Author’s note: In the comic books, origin stories are used to explain the superhero’s background. The details about how they came to be are often as compelling as the tales of how they use their powers. We may not be superheroes in the same way, but I believe our origin stories are also worth exploring. Who we become is dependent on what we’ve experienced. Our past is our path. When we dig into it, we uncover the foundations of us — our origin stories. It’s important that we understand and honor those stories. Most of all, we need to share them, so others might better understand their own journey. This is mine…
The Making of a Dream
What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s a question I bet we’ve all been asked at least once in our lives. Sometimes the answer is crystal clear and unwavering. Other times, it can take decades for us to figure out. And even after many years of searching, some will never truly find their answer. For me, early on, the answer was an easy one. When I was five years old, my dad sat me in front of our television set and turned it on. “Watch this,” he said. It was one of those old tube TVs that sat in a big box on the floor, taking forever for the screen to fire up. But when it did I saw dozens of large, armored men running out onto an artificial grass field. Tens of thousands of people screamed in admiration. That was my introduction to college football. More specifically, Syracuse Orangemen football. And my young eyes had never seen anything more beautiful. Except for my mother, of course. Once the game started, my mind was completely blown. There was no shortage of excitement — diving catches, bruising tackles, guys running full speed and crashing into one another, long touchdown passes and disappointing turnovers. Three and a half hours later, I had not moved an inch from where my dad first sat me down. Sitting there that Saturday afternoon, in the fall of 1987, I made a decision that would shape the rest of my life. When I grow up, I’m going to be one of them. I’m going to be a scholarship football player for Syracuse University. That’s a pretty bold statement for a five-year-old. But I was committed. So committed that my first words after that game were to tell my dad of my future plans. Dad! I want to do that when I grow up! I want to be just like them! He laughed. But not in a disparaging way. More like in admiration. I think he could tell I meant it. And at that point, a tradition was born. For the rest of the season — and many years after — I spent Saturday afternoons watching my beloved Orangemen. My dad would sit with me and cheer along. Soon, I was telling him who all the players were and what positions they played. As it turns out, 1987 was an exceptional year for Syracuse. It was one of the best seasons the program has ever had — an undefeated 11-0 record, eventually tying Auburn in the 1988 Sugar Bowl. If you ever want to get a Syracuse Football fan riled up, ask them about that game. I digress.
The First Letter
Near the end of the season, I reminded my dad of my plan for my future. I was going to be a scholarship football player for Syracuse University. I couldn’t get it out of my head. At this point, it wasn’t even a dream. In my mind, it was ordained. This was my future. Now, all I had to do was get from age 5 to age 18 so I could get started on life. Once again, my dad guided me on a path that would shape my future. He said, “That’s great. Why don’t you write the coach a letter and tell him?” So I did. I wrote a three-page letter in the impeccable handwriting of a now six-year-old. In it, I told the coach how much I loved the program, that I wanted to meet them all, and how I intended to play there one day. I put it in an envelope, addressed it to Coach Dick MacPherson, and dropped it in the mail. And that was the last I thought about it, until months later when a letter came for me. As a five-year-old, I didn’t get much mail so this was a big deal. It was an even bigger deal when I saw the return address: Syracuse Football, Manley Field House. I ripped open the envelope and read the letter. It thanked me for my support and encouraged me to continue practicing and studying. It said that hopefully, I’d be able to suit up for the Orange one day. The letter was signed, Dick MacPherson. I was like a teenie-bopper who met Taylor Swift. Everything was starting to take shape. My plan was clear. I knew my destiny. I was on my way.
A Dream Deferred
Now the Universe has a funny way of handling such — we’ll call them — requests. Simply put, it doesn’t care much when or how you want something. Things tend to happen in their own time and in their own way. Of course, I didn’t know that then. But as I grew older, it became more evident that this dream I conjured as a boy wasn’t as guaranteed as I once thought. In fact, it was unlikely. I was a good football player. But I wasn’t elite. No one was knocking my door down to play for them. My dream was on life support. In my senior year of high school, I made a decision that I knew would ultimately kill it. I was going to community college. Could I have gotten into Syracuse and taken a shot at walking onto the football team? Yeah, probably. My grades were good enough and I was capable of keeping up as a walk-on. But that wasn’t the best decision for me at the time. So I allowed that door to close. And that’s when things really got interesting… After a couple of years, I transferred to a small state school 30 miles south of Syracuse. My final semester called for a full-time internship in the sports industry. The timing was perfect. An opportunity opened in the video department with…you guessed it, Syracuse Football. Following that internship, the stars aligned again. They hired me as a graduate assistant within the football program. As a GA, I would get paid a small work stipend, but I would also have my graduate education paid for.
