" Colleagues are a wonderful thing. But mentors, that’s where the real work gets done. " - Junot Diaz
My pro football career did not exactly have a smooth start. I was a first-round draft pick of the Toronto Argonauts, who ended up cutting me at the end of training camp. That really sucked. I then spent 15 weeks on Montreal’s practice roster before being shipped back to BC. I didn’t even dress for a game until my second season. Three teams, zero games played. Not exactly the way I had mapped it out. At the time I thought it was a wasted season, a lost year of my life. There were many times that first year I felt bitter, and even sorry for myself at the situation I was in. My ego was heavily challenged. I didn’t see the value in being a non-dressing backup. An invisible understudy who’s only worth was for scout team use in practice.
It wasn’t until later I realized how lucky I had been. That year of bouncing through three teams gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. I got the chance to befriend, study, and be mentored by not one, but three Hall of Fame caliber centers. Not only were they great at their job, but were and are great people. Each took me under their wing and passed down through their actions what was really needed to make it as a pro. All I had to do was be open to taking it in. Thankfully I did.
Chad Folk was someone I had looked up to since I was in high school. The Kelowna native may very well be the only offensive lineman in my timeframe that was actually shorter than I was. But Chad was a beast. You would be hard pressed to ever find a more technically efficient lineman, and that wasn’t by accident. During my very short stint with the Toronto Argonauts, Chad taught me the value of meticulously studying, and working on your craft. He allowed me full access to how he went about his work. He was a true technician, and worked harder than anybody I’ve ever known. On the field an hour early, staying late after, and highly focused weight workouts. All in an effort to train the body to perform better. Every little nuance of every single movement mattered. Chad was fanatical about doing things as perfect as possible. Right down to warmup movements. It was a short three-week window of learning, but Chad’s openness to share and example through action left a lasting impression that I have never forgotten. I know my technique never quite stood up to Chad’s but that wasn’t due to lack of effort. It was Chad Folks example in my first ever pro camp that showed me if I was to survive, I better be prepared to not only do the work, but dedicate myself to doing it as perfect as I possibly can.
Then off to Montreal I went. It was somewhat of a comforting move, because I was now studying under not only the top center in the league, but fellow Vancouver College High School alum, Bryan Chui. Bryan took me in like a little brother. He made it very easy to be a nobody rookie in the CFL, for that I thank him. It’s what he showed me on the field though that changed how I played the game forever. Bryan was all about getting whatever edge was needed. A true competitor. He dedicated most of his smarts to studying the defense. Yes, I know that sounds obvious, but I’m talking about the little things, the things that matter. Bryan, knew every hand signal for every team, all their internal code dialogue. He knew what subtle body gestures meant and even what a player was going to do by the angel of their foot. I’m serious, there was no tip that Bryan couldn’t pick up on. He taught me the value of studying absolutely everything about the other team, and I mean everything. He never had to wait and react because he already knew everything that was going to happen. I stole the concept of being turned away from my own huddle from Bryan. While our play was being called I’d always be turned looking at the defense, looking for all the clues Bryan showed me to look for. That gave me a chance.
Then finally back home to BC. The remainder of that first season was spent learning from the legend himself, Jamie Taras. Jamie was a natural leader, loved by everyone he played with. Why? Because he always put the team first. He saw it his job to do whatever he could to help everyone around him be the best they could be. Unselfish to the end, and willing to do all the things other people didn’t want to do, because for the team to win, it had to get done. Jamie Taras is a true legend for not only his ability to play the sport so well, but more importantly all the intangibles he brought to the team. I saw the immediate value in that, and set out to do my best to live up to the very high standard that Jamie set.
Three teams in my first season does not sound like the beginnings of a long career. But somehow, I made it through. It was that first year though that exposed me to these three-key people that shaped and guided how I went about my next 12 seasons. Chad, Bryan, and Jamie taught me the value of diligently and tirelessly working on your craft. They taught me to study absolutely everything about your competition, and finally do whatever needs to be done to help your teammates and help your team win. It’s the only real advice I think a young athlete needs. Come to think about it, it may be the only real advice I need for the rest of my life.
Young athletes will often find themselves in less than ideal situations. Especially when moving up a level in their sport. It can be discouraging sometimes and become all too easy to fall victim to blaming and complaining. Wishing and hoping. The problem is, these reactions do nothing to improve the situation and blind you from seeing the great opportunity that may be sitting right in front of you (or maybe right beside you). The opportunity to be mentored.
We are always in such a rush to be where we think we have to be. It’s a true gift to actually be given the time to learn and develop properly. It’s an even bigger gift to be in that situation learning from not only great talent, but great people. It’s an absolute shame to have that and not take advantage of it.
You need strong self-confidence to withstand the inevitable ups and downs of any challenging pursuit. But unless that self-confidence is combined with humility, you will never open enough to use those challenging times to learn from the people around you. Don’t fall victim to playing the victim. That’s just year ego getting in the way of you learning.
Mentors are all around us, in every situation. We just need to be open to them. Open to learning from them. Open to taking advantage of the wisdom they hold. I hope each and every one of you have been as lucky as I have been with the people I found around me. I also hope that each and every one of you have been as smart as I have been to learn all I could from them.
Finally, I hope each and every one of you are grateful enough to thank them. Thank them not only with words, but by living the great teachings you were fortunate enough to take in. Thank them by paying your good fortune forward. Take the next ego bruised youngster under YOUR wing. Someone who may just need a little more time, a little more seasoning, a little more mentoring.