stinging challenge I had endured to that point—something felt different. It wasn’t just that I was hurt; I was angry and frustrated. My eternal sense of optimism had abandoned me completely. My future seemed bleak.
All I could think was, “Why me?”
And that’s when the lights came on for the first time. It was during a warm evening walk in our Jacksonville neighborhood with my wife Angie and our one-year old son Judah. “If this is it, Justin,” she asked me. “If you won’t play football ever again, are you ready for that?”
I stopped, looked at her, and then down at our son. “No. No, I am not ready for that. I have so much more to do.”
Only, I wasn’t really talking about football—even if I didn’t fully comprehend what I meant at the time. Sure, I still wanted to gain more yardage, help my team pick up more wins and be a part of championships, but I knew that if any of that was going to happen, I needed to find fulfillment and joy away from the game. Only then would I have the strength and perspective necessary to achieve my maximum potential—by helping others along the way.
Real adversity? That's something real people face every day. And I became determined to make a real difference in their lives.
Mulberry, Fla., where my two brothers and I grew up, is a small, blue-collar, phosphate-mining town of 3,000 people. The town has four stoplights and railroad tracks running all throughout. In the evenings, with the town blanketed by mosquitoes, you’ll find young country kids playing football or basketball in the streets.
When I was growing up, my parents worked hand-in-hand at their BBQ joint in Mulberry, trying to give us a chance at better lives. My mom used to put in endless hours at the restaurant; mostly making the secret family recipe BBQ sauce that people would drive in from all over the state just to taste. (Even now, when my NFL games are nearby, my parents still cater for the entire team.) My dad had two other jobs—he was also a truck-driver and the pastor at our church.
In high school, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. She battled it on and off for years, sometimes finding herself in the hospital for extended stretches. When that happened, we managed to cope like any good team would: As a family … together. My brothers and I would fill in at the restaurant, and we drew strength from each other during this rough and emotional time. We always prayed together, relying upon our faith to keep our family together.
And though my mother’s cancer eventually went into remission—for a while, anyway—those days never afforded me much of an opportunity to think about the hardships that other people faced; I was too busy dealing with the immediate problems that my loved ones and I were facing.
In some ways, this was nothing new for me. As a kid, I was always the smallest. I knew that, but it never really bothered me. It still doesn’t. At 5' 8", 190 pounds, it simply meant that I was going to have to work twice as hard at everything in order to prove myself and to be taken seriously. Especially when it came to achieving my dreams of getting to the NFL.
If the offensive linemen were lifting 300 pounds, I felt like I had to lift 300 pounds. Every night, I was home doing 1,000 pushups and 1,000 sit-ups, even on the weekends. I rarely went out. I wanted to be prepared for any opportunity that would present itself to me.
Later, after winning two state championships for Grace Preparatory Academy—and a combined 5,000 yards rushing during my junior and senior seasons—I realized that hard work wasn’t necessarily going to be enough. Scholarship offers were coming in for my teammates, but nothing for me. Notre Dame expressed interest, but then called and said they were going with someone else. UConn did the same thing.
I remember going down to our basement, dropping to my knees and crying after those calls.
Sure, I knew I was doing everything right on the field and in the classroom, but I needed some kind of reassurance. I wanted a sign from God that everything was going to be okay. I turned to the Bible and landed on the following passage:
Proverbs 3:5-6, Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
The next thing I knew, the head coach of Cal called, offering me one of the last scholarships of 2004. Aaron Rodgers was our quarterback. Marshawn Lynch and J.J. Arrington were the team’s running backs. But I didn’t care. No matter what the odds looked like, no matter how buried I was on the depth chart, I was going to make a positive impact on the team.
Eventually, I did. In my senior season, I became the starter, rushing for 1,546 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns.
Still, even though I was “doing it,” something in the back of my mind kept gnawing at me. Something was missing in my life, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was.
Fast forward to that foot injury I suffered in December of the 2013 season. As a seventh-round draft pick, I felt like things were starting to close in all around me. You only get so many chances in this league, and I felt like I was on thin ice.
I had been drafted in 2008 by the Seattle Seahawks, but after scoring and gaining 261 all-purpose yards in my first preseason, they cut me. The Colts picked me up and waived me a month later. The Seahawks picked me up again, and put me on the practice squad. Eventually, I was able to work my way off the practice squad into a starting running back rotation for the next few seasons behind Julius Jones, but Seattle wouldn’t re-sign me after the 2011 season. Houston picked me up in 2012 season, but that was a one-and-done situation. Jacksonville brought me in for the 2013 season after that.
