About the Author
Marcus Brotherton, a former newspaper reporter and a professional writer, is the author or coauthor of seventeen books.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
No Excuses 1
LATE SATURDAY AFTERNOON, APRIL 28, 2012
That’s all I ever dreamed of playing.
One game in the NFL—and it couldn’t be a preseason game—it had to be one regular season NFL game. For years, my sole focus was making that dream a reality.
I’d be satisfied after playing only one game, too. If they cut me after that, I’d still have peace of mind that I played in the NFL. If all went well and I stayed on the team, then great, I’d set new goals after that. But all I wanted to do was show people I belonged up there—at the highest level. I knew I needed to do everything I could to make that dream come true.
Hey—I didn’t even know what I’d even do once I got to that game. You might think I had it all figured out—how I’d pictured myself suiting up and running out of the tunnel into a stadium full of screaming fans. How I’d sprint down the field after the kickoff and charge straight for the guy who’d caught the ball and tackle him hard. How I’d play my heart out and be a beast and at least once during that one game get my hands on the football and help my team win.
But I didn’t have my dream all figured out. I just wanted to get there and see it unfold. My dream of playing in one NFL game was sort of like a guy driving his dream car—if only for a moment. Maybe it’s a Dodge Viper. You don’t know exactly what you’re going to do with that Viper. But if someone hands you the keys, you’ll turn the ignition and screech out of the parking lot with the pedal to the floor.
I was so close to my dream. So close. But one thing stood in my way. This was the third and final day of the NFL Draft. The clock was ticking against me. You can go to the draft in person if you want. It’s held at Radio City Music Hall in New York City every year. But most players don’t go unless they’re a contender for a top pick.
I grabbed four bottles of icy-cold Gatorade out of the kitchen refrigerator at my dad’s house in Fullerton, just another middle-class suburb of Los Angeles, and went outside to the driveway, where I was shooting hoops with my friends from the high school days. We were just fooling around playing two-on-two and H-O-R-S-E, and I tossed a bottle each to my friends. We’re all fierce competitors and were all drenched in sweat, but I think out of kindness they were letting me win this late in the afternoon. They knew my heart was pounding in my chest and had been since the draft had started two days earlier. They knew I was just waiting for that one big phone call today—either from my agent or from a team—saying, You’re it, man. We want you for our team. Welcome aboard. You’re in the NFL.
But so far, no phone call.
And time was running out.
My buddies and I all drank our Gatorade and played another quick burst of two-on-two on the driveway, but my mind wasn’t in it. Mostly just then, my mind was focused on making a run to the bathroom. That Gatorade had really flown through my system, and my back teeth were floating. All the adrenaline I was feeling at waiting for a phone call wasn’t helping any, either.
I went inside the house but the nearest bathroom was occupied, so I passed through the kitchen and the living room to get to the other bathroom. By going through the living room, that meant I needed to look at the TV.
I absolutely did not want to look at the TV.
I was trying so hard to avoid it. The draft is all about anticipation—and I hate anticipation. I can’t even watch a television series when it’s shown on regular TV if it’s one of those shows that have a cliffhanger and are continued every week. I need to know what’s happening right now, so I’d far rather download a whole TV series off iTunes and watch it all at once. Too much anticipation, and it feels like my heart’s going to explode. That’s how I’d feel on game day, too, right before a big game. Anticipation.
Sure enough, I couldn’t help but glance at the TV. I couldn’t believe we were already at the sixth round. I’d hoped to be picked in the fourth or fifth. Maybe even as high as the third. I figured I wouldn’t go in the first or second, but I’d made the mistake of mentioning my doubts two days earlier to my mama, who’s always full of faith. She slapped me upside the head with a serious grin and said, “You never know, Derrick. You might go in the first or second. God is amazing.”
And I said, “Yes, he is, but I’m being realistic, too.”
I love my mama with all my heart. My dad, too. I’m blessed to have a big network of supporters, family, and friends, but I’ve gotta say that my mama, May Hamlin, and my dad, Derrick Coleman Sr., are my two biggest supporters. They’ve worked with me for so many years to get me to the level I’m at. They’re my biggest fans, and they’ve always been pushing me forward, encouraging me, helping me in any way possible. I could never repay them, and I never want to let them down. Particularly not with the draft.
