“Can I help you?” It was said in the tone that you know you’ve been caught. Caught being somewhere you’re not supposed to be. It was also said with enough volume to ensure they notified everyone else in the room of your unwelcomed presence, further enhancing the awkward spotlight.
I had just stumbled into the Florida State Seminoles varsity athletes work-out facility. Stumbled is a bit of an exaggeration. I went looking for it. Now that I had found it, I had to find a way past the gatekeeper.
It was the spring of ’99. I was a few months back into hard training after nearly three years of health issues had sidelined me from not just football, but pretty much any exercise at all. My college eligibility window was nearly done. This would be my last chance to save my dream of making it as a football player.
I had gone down to Florida State to visit one of my very good friends from college. She had been a rare senior transfer athlete. Particularly rare in the sense that she transferred UP in divisions from NAIA Simon Fraser, to Florida State of the Division 1 ACC conference. That’s how dominant of a soccer player Kelley Poole was.
This was a great chance to not only visit her, but also offered me the rare opportunity to have athlete level access to a team and program I had grown up idolizing. The mighty Florida State Seminoles.
As a youngster through the ‘90’s Florida State had become THE team. Pumping out star after star. It was the place my delusional young mind always saw myself going. Playing college ball in Tallahassee. Being a Florida State Seminole.
This trip ended up being the closest I ever got to donning the crimson and gold.
Kelley showed me all the sports fans sites, from pictures with Charlie Ward’s Heisman to a VIP walkaround on the legendary Doak Campbell stadium field. It was more than I could ever ask for, but there was really only one thing I truly wanted to see. More to the point, experience. I wanted to know first hand how good athletes really are at this elite level. I needed to know how I stacked up.
With Kelley at class, I went about wandering. Not so much wandering, but deliberately searching. I wanted to find their varsity athletes strength complex. I knew it was somewhere in the football stadium building. I also knew I wasn’t going to be allowed to just walk in. I was going to have to test my sales skills.
I found what I was looking for. There it was, the varsity weight room, just down the hall from the players only area that housed their locker room. Since I began my football journey as a teenager, the weight room had become my second home. It was comforting a place for me. No matter where in the world I found myself, no matter how different the room was dressed up with bells and whistles, 45lb plates where still 45lbs plates. That consistency had always been a great source of both comfort and an objective measuring stick for me. I always knew where I stood amongst others in a weight room. No amount of cool swag, shiny hardwood floors, or state of the art squat racks were going to change the reality of the amount of weight you lifted. You either moved those 45lb plates or you didn’t. I know that doesn’t directly correlate to on-field ability, but for me, it was always an important measurable that was never subjective.
The polite, yet stern, “Can I help you” was less a question and more of a statement. I did my best to explain. I honestly wasn’t looking for anything more than a few minutes to look around and watch a bit of a team workout.
Be careful what you ask for.
He could see that I was a lineman. Maybe not division 1 looking, but a lineman non-the less. The request to look around was denied. The offer, or what sounded more like an order, was to be back in this room at 4:30, ready to work out.
That’s when the lineman trained.
Are you kidding me? I was excited just to get a peek at the elite training, now I was going to be working out WITH them. I remember all of a sudden, a slight panic, not because of the workout itself, but because it was 1 pm. The issue for me was two-fold.
1) Food. I had eaten lunch around 11:30. Do I eat again? And if so when and what? My younger years were always structured around eating. I was fanatical to an unhealthy extreme, in terms of my eating schedule and how I thought it would dictate my performance. I admit, back then, I was a bit of a nut.
2) Clothing. I didn’t have any workout clothes on. I was in track-pants and a t-shirt. Theoretically, that could work. Just with food however, I was also rather fanatical about my training gear.
Did I have time to go back to Kelley’s place eat again, get changed and get back? If so, what would I wear? All I had was some random Nike shorts and an old SFU FOOTBALL t-shirt. Sounds silly, but the fact that I would be the ONLY person in the entire gym without head to toe Florida State attire almost made me more self-conscious than the very real possibility of being embarrassed in this workout. I decided to head back, eat again, get geared up with what I had and start psyching myself up.