Backing Into The Dream
It was a few years later before it finally dawned on me, but I had achieved the dream I held as a five-year-old boy. I was on scholarship with Syracuse Football. Sure, it wasn’t exactly as I had intended. I wasn’t a football player, but I was getting a free education as part of the program. That I’d fulfilled my childhood dream (no matter how it happened) was a profound realization. It confirmed that dreams do come true, and it emphasized that they don’t always happen in the way we envision. Sometimes we have to get out of the way and let life happen to us. Around the time that I made that connection, I had another thought. After a brief stint in the NFL, Coach MacPherson was now retired from coaching. He had returned to Syracuse and was part of the radio broadcast team. He was also in the football office often. One day I mustered up the courage to catch him in the hallway. I had in my hand photocopies of our correspondence from 1987. I handed them to him and said, “Coach, these are from 20 years ago. I thought you might like to see them again.” He took the papers from me. As he read them a smile crossed his face. I could almost see him going back in time as he remembered a season that was magical for so many people. He asked if he could keep the letters. I told him he could.
Dream vs. Reality
The football coaching profession is unique. The stakes are very, very high. A couple years later, the head coach who had hired me and helped me complete that long, strange journey was fired. I felt a sense of gratitude toward him that I didn’t think I could explain verbally. So I did what my dad told me to do 20 years earlier with the first football coach who made an impact on my life. I wrote him a letter thanking him for all that he had given me. Not long after, the school named a new head coach and he retained me. I was happy to still have a job. I was happy to still be working for the program of my dreams. But after five seasons, I was also aware of the grind of college football. For six months out of the year, I was working seven days a week, 15 hours a day. The rest of the year was a more normal 9 to 5, with some long days and Saturdays sprinkled in. It was intense. And it was hard. And not only on me. I missed a lot. Birthday parties, family dinners, barbecues, and spontaneous get-togethers. I sent my wife to more than one of our friend’s weddings by herself. Those were the worst. But this was my dream. And I wasn’t ready to give it up just yet.
A couple of years later another colleague took a job in the NFL. He was responsible for hiring me as an intern at the very beginning. We had become good friends and I knew I’d miss him. I wanted him to know how grateful I was. So what did I do? I wrote him a letter. A few years after that, the coach who’d retained me was leaving Syracuse for an opportunity with the NFL. Working for him was enjoyable. We won some big games. I experienced bowl games and a conference championship. I was grateful for the impact he made and wanted him to know. Time for another letter. Noticing a trend here? Once again the anxiety of wondering if I’d have a job with the new coach returned. This time it was an internal hire (a coach I had a good relationship with). He retained most of the staff, myself included. The dream continues! What also continued was the long hours. Missing my family. Never hanging with my friends. And now, I had two small children at home and one on the way. Not only was I not seeing enough of them, but my wife, God bless her, was working full time. When she wasn’t working she was home alone caring for the kids. It was asking a lot of her.
All Good Things…
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found two things to be true: nothing is more important than family and nothing lasts forever. In March 2014, the newest head coach stopped by my office and shut the door behind him. Conversations that begin that way are never good. We talked for a long time. It wasn’t until after he’d left that the message he came to deliver finally sank in. They were letting me go. The program was moving in a different direction and they no longer needed my position. They were kind enough to let me stay through June of that year if necessary, or until I found a new job. Part of me was devastated. The dream was going to end. These had been some of the most exciting and the most challenging years of my life, but now I knew it was going to end. I also had to figure out how I would make a living. It brought on new stress. But there was also part of me that was relieved. The long hours and the time away had worn me down. My love of the program never wavered, but I was burnt out. I knew whatever I did next would need to have a more forgiving schedule. Typically, in the football profession, someone in my situation would just look for another job at a school somewhere else. But that wasn’t what I wanted. My dream was always very focused on the Syracuse football program. As much as I loved football, I didn’t have any interest in taking on the grind at some other school. The coach told me my new responsibility for the next three months was to find another job. Everything else was secondary. I spent my time looking for a new job, doing whatever was necessary at the current job and working on my pet project — a book I was writing.
