Timing Is Everything“From that point on, I realized that I had a choice. I didn’t have to be everything to everyone.”
What a week. What a month. What a year. If there’s anything I’ve learned over this last year and a half, it’s that people may not always want you to succeed. Exhibit A: Naomi Osaka.
Though I don’t know Naomi personally, this tennis phenom is, indeed, phenomenal. She’s been thrust to a national stage because of her athletic prowess and has succeeded at an elite level. But something is missing. Just recently, Naomi said no. At what could be the height of her athletic career, Naomi turned down major tournaments in favor of something greater: her mental health, her emotional well-being. And I applaud her. Why? Because I have a similar story.
Though I am no tennis champion, nor fashion icon, I did play nine years in the NFL and I will say this: the pressure was real. Coaches, fans, family and friends expected something from me. But I couldn’t always provide it. I couldn’t always provide a smile off the field, the joy on the field and the balance in between. The balancing act became difficult, so I put on a mask.
I acted like everything was OK, even when it wasn’t. I hid, I pretended, I wasn’t me. And though the on-the-field success increased, my joy off the field decreased. It was not a fun time in my career. And then, not long ago, I read what Simone Biles wrote.
Simone Biles, for those who haven’t been watching, is one of the greatest athletes of all time. She’s a gymnast who does things that no one else can do. She has won numerous gold medals and does it, seemingly, with joy. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, she took a break from competing in the Olympics … in the middle of the Olympics. I was stunned; that is, until I read the remarks. “I’m also not having as much fun,” Biles said, beginning to cry. “This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself. I came in and felt I was still doing it for other people. So that just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.” Simone Biles will not compete in the all-around final at Tokyo Olympics, according to usatoday.com.
The best in the world, the greatest of all time—she feels it too. So, she decided to pull out; to be vulnerable; to be real. And this picture, my friends, is beautiful. Sooner or later, we must decide. We must choose to do it for ourselves, not for anyone else; even if everyone else is who you were doing it for before. I can relate. Seven years into my NFL career, football was no longer fun. I was making money, but I was miserable. I was sad, I was frustrated, I didn’t know what to do. So, instead of being brave like Simone, I chose to hide my emotions and the results weren’t pretty. You see, when you hide your pain, you hide your joy as well. It’s the way we’re wired, it’s how we were created. Thankfully, soon thereafter, I made a different decision. I decided to be me. To let the world see me. I decided to say no.
The next year, after an injury, my coach wanted me to stay with the team and be a “coach on the field.” I couldn’t do it. I tried, but it wasn’t worth it. After a weekend of watching film for my teammates, knowing that I couldn’t play, I went to my coach and told him that I wasn’t OK. I told him that I needed some time to recover. To spend with my family. I was scared—afraid that my reputation would be ruined and that the coaches wouldn’t respect me. My fear proved to be miscalculated. My coach hugged me and told me he was there for me. He gave me permission to do what was best for me: for my emotional well-being, for my recovery. And that moment changed everything.
From that point on, I realized that I had a choice. I didn’t have to be everything to everyone. That I could be me—weak and strong, happy and sad. I realized that I could be human. And there’s no greater realization.
I’m hoping and praying that this article will be that for you. A reminder that it’s okay not to be okay. That you can be human: that you can be real. That you can be free.
Though I don’t know Simone Biles or Naomi Osaka personally, I can only imagine the freedom that they’re feeling. There is no better feeling. It takes bravery, it takes courage, but you are brave. You are courageous. You are loved.
We live in a society that loves to rush things. We want everything and we want it now. But I’m learning that when it’s the right time, your thing will come. Not on someone else’s time, but your time. Day by day, moment by moment—I’m learning to wait. Isaiah 40:31 (NIV) says that “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” You’ll be free. But sometimes, you must wait.
For Further Reflection
There’s a concept known as failing forward. It means there’s a silver lining in the mistakes, in the changes, in the uncertainties of life. You’re not losing; you’re learning. Learning to rely on Jesus. Though it was hard, I learned so much about myself during this season of my life. I learned I didn’t need all the things I thought I needed to be happy. All I needed was Jesus. Period.
Former NFL linebacker Sam is a best-selling author, motivational speaker and football analyst for ESPN. Sam is the husband to Ngozi and the father to Caleb, Sophia and Kelechi. In 2020, he released his first book, Let the World See You: How to Be Real in a World Full of Fakes.