It was going to be just another Tuesday offseason afternoon workout for them. For me, this was my pro combine. I had spent my entire life in my little bubble back in Vancouver. My measuring stick was only as long as the greats that surrounded me daily. I had never physically ventured very far before. Everything I knew about big-time program players was from Sports Illustrated, Street’s and Smith’s magazine, and ABC college Football. These were the pro players of tomorrow. A title I myself was pursuing. If this was to be my competition when the pro opportunity hopefully came, I had better be prepared for who they are and what they can bring right now. I needed to see if I really did stack up, or if it was all wishful thinking that I had sold myself on from my little world back home. I needed to know the truth of where I stood in the big picture of top athletes.
I was there early. I’m always early. That’s been drilled into me by my mother since I was a kid. The coaches were super inviting this time. They all knew I was coming and seemed genuinely interested in who I was, where I played etc. We had a few minutes to chat before 4:30 hit.
Then the players rolled in.
All of the confidence I had always felt in any weight room back home went right out the window. I had never been in a room with so many huge athletes at the same time before. Back at Simon Fraser, we had some big guys for sure, but never the sheer volume of body types that seemed to keep filing in. Four physical attributes stood out.
1) Height. Everyone seemed at least 6’3. Most where 6’4” or taller.
2) Arm length. I had never seen that many impressive wingspans in one group before.
3) Hand size. Almost all of them greeted me with a friendly handshake. My hands got lost in theirs. THAT in itself is a very humbling experience.
4) Finally, foot size. Not that I was specifically looking. But it was impossible not to notice the size of the shoes that were coming in. I would have guessed most were at least size 14 with many being size 15 or even bigger.
I realized right at that moment that I could add as much weight to my barely 6’1” stumpy limb frame as I wanted, and it would do nothing to change the fact that I did not have the given physical attributes that visibly separated elite body types from us mere mortals. Reality sunk in right there at that moment. I did not have an elite athlete body, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Then the workout started. What surprised me was the simplicity of the exercise selection. There was no “magic” training program or “secret” exercise that I was able to discover as the magic bullet that great programs keep hidden from everyone else. We jumped rope, we power cleaned and we bench pressed. There were a few other odds and ends thrown in, but really, that was it.
The intensity was high, but nothing more than I routinely trained with back home. The weights were heavy, but surprisingly I kept up, and actually found myself amongst the strongest there. The difference wasn’t in the weight lifted or the intensity trained at, it was HOW they were able to go about doing it.
What took maximum focus and flawless technique for me, seemed more like fun to them. What was studied, learned and somewhat methodically mastered movements for me, looked fluid and natural for them. I was able to produce the same ends, but the means were light years apart.
Elite athletes make complex athletic movements look easy. That’s why they are so fun to watch. They move and perform in a graceful way that is nearly impossible to replicate with training. The conclusion of that workout solidified two firm realities to me:
1) I now knew what elite athletes look like and move like.
2) I now knew for sure that I was not amongst that rare blessed group.
Seeing and excepting your reality is the first step. No longer could I ‘Hope’ or ‘wish’ I had what is wanted. Both those are not only delusional ways to go about pursuing your mission, but dangerous. They keep focus and attention away from doing what matters most. Everything you CAN DO, regardless of what you don’t have.
I learned that day that I may not be naturally elite, but I could keep up with them. I may not be graceful to watch, but with relentless work, I could produce similar results.
If I was going to make it, it was going to take mastering everything that was in my control. I now knew I could never take a day off, never cut a corner and never rest on my natural abilities, because at the elite level, I didn’t have any.
It was both a humbling experience and a liberating one. Getting to the truth of your reality is a powerful thing. It allows you to let go of useless dreaming and get on with doing what it’s going to take.
I know I earned the respect of the players and coaches that day so long ago in Tallahassee. They rewarded my work with some player issued training gear. Not knowing I’m sure that I cherish team-issued gear maybe above all other sports paraphernalia. I trained in both the shirt and shorts proudly for many years. They served as a material reminder of the lesson I learned in that spring of ’99. I’m not an elite athlete, and I never will be. But with relentless commitment to everything that IS in my control I can not only keep up, but I can win against them too. So that’s what I went out and did.
13 years in the pros, all stars and championship rings, and I’m STILL not an elite athlete. And I’m ok with that.