My one and only NFL game may as well have been my own personal Super Bowl. I remember that evening in August 2010 at Qualcomm Stadium in California, playing the San Diego Chargers as though it was yesterday: the fresh smell of the wet dirt and the long grass. The taste of iron and salt in my mouth . . .
. . . And, off in the distance, the din of our fans screaming, cheering us on.
This was where I belonged: as an NFL player playing for the Chicago Bears, in a pre-season matchup against the Chargers out in beautiful San Diego, California. I was playing well. I had missed a sack opportunity on the quarterback, but I had also recorded three tackles, including one for loss. I was pumped, elated to be doing what I had always dreamed of doing: what four years of Indiana University football and endless workouts had prepared me to do.
But, something was terribly wrong. Late in the second quarter, with four minutes left before halftime, a big Chargers offensive lineman was thrown by one of my teammates smack into my left ankle. His 280-pound bulk came down hard across my leg, and my ankle became badly tangled up under this mountain of a man.
I attempted to stand -- and realized that what had seemed like a routine play was not routine at all: A sharp pain stabbed through my entire leg. I felt sick to my stomach as the searing pain worsened progressively every second. The pain was so intense, I thought I might faint.
Still, I toughed it out, finishing the game with six tackles and a tackle for loss. But, that day, my performance was not uppermost in my mind; All I could think about was that excruciating pain -- and the all-too-real possibility that my promising football career had just ended before it began. My first game would be my last.
While I waited to see the specialist back in Chicago, I had an extremely hard time sleeping and focusing at team meetings. I was consumed with anxiety and fear and slid into the deepest depths of darkness. My life was shattering; my dreams and goals were falling like shards of glass. I had no Plan B in place. It had been my experience that most athletes are ill prepared, if not completely clueless, about the emotional and psychological impact of sustaining an injury, then trying to recover from it.
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Now I was one of those athletes.
In fact, my traumatic injury signaled the end of my career, my dreams and my goals. I completely tore a bone off my left ankle and was going to be out for a lengthy period of time. The Bears reached an injury settlement with me, and just like that, my whole world came crashing down on me. My dreams were crushed.
What to do when this happens to you
Any highly successful person along the way has more than likely experienced adversity. The people at the top, the game-changers, have all had a lot of unsuccessful years before any of their major successes became known to the public.
The feelings rendered by crushed dreams don't happen just to athletes forced out of a professional sport they've worked their whole life for. They happen to men and women from all different walks of life: business, politics, education, even parenting.
What did I learned from my own crushed dream? Plenty. Here are four things to help you recover should it happen to you:
1. Face the facts.
If something has crushed your dream, do you find yourself in denial? My own experience was that I didn’t even think there was life after the NFL, so I hadn’t even reached denial yet. What I was in was a kind of death spiral.
I believed that if I couldn’t play football, then life as I knew it was over. If you yourself are in denial about a crushed dream, or you’re succumbing to the “death” feeling, where demons roam and nothing in life matters anymore, you need to face the facts. We all have to look at those facts objectively and analyze our next move, no matter how painful it is.
What helped me to face the facts was to seek out mentors of mine that I fully trusted as well as my support system of close friends and family members. By talking to them, I was able to get out of the denial trap and finally free myself from the internal pain robbing me of my peace.
Facing the facts can mean different things to different people. But a good place to start is mentors and loved ones that you completely trust. Their words and support in extremely difficult times can make a world of a difference.
2. Don’t overanalyze.
When something happens to crush your dream, you'll more than likely start to overanalyze. You might worry yourself sick, wondering what to do next. Or you might question your self-worth. You might tell yourself that you're in a nightmare, and tomorrow you'll wake up and things will be okay.
The worst thing you can do when you come face to face with adversity is to overthink things. Give yourself time to absorb the reality of the situation, and don’t rush to “fix” things. The first thing that I had to do was realize that I was creating false scenarios in my mind.
I eventually got to the point where I was telling myself that, yes, I had been injured in an NFL game, but this was not the end of the world. No matter how bad I felt about losing my dream, I was not going to die.
You can’t change what has happened, but you can change how you react to it. In the Beatles song "Tomorrow Never Knows,” there’s a line that says: “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream . . . that you may see the meaning of within.” This is perfect advice: Since you can’t change the situation, you may as well turn off your mind and surrender to it.
Only then will the solutions surface. Just as long walks and meditation can give you peace of mind and answers to questions that bother you, so can your surrender to pain. Of course, this is easier said than done, and I certainly struggled at first, myself; but the benefits far outweighed anything else.
Surrendering for me was all about feeling the fear and negative energy while moving forward anyway. Before that, I had been rejecting every fear and negative emotion, which actually made things a lot worse. When you welcome the fear and negative energy but continue to move forward, you feel a tremendous sense of gratification and heavy burden lifted off your shoulders.
Surrendering to the situation means accepting it. And, mind you, this was one of the hardest things for me to do right away. It took me a few weeks to accept myself as well as the situation. I kept asking myself over and over, What if I had tackled differently on that play? What if I had just played for a different team? I realize now more than ever that acceptance is crucial to forgiving yourself and moving on.
So, leave the what-ifs behind. I had to get rid of them before I could ever move forward. That meant taking action and not letting my injury paralyze me from going on to do something remarkable with my life.
This injury, which was one of the lowest events of my life, actually ended up giving birth to my career as a writer and keynote speaker. One of the most important things that you can do when you get knocked down by adversity is to just move forward.
And while the pain of a crushed dream can be excruciating for quite a while, these four steps little by little helped me get back on the right track and start the process of rebuilding my life. It is my hope that they can do the same for you.