So, my oldest child is now at an age where she is starting to vocalize her own opinion, and this is a new experience for me. My wife Kirsten and I have two daughters. Eden is three years old and Emery recently turned two in July. It’s common now to hear our children mimicking the words and expressions they’ve heard us say, a constant reminder that they’re watching us.

I often consider how the experience of being a professional athlete will impact my children as they continue to grow. Because of their age, they will reflect on my most recent actions and not remember me prominently being in the NFL. Still, it granted our children many of the things they have now, including access to quality schools as well as the ability to live in an affluent community. My wife, who also worked, desired to spend more time raising our little ones, a decision we were financially able to make.

And as a result of all that, I worry that our daughters may become unappreciative of what they have because they weren’t there to witness what it took to reap those benefits.

Some of my earliest memories growing up were of my parents working. My mother was a registered nurse doing private duty, which would require her to care for patients outside the hospital. During the summer, when my brother Edwin and I weren’t at school, she would return home in the morning from her long shift, trying to stay awake for us, but sleep would ultimately win out.

For a time, my father worked two jobs. The hours he worked throughout the week did not preclude him from coming into the office on Saturdays with kids in tow in order to finish his work obligations and lovingly allowing his wife a break from the two of us.

Even as time passed, I continued to bear witness to my parents’ resilience and work ethic. During my time away at college, my father was promoted at his company. Now in charge of a larger region, my parents had to move from Long Island to Pennsylvania. My mother, who decided to leave the hospital environment for a less arduous schedule, now an educator, was faced with the challenge of leaving her students in the middle of the school year.

But my mother refused to choose. In fact she continued teaching for the remainder of that year and still moved to Pennsylvania with my father. She commuted some 60 miles daily between Freeport, NY, where she taught, and Lansdale, PA, where my parents now live.

That sacrifice far exceeded a financial commitment. It was her dedication to her work, not wanting to disrupt the nurturing environment that her students had grown accustomed to.

When I look at my parents, I draw a lot of inspiration from them. Though they worked long hours, I’ve always felt their love for us and realized as I got older the things which I took for granted. Watching how my parents lived their lives, is one of the biggest gifts I’ve been given, one I hope I can also pass down to my own children as they look to us, their parents, for guidance into a world they’ve only begun to know.

 

Recognizing the need for social responsibility in our present environment became a starting point to figuring out what an authentic response would look like from my perspective.

Last December, my wife and I attended the Robert F. Kennedy Ripple of Hope Awards dinner in the city. Seated near us was a person who looked familiar to me, yet I wasn’t sure why. I realized it was Adam Foss, whom I remembered watching on YouTube. Adam had given a TED talk that quickly gained attention surrounding the unique role prosecutors play in determining the course of action for the accused. Adam, a former prosecutor himself, spoke of his own experiences that allowed him to flourish into the person he’d become versus what could have been had a court not given him another chance.

As we spoke throughout the evening, I expressed to him my recent awakening about issues of social justice and being more intentional in this space. His response was that I should go and see those individuals who have been impacted by the system. In other words, visit a jail or prison.

This wasn’t how I envisioned my involvement materializing.

Taking some time after the event to consider what going to prison would feel like, I was hesitant. Perhaps I was getting too close and a more arms-length approach would be reasonable, like donating money, I’ve done that before, and that doesn’t require a big commitment of self. But the more I tried to find other ways out, the more I realized that this was an important step to take.

Queensboro Correctional Facility, a minimum-security facility which houses prisoners who are preparing to re-enter society, was the institution that I visited with Adam. We were sitting in on a pilot program developed in conjunction with Columbia University and the Manhattan DA Academy. The goal of this program was to bring together district attorneys and those imprisoned at the facility to have discussions about the criminal justice system and the ways in which policies could be reconsidered, developed and ultimately improved.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect visiting the facility, but I was shocked to see how the attorneys and the prisoners participating in the program interacted with one another. We all sat together around a large conference table, the only visible difference between us was the clothing we wore — no one was in restraints. The atmosphere felt more as if I were in a classroom full of my peers, and less like being confined in a prison.

I was seated next to an individual who was serving time. He informed the group that he’d been incarcerated for most of his life. He spoke about his affiliations with gangs and drugs. Yet he said he was at a turning point in his life, his family at home being one motivation, and also a realization that there was a better way to live.

Others in the room spoke about obstacles that they faced. One shared his experience of what he believed was a lack of concern for his freedom, given the type of deal he was presented with prior to being incarcerated, and the pressure he felt to sign such a deal.

I think Adam’s motivation for having me come inside the prison system was to see those being incarcerated as people first, to really listen to their stories and not immediately allow any biases to determine how I’d perceive them.

In Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, she mentions something I’ve begun to take notice of: “The notion that a vast gulf exists between criminals and those of us who have never served prison time is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about them. The reality, though, is that all of us have done wrong.”

If I am accepting of the idea that the differences between me and those that I was seated alongside of in the conference room were a mere construction, how should that then inform my actions?

Jarrell Daniels, whom I’ve learned a great deal from, was present at Queensboro that day. He spoke with me about the need to create forums to speak about criminal justice reform. By building awareness, educating people on the issues and advocating for policy reform, there is the opportunity to create change and make a difference in the communities which are being most affected. Jarrell, who as a young man experienced incarceration first hand, now utilizes his past as a way to connect with others who are most at risk.

I’ve teamed up with Jarrell in order to make forums a reality. As we look to work together, I feel as though our steps have been divinely orchestrated to get us to this point, which otherwise would not have occurred. It is that very belief in the divine that reminds me to speak out for those who cannot speak, and to defend the rights of all who are destitute.

“What do you do once you’ve achieved your dream?” was the question I posed to a classroom full of 7th and 8th grade boys. As we aspire to do great things, what happens when we push past the limits we unknowingly place on ourselves?

A couple months ago I was a part of a mentorship forum at Kipp Academy, a charter school in the Bronx. The goal of the forum was to encourage young students through various panel discussions and conversations.

I always find it interesting to watch the faces in the crowd of those I am speaking to, knowing that some will take what I say that day and apply it to their lives while others will embrace the message a little less enthusiastically, with their eyes closed. Without exception, my past experiences were visibly true that day.

With me was professional boxer and former world champion Peter Quillin, aka Kid Chocolate, a nickname that pays homage to his Cuban heritage. Throughout my time knowing Peter, he’s always expressed a desire to connect with the youth and tell his story. A dynamic fighter, with an equally impressive boxing record of 33 wins, 1 loss and 1 draw to show for it, Peter’s humility is a quality that separates him from fighters like Floyd Mayweather Jr, who like Quillin is also native to Grand Rapids, MI.

Peter began explaining to us a predicament he found himself in while living with a friend in New York. He was given a key to the apartment he was staying at; however access to the building was another story altogether. When his friend couldn’t be reached and neighboring tenants wouldn’t permit access, he was forced to make other, less desirable, arrangements. The hospital bed ultimately became a refuge, Peter having to fake a sickness in order to rest for the night.

As he continued speaking, I understood that this was a defining moment in his life, one that would continue to motivate him as he trained to become the best in the world. It also made me reflect on my own time spent at the hospital.

I played in every game, every offense play excluding one, during my 10-year career in the National Football League, and yet I was never supposed to put on a pair of shoulder pads. As a child I had open heart surgery to repair a heart defect. As a result of that surgery, my cardiologist informed me that I would never have the ability to participate in contact sports.

Now at 9 years old I didn’t understand the implications of what that meant, but as I grew older it became more clear to me that I was handicapped. Frustrated by this fact, I sought validation. I needed to prove to myself and others that I was more capable than the limits that were being imposed on me. Football was going to provide that outlet, but I needed my mom and my doctor to agree with me. Five years had passed since my cardiologist informed me of my life sentence, and through unrelenting persistence I made my mother give me an ultimatum.

She informed me, “If the doctor says you can play football, you can play, but if he says no, then you have to drop this, never bring it up again.”

I agreed.

We met with the doctor, a new cardiologist, who reviewed my charts and concluded that my previous doctor had been overprotective and that he saw no reason why I shouldn’t play football. No restrictions.

I’ve come to the realization that the very thing that attempts to stymie your growth can actually push you further toward your dream. It afforded Peter the chance to become the WBO middleweight champion and for me a decade-long career in the NFL.

Figuring out what we need to do once we’ve achieved our dreams has far less to do with establishing a new career, but more to do with utilizing what we’ve learned in our lives in order to help others.

We impose limits on ourselves when we believe our value lies in the wins we’ve attained or only through accolades. Rather, true value is found in the lessons that we’ve learned as a result of the hard work and sacrifice that have been done in the pursuit of our very dreams.

 

Do you miss playing football?

That’s the question I most often get asked when people see me nowadays. And though the question is straightforward enough, in my opinion the answer is still complicated. Although I have no desire to play again, the memories of the game are what I tend to think about and miss the most.

Being on the Jets, I’ve developed many deep relationships with my teammates and their families, Demario Davis being one of them. Though I am older the he is, I’ve noticed that Demario has an air of wisdom that surrounds him. As a rookie, Demario performed a “joke” at the rookie show, which usually the young guys do throughout different points in training camp in attempts to add some levity to an already tough environment.