The book was a labor of love, a collection of life lessons I wanted to pass on to my son, Joey. I had been working on it in my limited spare time, but now I had plenty of extra time to finish it. So that’s what I did. By June, I had found a new job (outside the world of athletics) and was preparing to leave the football program. There was one more thing to do: I had one last letter to write. This time, I wrote it inside the front cover of my book, which I’d published not long before. It was the last in a series of letters I’d written for the people who made my dream come — and stay — true for ten magical years. The letter I wrote as a boy had finally come full circle. I left the book on the coach’s desk and walked out of the facility one final time. As I sat in my car, a flash of thoughts, memories, and emotions like I’d never experienced before flooded my mind. There were plenty of things I’d miss. I’d been given the opportunity of a lifetime and the specialness of it was not lost on me. I thought about the memorable 1987 season, and that first Saturday when my dad sat me in front of the television. I thought about the journey from my living room to the Carrier Dome. I considered the unlikely path I walked as I backed myself into the dream I created as a young boy. Most importantly, I thought of all the people who’d helped me get there. Then, after a few moments, I started my car and drove away. My life has not been the same since. I guess that’s to be expected. For ten years I’d lived my dream. But, life moves on. And I had no choice but to move with it.
A different job meant different hours. Normal-person hours, in other words. I was excited to have more time to spend with family. As it turns out, that would soon prove to be a poignant thought. Less than two months later, I came home from my new job and my wife was sitting on the couch. She was troubled. She relayed the news she’d received not long before. That afternoon my dad had gone to the doctor’s office for chest x-rays. He’d been fighting a persistent, dry cough for more than a month. The x-rays showed several spots on his lungs. The doctor feared the worst. It turns out he was right. Scans showed a large mass in his throat. An endoscopy took a sample for biopsy. It was cancer. Stage 4 in his esophagus and it had spread to his lungs. It was inoperable, but the doctors wanted to attack it hard with chemotherapy. The hope was that the right treatment would prolong his life. Of course, this news was devastating for the entire family. I felt helpless. I wanted to do something, anything to make this all go away. But there was nothing anyone could do. I resigned myself to simply being there for him in whatever way I could. I was grateful the new job had provided me with more time off so I could spend as much as possible with him. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about all those hours I’d spent working while he was healthy. In the grand scheme of life, had they even mattered? The doctors gave him eighteen months. He lasted twenty-two. Two years after I lost my dream job — a dream he’d helped foster and one he’d always believed I could achieve — I lost my dad. He was sixty-two years old.
The Life Changers Project
A little over a year after he passed, I had finally begun to better understand my dad’s death. The pain hadn’t gone away, but the passage of time helped make sense of what happened. When you lose a parent, it’s a natural part of the grieving process to reminisce about your childhood. I’ve thought a lot about the fall of 1987 — the one where my dad sat me in front of the TV and changed my life forever. It occurred to me, finally, that the answer to that age-old question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” actually has nothing to do with “what” you want to be, but instead is all about who you want to be. I now know who I want to be. The answer is likely the same for everyone whether we realize it or not. I think we all want to make our life count in a way that changes someone else’s life for the better. We all want to be life changers. It was around that time I began developing this idea of writing letters to those who have made an impact in our lives. I called it The Life Changers Project and the concept was simple. Just like when I was 5 years old writing to Coach MacPherson, I would write handwritten letters to the Life Changers I knew. And I would encourage them to do the same for those people in their lives. Who knows, maybe people would embrace it and the idea would take off. I’d grown tired of how ugly the world had gotten and I didn’t know if I could change it myself. But I remembered how Coach MacPherson’s face lit up when he reread my letter from 30 years earlier. And I thought maybe I could recreate that joy, even just a bit, if I wrote more letters. So, on my thirty-sixth birthday, that’s exactly what I did. I sat at my kitchen table, with a pen and a notepad, and began writing my first official Life Changer Letter. “Dear Dad,…” And I’ve been writing them ever since.
I am a marketer, a writer, and a thinker. Sometimes I do all three at once. My greatest achievement is convincing my wife to marry me. We have three kids and yes, one of them is my favorite. I'm the author of "Lessons for Joey: 100 Things I Can't Wait to Teach My Son" and "Where Greatness Lives".