This was my dream. I did everything I could to get noticed in my small town of South Dakota and get a full ride scholarship to the University of Iowa. It wasn’t easy, but I made it.
Even before I committed to Iowa, I had a moment where I was so scared. What if I failed? I was the only D1 recruit out of South Dakota. I didn’t want to get to college, fail, then go home because I wasn’t good enough or for some other reason.
The South Dakota State coach, who is still a coach there today, gave me the best advice before I left. He said, “You can’t pass this opportunity up. If something doesn’t work out, you come and play for me.” At that point, I was the best player in the state, and he was trying to recruit me to play for his team. But, he knew I had to be at Iowa. He had the foresight to give me that.
Proud to be a Hawkeye
I went to Iowa as a quarterback/safety, and I felt like I was over my head. When we started to work, I could see, within the first few weeks, that I would have to overcome a lot of guys who were higher-rated recruits. I didn’t expect to play my freshmen year, so being redshirted wasn’t a big deal. I also knew they were going to give me some position flexibility. I came in at 200 pounds, basically an athlete. I think they always thought, in the back of their minds, that they would teach me to be a linebacker, but I never lifted weights in high school. Farm labor was my way of working out. Once I started lifting, I was 215-220 pounds, before they knew it.
I moved to linebacker that first year and worked hard that winter to learn the position. I ended up practicing with the ones after about four months in (I started working with the threes). I had laid down so much groundwork, and the fear I felt right before leaving for college, was gone.
The practice before our spring game, things changed. I tore my ACL. Thankfully, in college, you are in such a protected environment. The Iowa strength coach had this great mentality: Take it one day at a time. You are going to go through the grind today, so make it the best you can, right now, because that is all you can control. Since then, I always thought, “What can I do today? How can I get better today?” Of course, there were ups and downs, but I was able to crawl out of the hole and play.
I came back from my ACL tear about six to seven months later; however, that wasn’t the end of the healing process. It was an everyday battle, long and ongoing. It took a year to get back from an injury like that. So, that next spring, as a sophomore, I had to fight to get back to where I was. I went up against a senior linebacker who had played that position the previous year. I did my best, every day, and eventually beat out the senior and became a starter.
My very first start was against Miami of Ohio and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. They were a powerhouse team. They came to Kinnick Stadium in Iowa. I remember running out onto that field knowing I had earned the right to be there. I didn’t just make it; I earned it. There was a difference. I was going to prove to everybody just how good I was. That first game, and subsequent games, I realized that I could not only be good, but really good.
It’s funny to me because I was this South Dakota kid, a two-star recruit, where expectations were minimal. As I moved through college, I thought, “It would be great, if I could play NFL football someday.” I flipped the script. I was an All-American, and I knew I would be a big pick on draft day. The expectations were through the roof.
I knew the Vikings were interested. I had hoped to be a first rounder. Minnesota took me as the 17th pick. It just worked out. Looking back, living in Minnesota, it was meant to be. It happened for all the right reasons.
It was a great day! The craziest part for me, though, was after you get drafted, the next day, I went to learn the defense with Mike Tomlin, our defensive coordinator at the time. You realize how awesome draft day is, but that quickly goes away. Now, it was a job. It was time to get down to business.
I worked hard through training camp. I started playing with the twos, and then when camp was done, I was working with the ones. The first pre-season game, my hope was to move into that ones role permanently. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was out there for punt coverage, made a tackle. One defensive snap, then we scored. We were on the kick off team. That’s when I blew out my other ACL. I was sprinting down the field, trying to prove how tough I was. I wanted to bust in, and right before I hit these four blockers, I planted my foot—it was noncontact—and I just felt my ACL go. I hobbled off the field, knowing that was the end of my season. My mind raced: “Can I come back from a second ACL? Will they forget about me? Will I be good enough this time?” I even woke up the next morning and asked if my contract was guaranteed. I was 22 and had no idea how it worked.
I knew, after this injury, I would have to prove to myself and to everybody else that I could do it. The entire training camp and pre-season didn’t count. I was starting from the beginning, once again.
With sports, especially with injuries, there’s luck. My game streak, after coming back from my ACL injury, was 127 games. But, to think about the number of practices—three a week—plus the 127 games, which didn’t include pre-season, it was a pretty lucky streak.
But, I always knew that there was more to life than being a football player. I could separate myself from football at home. Week 14 of the season, I ran kids to practices and got on with my life. If I wanted to do all of those things, I had to give enough. Football is just what I did; it’s not who I am.
What I learned as an athlete:
I’ve always had the approach of a positive attitude, no matter what’s going on. Show up, be present, be there and have a good attitude. When you ask some of my teammates what set me apart over my physical intangibles, it was my enthusiasm for practice, for workouts and for life. Show up with passion. It can be contagious.
How I apply this to youth sports:
I always tell kids to be self-aware. Are you working as hard as you can? Are you doing everything you can to say, “I have these dreams and goals, and I am putting in the work that’s necessary to get there.” Give your best effort every time. No matter how much talent you have—if you are the least talented or the most talented—if you aren’t giving your best effort, it doesn’t matter. It takes no talent to give your effort.
And, to the parents, I say, “Be patient. Bite your tongue.” On the drive home from a game or practice, let the kids live in that moment.
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