Ever since I was 10 years old, I used to dream of being a professional athlete. In the early 1960s, before there were 600 channels on TV and the internet, it was not unusual to find me playing all by myself in the backyard. I would pretend to make the winning shot for the Philadelphia 76ers, while also calling the winning shot out loud as if I was Al Meltzer. Pretending was another way of dreaming and regardless of the odds, I made this a secret goal. And the journey began…
At all-boys high school, Salesianum, I played football, basketball, and baseball, and was captain of the football and basketball teams. After mulling over 12 college football scholarships, I chose Villanova, where I was Co-Captain my Senior year. During my four years of college, I had little interest in anything but weightlifting, getting good grades to stay eligible, staying healthy, and gaining weight in anticipation of getting drafted into the NFL. The dream continued….
I was the 130th player drafted in the 1973 NFL draft by the 1972 unbeaten Miami Dolphins, who won the 1973 Super Bowl. I was the last guy released by the Dolphins the following year, but I knew that I had 12 weeks of practice, great coaching, and seven pre-season games I played that had made me a much better player. And as disappointed as I was that day, and as coach Don Shula told me the news, he also said, “You didn’t just get released from the Pottstown Firebirds, you got released by the world champions, and you can play in this league, and you’ll be signed by another team within three weeks.” And the dream continued….
I was signed as a free agent with my hometown team, the Philadelphia Eagles. I became a backup linebacker to Bill Bergey, and I played on all the Eagle’s special teams. And so, the dream continues….
On Monday night, September 23rd, 1974, the Philadelphia Eagles played the heavily favored Dallas Cowboys on Monday night football. With four seconds on the clock and the game tied at 10 to 10, I go out on the field with the field goal team. Our kicker, Tom Dempsey, would attempt a 45-yard field goal to win the game. Dallas coach, Tom Landry, calls a double time out, to ice our kicker Dempsey. During the time-out, Dempsey grabs each guy in the huddle by the facemasks, and says, “You get the block, I’ll get the kick.” And the dream continues…
I got the block, along with nine other guys, and as I looked up from the pile-up on the turf of Veterans Stadium, I watched the football sail through the uprights! As we are jumping on each other to a raucous crowd in the stands, I can’t help but think of that 10-year-old boy in his backyard and his dream coming true. Fast-forward four years, to 1979. I woke up in Sloan-Kettering hospital, after two days in ICU, missing my left shoulder, left arm, and four ribs due to a rare but potentially deadly tumor, called Desmoid.
And the dream collapses…. A 29-year-old with three kids, ages two, one, and an infant, and I don’t know if the team of surgeons got all of the tumor, and I won’t know its remission status for ten years. To me, that was a depressing mental jail sentence.
Down the tubes, I went, mentally, as these questions haunted me:
Will the tumor kill me? Will I ever be able to go back to work again as a sales executive at Xerox? Will I ever be able to play golf and get back to running 5k races again? And on and on, the negative list continued in my head, until, at my lowest point, I received a phone call.
It was from former Steeler, Rocky Bleier, who incredibly enough, had returned to the Steelers after being injured in Vietnam by shrapnel from a grenade that destroyed his knee. Doctors had told him his return to football was impossible. Yet, after two intense years of surgeries and excruciating PT sessions, Rocky not only returned to the Steelers but had accumulated four Super Bowl rings and was a major contributor in all four wins. We talked for an hour, and he vigorously challenged me that day to not listen to any naysayers on what I couldn’t or shouldn’t do. He told me my new goal was to be the best one-arm person I could be, mentally and physically. He ended our conversation with this quote: “Experts built the Titanic, and amateurs built the Ark.”
The lesson that I learned that day was this: one good positive person who took the time to care enough to motivate me that day changed my whole life. At 71, I still golf, run in 5K’s, lift weights, drive a car, tie my tie, tie my shoes, etc., etc. ….
Yes, the dream continues, but it’s taking a different path. I promised Rocky, and my God that day, that I would pay it forward on any opportunity that I get. And guess what? It’s been one of the most fulfilling things that I do in my life. I genuinely get joy out of helping others, and I also believe that there are many more good people in this world than bad. But a lot of good people are reluctant to get involved these days, because of the crazy world we live in.
Many people will tell you that they are just not comfortable reaching out to those in need or distress, and my quick reply back to them is this: comfort can be dangerous. “Comfort provides a floor, but also a ceiling,” (quote from Trevor Noah). So I tell them to get out of their comfort zone and take a risk. Here are a few easy starters:
• Listen more intently to the person who is talking to you. Listening is the most tremendous respect that we can give to any human being.
• Greet people with a smile and a cheery hello.
• Congratulate someone in writing on an honor or accomplishment that they achieved. The smallest deed is better than the grandest intention and going forward remember this: “The only thing we take with us when we die, is what we give to others.” (Cardinal Charles of Chicago)!