He began describing a fictitious story about an acrobat who could perform incredible feats as he walked across a tightrope over a great waterfall. Nearby was a large crowd of onlookers that cheered him on and as they cheered he would do more tricks with greater difficulty, like walking backwards or lying down on the tightrope. The acrobat finally brought a wheelbarrow on the tightrope and asked the crowd if they believed he could walk across? They cheered YES and he responded, “So who wants to get in?”

As we tried to process the punchline of what we just heard, Demario said, “I am willing to get in, but are you ready to lead?”

“Wait a minute, what just happened!!??” was the response of the room as the players slowly realized the challenge that had just been put forth.

Moments like these are the ones you reflect on and appreciate over time. Those are the memories that make you smile, and yet there are those that don’t.

In 2016, the first season I hadn’t played football, my wife and I decided to visit Demario and his family in Cleveland, and go the Jets-Browns game.

Being at this game was going to be a new experience for me. We had field passes, which made me hesitate as I wondered if I was ready to see the game up close.

Arriving at the stadium, I took the elevator down to the bottom level and proceeded through the stands and down towards the field of FirstEnergy Stadium. I began to feel more and more uneasy as I watched the stretching lines from the Cleveland side.

I’ve done those drills, I thought to myself, recognizing coaches and teammates I’d played with, and yet now I was the fan, blocked by a rope and a stadium security guard. My identity was out there. I knew more of what it felt like to get ready for a game than I did being a bystander watching it. I was glad when I returned to my seat upstairs high above the field.

During this same season I’d done a Jets event at MetLife Stadium. However, I was distracted by the questions, the pictures and the fans to really consider how I felt to be back.

In the past I never understood why some former players who I saw at games always appeared a little standoffish, slow to engage in conversation as if the brotherhood we shared no longer existed.

But as the game concluded and my wife and I stood by the buses waiting to see my old teammates, I remembered what I saw in the eyes of those former players. I felt out of place.

I began having conversations with those who passed by. Being acknowledged by my teammates and those from the Browns allowed me to relax a bit, realizing that perhaps I had created this isolation in my head. Still, I leaned over the rope that separated me from those I knew, a tangible reminder that I was no longer a part of the team I’d played with just a season before.

 

For the past two seasons, I’ve had to consider what I would have done had I been on the sidelines still dressed in green and white. And today, yet again the question remains, would I kneel?
I think I’ve always been reluctant to do things outside of my comfort zone. When I’ve looked at issues in the past to support, if the issue did not directly affect me or my family or if the potential backlash seemed too daunting, I would tend to avoid the issue. But at what point does the struggle of another human being begin to trump my own comforts? When is my inactivity no longer an acceptable response?
As I watched the entire New York Jets organization during the 2017 season lock arms in solidarity on the sidelines before facing the Dolphins. I was at home, retired, detached from those who were in the midst of the fight. I was filled with a mixture of emotions that I couldn’t make sense of, unsure of the right course of action to be taken. The act of kneeling was never intended to disrespect our military, but rather bring awareness of the alarming incidences of police brutality and social injustice in our country, but what did kneeling mean at this point? Was kneeling now just an objection to President Trump’s inflammatory remarks? Why was it now being perceived as a slight against the armed forces? Or if a player stood, did that mean he was indifferent to those suffering injustice in our society?
I do appreciate the players that have demonstrated their beliefs through action, even when my own was hard to see. In last year’s November issue of GQ magazine, I read something that Eric Reid said that really caused me to pause and think about how I am honestly living out my faith. “The Bible talks very explicitly in Proverbs about being the voice of the voiceless and speaking up for the vulnerable. Another verse is: ‘Faith without works is dead.’ I guess selfishly I’m trying to get to heaven.” When I read this, I felt convicted. As a believer, I knew that I could never say that this was an issue that I wasn’t called to be involved in. I knew that Eric was justified in echoing those words expressed in Proverbs and in the book of James. The issue of kneeling had forced a conversation about social justice that perhaps I wasn’t ready to have with myself. That I hadn’t spoken up.
As I wrestled with my own thoughts, I watched as players mobilized into action. The Players Coalition, a diverse group of NFL players, committed to pushing the conversations with owners to tangible results, one that will lead to almost $90 million in financial support to grass-roots organizations over a seven-year period. Members of the coalition have advocated for legislation and have helped to bring various issues of social responsibility into the forefront.
But have issues of social justice been addressed sufficiently to the point where it is justifiable to fine NFL teams if athletes still opt to kneel this upcoming season? I don’t think I can agree with that. I am no longer playing in the NFL, but if I were I hope I would resist the urge to play it safe by standing and blending in with the masses. As I find my voice and look to engage organizations that advance the cause of social change, I am proud to have been a part of New York Jets organization, that while the debate of kneeling is still present, supports its players who decide to kneel , and whose ownership is willing to pay any fine as a result of it.