For this third and final day of the draft, I’d wanted to keep the party small at the house. My parents invited my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, and some friends over to the house—that was it. They were all watching the TV except my grandma, who was in the kitchen, frying some chicken for supper. Everyone’s mouth was watering at the smell of that fried chicken. The counters were piled high with potato salad and Doritos and chips and baked beans and fresh coleslaw. Plenty of warm apple pie was waiting for dessert. My grandma is the best cook ever. She cooks on point. But there I was, glancing at the TV while on my way to the bathroom, and my heart sank in my chest. The draft was too far along. The clock was ticking too quickly. I should have been picked by now. Something was wrong. Definitely wrong.
We’d all known I stood a high chance of getting drafted. I wasn’t a Heisman winner or anything, and I knew I wouldn’t be a first-round pick, but I knew I stacked up well against other college running backs, and I was confident that I’d proved myself both on and off the field.
I was a senior at the University of California, Los Angeles, a standout player on my team. My stats as a running back were really strong. My game film had been sent everywhere. My senior year alone I led the team with eleven touchdowns. I was ranked second on my team with a career-best 765 yards rushing. I’d won the Tommy Prothro Award for Outstanding Special Teams Player, and the Paul I. Wellman Memorial Award for All-Around Excellence. My coaches and agents and friends and family all agreed that I had a strong shot at making the NFL, a really strong shot. But if I wasn’t picked by now . . . well . . . this thought rushed at me as terrifyingly as a veteran linebacker, huge, agile, and fast—maybe I wasn’t going to get my one game after all. Maybe I was going to let down my friends and family. Maybe my dream was never going to come true. I quickly walked past the TV, went and did my thing, then washed up and headed back outside.
Mama was sitting in the garage with her phone in her hands. The garage door was up, and she was watching us play basketball, but not really. She was praying, waiting, wanting with all her might for that phone to ring, just like we all were. I looked her way and she smiled at me, but her smile was tense. No call had come. Who were we kidding?
I was never going to play in the NFL.
You gotta realize the odds against me making it even this far—I mean, as far as I’d gotten that Saturday in April—playing basketball on my driveway, waiting for the phone to ring, hoping and praying like mad that I was going to get drafted into the NFL.
The process of making it to the NFL starts back in high school. Actually, it starts even before that, in a sense, but high school is where the road to the NFL becomes more serious. Think about how many high school football players there are at any given time in the United States. We all love football in America. It’s played on every high school field and playground patch of grass from coast to coast and back again, New York to Los Angeles, Miami to Seattle.
If you’re playing at a high school level, then football is competitive, but there’s still fun and games involved, too. It’s a bit more relaxed. A lot of the guys have played in middle school and for Pop Warner leagues, so they know what’s going on. But a lot of guys are still learning the fundamentals of the game, even by the time they reach high school. A couple of players on each high school team will be really good. One might be a standout player. Most of the other guys will soon learn to hold their own. But at that level a few players on your team will be average. A few players might even suck. So, let’s do a little math. There are about 37,000 high schools in America. Most high schools are going to have football programs. Each high school team has about 50 players. That’s about 1.8 million high school players total. That’s where the pool of potential NFL players begins—a pool as big as the ocean is wide.
The years pass, and you need to narrow that pool to a river. Plenty of high school seniors want to play football at a college level, which you have to do to make it into the NFL. With other professional sports, like basketball, for instance, a guy can sometimes jump straight from high school to the big leagues. But not football. In football, you either have to play a minimum of three years in college to be eligible—or you have to be out of high school for three years. They want you older, bigger, tougher, wiser. That’s how it works. So, you take those 1.8 million high school players, and maybe a quarter of them will be high school seniors. That means some 460,000 high school seniors are trying to make the jump and play at a collegiate level. Colleges want the best players they can get, and here’s where the first real sharp ax falls.
You quickly see at college how that’s where the business side of the game kicks in. In college, you have to keep your scholarship, and to do that you have to play well. Most players will have mastered the fundamentals of the game by then, but not everything about the game will be mastered. Football’s a game where you keep learning as long as you play it. It’s sorta like golf. When you watch it on TV, it looks so easy. But then you try to play the game yourself. The slightest repositioning of your arm, your elbow, your legs, your back, can make the difference between a ball in the sand trap and a hole in one. The stakes are raised in college. Definitely raised.
