Sometimes things just go your way. For the last three years of my life, that hadn’t been the case. Then my brother Bruce came home for Christmas and in an instant, everything changed.
It was the winter of 1999. I hadn’t played football since the fall of ’95. Severe stomach issues had sidelined my dreams and left me mostly homebound. At one point I had lost nearly 60 lbs and had gone almost two complete years without any physical exercise at all. I was 22 years old. My dreams of making it as a pro football player were becoming much more than long odds, they were becoming a laughable fairy tale.
Bruce had been playing pro football in Germany for the past 4 years. He had built a career and a life playing and living in Hamburg for the German Football League’s Hamburg Blue devils. By all accounts, Bruce was a star. A bruising fullback that played with a passion that matched his brute power. An old-school fullback that still believed the shortest distance between where he was and where he needed to go was a straight line. If that straight line happened to go right through a hulking linebacker, then too bad for that poor linebacker. He had 2 options when Bruce came charging through the hole:
1) Get out of his way
2) Get completely run over
You can’t say Bruce didn’t give him a choice.
I loved watching Bruce play when I was young. From High School to college, when Bruce got the ball, great things always seemed to happen. There were always positive yards gained and always some heavy contact dished out. He was a true Football player.
After being released from the Calgary Stampeders, Bruce took his talents to Europe. The CFL’s loss was Germany’s win. Bruce had found a team and quickly a home. His bruising style of play and outgoing personality quickly made him a fan favorite on the field and in that community. Soon Bruce stopped coming home for the off-season. Germany was his new life.
I missed watching him play. What made it all that much harder was I wasn’t playing either. Football looked to be over for me. My parents were at their wit’s end with my depression and out of ideas to help spur both optimism and action back into my life. I’m someone who can easily get consumed by my emotions, both positively and unfortunately negatively, Bruce is much more a man of action. He came home, heard my parent’s concerns and immediately posed a solution. “I’ll bring him to Germany” He made crazy ideas sound easy. Men of action tend to be able to do that.
That was that. Somehow a day or two later, my brother Bruce informed me that he had a contract in place for me to play with him that summer for the Hamburg Blue Devils of the German Football League. That’s when I really understood what a big deal he really was over there. The last time I played football was three years ago. That was a redshirt freshman season when I was 19. With one phone call, he got me a contract. No game film, no resume. Just my brother’s credibility. I’m more shocked now thinking about it than I was even back then.
It’s amazing what happens when you aren’t given a choice. You find ways to get whatever you have to do done. Bruce didn’t give me an option. He told me I was coming to Germany that spring and that was that. The only choice I had left was how to get myself ready. That changed my entire mindset.
It wasn’t easy but I did it. I had to start eating. I had to start exercising. I had to get back to living. There was now a deadline looming that I couldn’t get out of. I found a way. I ate only what I could stomach. I lifted when and how I could and dealt with the pain and discomfort along the way. Bruce didn’t give me a choice. Come that April, I was going to be playing football, whether I could or even if I couldn’t. There would be no more wondering and wishing. There would be doing and finding out for real.
So that’s what I did. I somehow got ready and by late that spring I was in Germany, ready to play football for the Hamburg Blue Devils.
I was terrible, not because of my health issues, but because they had me playing defensive line. I had stomach problems there for sure, but Bruce never allowed me to stop. He never allowed me to make it a big deal or waste even one second feeling sorry for myself. He would hear non-of it. You are either doing or you’re not doing, everything else was wasting time. Bruce would not allow that.
I only stayed in Germany for half that season. By mid-August, it was time for me to come home. Time to go back to school. Time to finish up that one season of eligibility I still had left on my clock. Time to go make my dream a reality. That dream I had almost abandoned. That dream that was saved by my brother's love for me and his ability to take action.
I don’t know if I ever would have played football again if it hadn’t been for Bruce. It was the dream I was unwilling to let go of but didn’t know how to get back to. Bruce did that for me. He got me out of my depressed state by physically changing my entire environment. By deciding for me that I wasn’t going to give up. By giving me an option to find out if I could still physically play this sport without the fear of anybody I knew finding out if I couldn’t.
I made some great friends and memories over there for sure. It’s an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life.
The European football leagues are full of great players from all over North America looking to play just a little more football before they hang them up for good and see a bit of the world while they are at it. I may be the only North American player to ever go over there before I even had a career. It was my entry to get my career back home started.
It’s a season that doesn’t show up anywhere in my football bios. Most people who followed my career have no clue that it even happened. It was uneventful from a performance perspective for sure, but it was life-changing for me. That short season showed me I could play. It showed me that I could deal with my issues and still pursue my dreams.
Just like my three other older brothers, Bruce has always been both a great role model and hero of mine. I owe each of them so much for being such a big part of anything and everything I have been able to accomplish in my life. Nobody does anything alone. My football career was all but over before it even really began. If I didn’t have Bruce for a brother I really doubt there would have been a thirteen-year pro career with Championship rings to boot.
Whether you are fortunate enough to have great siblings or not, we all have people in our lives that came through for us when it seemed all hope was gone. Make sure to thank those people. Thank them for how much love and support they have given you. Then pay it forward by showing that same love and support for the next person that may be struggling to see any light. You may very well be the one person that can pick them up and get them moving again.
It’s shocking what can get accomplished when people that care for you step in and make sure you don’t stop. They make sure you get up and keep going. They push and pull you out of your rut, no matter how uncomfortable that may feel in that moment.
Bruce did end up moving home after his career wrapped up in ’00. Six great seasons over there, wowing fans, winning championships and making friends for a lifetime, all adds up to a pretty amazing career. A career that he should be, and I know he is, proud of.
Bruce got to see almost my entire pro career. I hope I made him proud. I hope watching me gave him the same joy he gave me watching him. I worked very hard for my career, but as with everything, many pieces have to come together for things to work out. What Bruce did for me way back in the winter of ’99 may very well have been the most important of those pieces.
It’s a season of my career nobody has ever heard of, yet it will be remembered by me as the most important one of my entire life. It only happened because of my brother’s love.