I still remember when the only thing I could do was play flag football.
I loved it, but I couldn’t wait until my ninth birthday where I would finally be able to join the local tackle football league. My mom and grandma pleaded with me to wait a few more years after that, but for me, there wasn’t any other option.
I was going to be a football player.
Growing up, that’s really all I could think of. I couldn’t wait to achieve my dream of being an NFL running back and playing in front of the crowds every Sunday.
That was why after my Freshman year of high school, I was thrown off being asked to play fullback.
Why would I do that when it didn’t fit my dream?
I was just coming off an ACL injury, but I still was ready for the full load. Except on varsity, we already had a line of running backs. What they needed though, was someone to open up the hole.
Honestly, I had no interest in taking the backseat.
I knew I had the talent, so I wanted to play right away. But my Dad sat me down and explained that I just needed to get on the field and that, “Sometimes we do things we don’t want to do so later we can do things we want to do.”
So heading into my sophomore year, I switched to fullback. And it wasn’t all bad. They let me get the ball a lot as well, which got the attention of some recruiters, so really my Dad was right.
But as I started my recruitment, it felt weird to me because I had skipped over that step in my head as I was planning out my NFL dream. It wasn’t an arrogance thing, I just didn’t really understand before that this was the next step I would need to take.
So when a Washington coach pulled me aside at practice, it really gave me that clear vision that I could play at a big-time college, on TV, every weekend. That’s when I realized, the first part of my dream was coming true.
To get to the NFL, I would need to make a stop at the college level first.
So by the end of two years of recruitment and countless conversations with coaches, I ended up choosing the University of Southern California. Wearing that Cardinal and Gold and the Trojan helmet just felt right whenever I thought about it.
Obviously, I loved the school and the team, but what really got me was something my recruiting coach stressed. He told me along with all of the benefits you can see, the most important is the alumni group you get from being a graduate of Southern Cal.
For me, that was something that just clicked
It might sound crazy to be thinking of that as a teenager, but this was something only USC could provide, and I knew it would help me achieve my dream.
Getting on campus, USC was in a difficult situation. In the middle of NCAA sanctions, our class was cut in half to only fifteen incoming freshmen. Because of this, the coaches had to make sure all of us were ready to play from day one. There couldn’t be any year to develop; we had to be ready to go.
For me, I will always remember that first game as a Trojan.
Coming in as the top-ranked team in the country, we had the Coliseum packed to the nose-bleeds with 90,000 strong.
Lining up on the kickoff return for the first play of the game, I could feel the excitement running through my body. And with the kick, we gave the fans a reason to explode.
Within seconds, I finished my block as we watched Marquise Lee return the ball for a touchdown.
I can’t imagine a better way to start off your college career.
After that first season, there were countless ups and downs that made up my career. With three coaching changes, it was sometimes difficult to focus on your play and not get caught up in what was going on around you.
It wasn’t really until the end of my sophomore year, where I got a chance to see the business side of football. It wasn’t a bad thing, I just realized you can only control the things you do and that worrying about things outside your control was just exhausting.
By just worrying about my performance on the field and in the weight room, everything else would figure itself out.
This mindset also let me focus on life outside of football.
This is an aspect that I wish I focused more on during my first few years on campus. Going to business events always interested me but after workouts, class, and meetings, sometimes you just want to go home, rest and relax.
But during the Summer going into my senior year, I decided to take advantage of the alumni network I was so excited for as a recruit.
I figured out that the best way to network was to just make yourself uncomfortable and use what you have. Being a football player at USC in LA carries a lot of weight, and as long as you use it in a respectful way, it opens a lot of doors for you at a faster pace than others.
Life outside of football is different and it feels weird to have no ties to football, but if you use your tools and resources the right way, life outside of football can be better than life inside of football.
Finishing up my college career, I was ready to do anything necessary to chase my NFL dream. Nutrition, sleep, extra workouts, you name it, I was doing it. I actually had to check myself to make sure I knew the difference between just tired and needing to let my body rest.
Needless to say, I was committed!
But as draft day came and went, and I never heard my name called, I was beyond disappointment. It was honestly one of the hardest things I ever had to go through.
I gave everything I could, but that dream I had fantasized for so long, just wasn’t happening.
Picking up the pieces after the draft, I realized I still had a place to turn. The alumni network that I had worked so hard to build, reached out to see how they could help.
After getting the opportunity to work at the credit union on campus, another agent reached out to me, convincing me to give pro day another shot. He told me my agent from the last year didn’t do his job, and he would do everything to get me another opportunity.
I was thankful for the credit union job, but I knew that this 9-5 wasn’t for me. NFL or not, I’m not coming back. I would figure out some other way.
Even though this second shot at the NFL didn’t work out, it did give me the time to really think about my future. Meeting with my advisor, I realized football could be in my future in other ways.
The Entrepreneurship grad program at USC caught my eye and my advisor told me if I found a role with the team, I could get the tuition for my program covered.
So even though this wasn’t always my dream, I’m now proud to say I’m part of the staff for the football team and a full-time grad student on the way to starting my business.
In the end, things might not always work out for you just as you planned, but if you put yourself out there and take advantage of the opportunities that come your way, you can still find your way.
And if you do this, your sport might end one day, but your success won’t have to.
Jahleel Pinner | Contributor