About 115 colleges across America have NCAA Division 1 football programs. Each college team has about 110 players. Division 2 has about the same amount of teams. There’s also Division 3 to contend with, as well as NAIA. So, you take that original ocean of high school players, and maybe you end up with 40,000 college players total, with a quarter of those positions becoming open each year to freshmen as the college seniors graduate. That’s 1.8 million high school players getting sliced down to about 10,000 college freshmen who get to play football. Point being: It ain’t easy to play football at a college level. And after that, it gets even harder.
If you want to play in the NFL, then part of the challenge means you gotta survive three years in college. Football’s brutal. I respect a man if he becomes a lawyer or an architect, a doctor or a journalist—all of those are competitive professions where you have be really good to make it. But the big difference between any of those and football is that in those professions no one’s trying to physically hurt you like they do when you play the game.
They talk about the “beast” mentality being necessary to play football well. Out there on the field, you gotta be an animal. It’s controlled aggression, yeah, but it’s most definitely aggression. You can’t hold anything back. I know of guys who’ll mentally prepare themselves before a game by rehearsing in their minds the time in their lives when they’ve been the most angry. They get that image in their heads, and then they charge out onto the field, ready to unleash all that rage in the game. That’s what’s coming toward you every play. It’s a street fight. A wall of angry muscle.
If, by chance, you do survive and end up as a college senior and you’re not limping or in a coma in a hospital, then you’ll find yourself one of about 3,500 other players who potentially could play at the NFL level. Those are the guys you’re competing against to make it into the draft. There are also guys from other countries who become eligible for the draft, and they’re trying to get spots, too. I’d seen how Tyrone Crawford was drafted by the Cowboys. He’s a Canadian. The Giants picked up Markus Kuhn, a star player from Germany. A couple of other standout Canadians were picked up, and a couple of guys from England, too. So the draft is really a worldwide competition, although the bulk of players get drafted from American college teams.
Here’s where the numbers really shrink. That river turns into a garden hose. There are 32 NFL teams total. Each NFL team has 53 guys on the roster. That’s 1,696 players total in the NFL, give or take, at any one time. Each year, about 200 of those spots open up, so just over 250 guys are ever drafted into the NFL in any given year. Even if you’re drafted, that doesn’t mean you’ve made it. The guys who are drafted need to compete with everyone else on the roster as well as the free agents and any guys from other leagues who might be trying for a slot. You could be drafted and still not ever play an official NFL game.
Those are the odds. You start with 1.8 million high school players and time goes by and you cut and cut and finally end up with 250 guys getting drafted. Or think about it this way: There’s plenty of good-sized cities in America that have a population of about 68,000 people. If every single person in that city was trying to make it into the NFL, then you’d end up with one draftee out of that city. By the time anybody gets to the NFL level, every player on every team is a great athlete, the best of the best. He’s the American idol of the football field. And I was confident I had what it takes to play in the NFL.
But still that phone of mine wasn’t ringing.
I went back to the driveway, and my friends and I played some more basketball. We were all practicing our dunks now, all trying to look cool, all trash-talking each other and trying to be the man. In my mind, I thought about how there was one other obstacle I needed to overcome. The thought flashed at me suddenly, because usually I don’t even think about it anymore. My friends don’t, either. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, that’s why my phone wasn’t ringing.
See, I never really looked at this other thing as all that big a deal, but I knew other people did if they didn’t know me. To me, this other thing was something that always made me stronger. Something that made me so all-fired determined to succeed at the highest level I could. Ever since I was a kid, if ever I wanted to do something, then thanks to this obstacle I’d needed to fight and scrape and claw my way forward, and go as absolutely hard as I could to achieve a goal. When I lifted weights in practice, I lifted like a man on fire. Whenever it was game day and I ran for the ball, I sprinted like a cheetah hungry for a gazelle. If someone was yelling at me, telling me that I was no good, well, I just never listened. You know what I mean?
Let me explain it another way. The day after my Pro Day (where NFL scouts came to UCLA), my agent and his girlfriend were in San Diego doing some business for another ...
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