It was weak at first, a glimmering thread of hope that forced me to smile, to tell them I was okay, that I’d be all right, even if I didn’t believe it. But at the end of that first day, as I lay in the bed I couldn’t feel underneath me, I quietly begged my fingers to move, sent the command down my arms as I had thousands of times that day, a mantra repeated over and over, until finally, they did.
There have been few times in my life that I’ve felt so elated, so emotional, so much. As if every fiber of me vibrated with hope, possibility, and determination.
The hope sprang from there. By the next morning — I didn’t sleep, just lay awake, willing my body to listen, to come back to life — I could lift my arms and bend my fingers, nothing close to full movement, but the joy in my parents’ faces filled me with even more resolve.
On the third day, I took my first steps, and it was then that the doctors believed it was possible that I’d make a full recovery. But I’d never play again.
I could never play again, but I would live.
Those first days were filled with that affirmation. Because without it, I don’t know what would have happened to me. The darkness of the knowledge of what it could have been was ever present — I could feel it at the edge of everything, and in the center of that was hope. At first, that glimmer of hope was small, the darkness heavy. But my family was there. My team was there. Kyle was there. And with every day, the hope grew, pushing the boundaries of the dark further away.
They put me in a halo and kept me in the hospital for two weeks, every day full of daily physical therapy as I regained use of my fine motor skills, starting with feeding myself. The frustration of not being able to eat pudding on my own was so high, I swore I’d never eat it again as long as I lived, and it was a promise I’d kept.
In those two weeks, my girlfriend Gretchen didn’t come to see me once. It was days before I could use my phone, and when I checked it, she hadn’t sent anything, so neither did I. What could I even say? She knew where I was, and she didn’t want to see me. I couldn’t even pretend to know why, and I couldn’t fathom how to compartmentalize that, not with everything else.
But Kyle came every day. He spent hours sitting with me, bringing me news, movies, and when I could use my hands well enough, he brought a PlayStation. The best therapy I had for my mind or body was sitting and playing Call of Duty with him, like everything was normal in those moments. Like my universe hadn’t imploded and turned into a massive black hole.
He kept coming when I made it home, every day, without fail. He saved me from myself in those days.
Gretchen came to my parents’ house a week after I was released, looking awkward and ashamed. She couldn’t do it, she’d said. She hadn’t signed up for this, for the stress of it all. At the time, I was crushed, the salt in the gaping wound, an underscore of all I’d lost. Looking back, I wasn’t surprised. Deep down I’d known that Gretchen wasn’t in it for me. She was in it for her, and when I didn’t suit her anymore, she left. If she’d loved me, she would have stayed. It was that simple. Didn’t make it hurt any less, though.
Jack Jones spent a lot of time in Nebraska too, staying for a week at my parents’ house. He and my dad had been friends for near thirty years at that point — he’d been my dad’s agent too, Jack’s first client. Jack would have been my agent, too.
Before he left town, we sat down together, he and I, and talked about my future. It was the topic he’d always made paramount, my future, like a billboard for a life I couldn’t have anymore. But just because I wouldn’t be playing ball didn’t mean he couldn’t help me secure a new future. So he offered me a job.
At first, I’d only accepted because I had no other prospects, settling on a sure thing. But over the course of the year following my injury, I poured my heart into it. I could stay connected to the game in a way that I could be a mentor, help players secure their futures. Coaching was too much pressure — as much as I loved the game, I didn’t know if I wanted to be a leader on that level. Plus, being around the game so much, the players, the energy … I just didn’t know if I could handle it. I needed separation. I needed space. And I found it the minute I had my degree in hand and moved to New York.
It was a fresh start in all ways.
I was still lost in thought as I walked into the building where I worked in Midtown and took the elevator up into the towering skyscraper where every window held a sweeping view of Manhattan — either the harbor on one side and the stretch of city extending toward Central Park on the other. Any way you looked, it was a beautiful sight.
I headed toward my small office just off Jack’s, greeting my coworkers on the way. There weren’t all many of us, as careers went — only eight hundred agent positions even existed for eighteen hundred NFL players, though we had a few agents who handled other sports, a few baseball agents, a few basketball, and a couple of guys who dealt in contracts with hockey and soccer. But football was our specialty and the foundation of our company.
Jack sat at his desk, broad shoulders hunched as he hammered away at his keyboard, looking gruff. His tie was already loose, the top button undone, shirtsleeves rolled up. He was a cowboy in the literal and figurative sense — Jack Jones played for the Cowboys in the eighties and grew up in East Texas. He was a gang-buster, the type of guy to take no shit but who was always honest, even if it lost him a client. He was a rebel, always doing things the way he said would help him sleep best at night.
I popped my head in. “Morning, Jack.”