I was starting to wonder if maybe my confidence in my abilities had been misplaced. Maybe I wasn’t good enough. Maybe it was never going to happen for me.
And that’s when everything changed.
Pastor Anthony Johnson, a former NFL player (with the Jaguars, coincidentally), not only became my spiritual rock, he also forced me to examine what really mattered in my life. Yeah, my wife and son were my everything, but Anthony pushed me to not spend so much time lamenting my own woes. He made me understand that feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to change things, that the only way to lift myself up was to focus on helping lift others up.
It started with small acts for my teammates, asking them how I could help them or giving them encouragement and validation for their hard work. Soon after, I found myself watching the evening news, and saw that a local family had lost everything to a devastating house fire. The mother of the family was a single white woman with long brown hair, and I distinctly remember her talking about her three children. She described how they were living in a trailer home, and the fire happened when she was out working one of her two jobs to support her family. Something about it touched me, and brought me back to my Mulberry roots.
I picked up the phone and called the Jaguars to see how I could help. We tracked down the family, raised some funds, put them in a hotel and helped provide them with donated clothes. Later, when we brought them out to a game, we immediately embraced, and they expressed how grateful they were that a total stranger had reached out to help.
I beamed with happiness. The reality was that I was the one who felt grateful. Grateful that I could do something—however small—to make a terrible situation just a little bit better. I thought to myself, “Forget what you are going, through, Justin, this family just lost everything—and they are not the only ones out there.”
That was a major turning point in my life.
There was a bigger picture beyond football, beyond the Super Bowl rings. It became about the relationships I was making and that was fueling me to do better and be better. The realization that I could make a difference for someone in need gave me an altogether different perspective. The layers of pain and rejection that I had built up over the years started to peel back the more I helped people.
When I broke my arm in Week 11 of the 2015 season, and was put on injured reserve again, this time by the Ravens, it didn’t shake me. By then, I knew I had purpose off the field. I was capable of contributing in ways much deeper than by playing football.
In April of this year, a good friend of mine from Flint, Mich. called and told me that there was a very serious health crisis going on with the water in his town. People were getting very sick, children and the elderly were at risk of dying. I immediately called friends from around the league, including Torrey Smith, Steve Smith Sr., Mark Ingram and Marshawn Lynch, and we quickly donated bottled water, ShowerPill body wipes and money to the local United Way.
Some of us even went to Flint to deliver supplies. At an elder care facility, we ran into a group of seniors sitting around having breakfast and watching TV. I had a broken arm, of course, so Torrey was helping me stack the water and the body wipes.
I asked the group, “Where are you all from?”
One elderly black woman in a floral dress answered, “I was from Mississippi.”
She told me her husband found work at the Ford Factory in Flint many years ago and that’s what brought them there. We talked about soul food like the kind that parents cook and sweet tea. She said they didn’t have any of that in Flint. When the factories shut down, she said, everything in the city fell apart.
I felt so humbled to be spending time with such a brave woman, and so proud to have brought current and past teammates together to help her and her friends in our small way.
The experience made me want to give back even more.
In August, when I saw the images of the epic floods devastating Baton Rouge, La., I knew I wanted to do something for the people of the city. As luck would have it, the Ravens were headed down to the region for one of our preseason games against the New Orleans Saints. Working with the United Way and Salvation Army, I learned about a local warehouse that had been turned into a makeshift store for residents to get supplies. Volunteers were gathering goods for those affected, so I got myself a list and started buying what was need: Underwear, toiletries, ladies’ shirts and dresses—life’s basic necessities.
As I handed one of the many large black plastic bags out to the families, there was a black woman who stood out to me. She had her hair wrapped in a black and purple scarf and held onto a neon pink phone in her hand. Understandably, she was tired and stressed. I felt for her. She had no idea who I was, or that I played in the NFL, until one of the other volunteers told her.
Her face lit up with a huge smile. “You’ve come here to help us?” she asked. “Come here,” she said, “I need to give you a hug.” It was a really cool moment, and exemplifies why it’s so important to give your time to others. What might seem like a trivial or unimportant gesture has the power to lift spirits, even in the darkest hours.
And seeing how resilient people are in the face of real adversity, that gives me all the inspiration I need to keep on giving more of myself whenever I can. That’s the secret to life. Give of yourself and you will receive everything you need in return, even if you don’t know exactly what that may be.
When Baltimore cut me and re-signed me all in one weekend a few weeks back, it wasn’t any sweat off my back. I just remembered the faces of the single mom and her kids in Jacksonville, the elderly woman from Mississippi in Flint and the warm embrace of a woman in need in Baton Rouge.
If they can keep smiling, so can I. Even when the touchdowns inevitably become a thing of the past.