This week, I had an epiphany on why so many draft prospects (especially projected late-rounders) struggle to see the game as a business and fail to see their place in it. It sprung from an experience I had at a hometown eatery with my wife, son, and his swim coach.

My oldest son, 14, plays pretty much whatever’s in season, but basketball, swimming and track (long jump) are his passions, and what he’s best at. He’s long and lean, with a perfect swimmer’s build, and at 6-foot-3 just an inch shorter than I am. But he lives in suburban Houston, a place where young men start being groomed for the pros at second grade. He’s also captivated by Michael Phelps, and aspires to the Olympics. So there we were at lunch with his swim coach, wanting to know what it might take for him to realize his dreams, however impractical they may be.

In the space of an hour, my son’s coach talked about his decorated career as a high school swimmer under one of the best coaches in the state of Texas. He talked about giving up summer vacations and holidays; about two-hour swim sessions early in the morning followed by two-and-a-half-hour sessions in the afternoon; about having only one month (August) off from that routine every year; and about giving up all other sports in junior high to focus solely on swimming. His sacrifices and devotion to life in the pool produced a scholarship to an excellent Division II school in the Midwest, where he swam four more years and earned an engineering degree. To me, or any other adult, that’s an incredible success story. At the same time, it came at a stiff price, and despite his excellence, fell far short of Olympic glory.

 

The coach’s story of sacrifice and work gave my wife and I pause. I’d heard pretty much all I had to hear, and to me, the path was clear: swim, yes, but also play as many sports as possible, whatever’s in season. Have fun. Let life play out, hoping to play basketball in high school but also trying to swim and maybe even continuing his long jump career. And as the competition stiffened, he could withdraw from sports, but it would all happen organically. In short, something less than total devotion to one sport in a probably fruitless Olympic chase.

That’s the reaction I expected from my son. Instead, he turned to the coach and said, basically, when do we start?

There’s a postscript. That evening, coming home from youth group at our church, we had a long talk, and he admitted his tension about what lay ahead. The commitment to swimming was daunting and he didn’t know if he could do it. “I just want to make you and mom proud of me,” he said. Though I assured him that my wife and I love him and have no expectations, and that we would support him no matter what, the next day he sent me a text a few hours before the afternoon’s basketball game. “Still nervous,” it read. Not about the game. But about swimming.

I take two things from this. One, when you’re young, you believe everything is possible. I mean, everything. With the right amount of effort and the necessary training, you’ll get to your goals. I think this is why so many aspiring NFL players feel combine prep is so absolutely critical.

But the other is this. Many of these young men feel overwhelming pressure to get to the NFL. A lot of it is internal, because they know it’s ‘put up or shut up’ time. However, a lot of that is external. Their whole identity has already been associated with their status as a football player, and when their NFL dreams die, they become someone else, not just to themselves, but to their friends, family, the people back home, everyone. That produces desperation, and it’s probably why it’s so hard for that dream to die.

As a 47-year-old, it’s so easy to forget what it’s like to not be established, and how difficult it is to grapple with the weight of expectations. But I think I understand it a lot better now.

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