Lessons from making less than $10,000 in the NFL

This is my family’s Christmas card this year. I love my wife, my kids, my dogs and even my cat Gus. I run my own business, have a nice house, cars and all the trappings of a “successful” person. In short, I have a great life and truly, am very happy with “how things have turned out”, thus far (and there’s a lot more to do).

BTW, I’m 60 years old and the dork in the middle of the picture, if you didn’t guess…. and now I’m going to sound like an old grampa…

When I was your age…
All I could think ahout was getting a scholarship to a major university. I had some reason to think such a thing was possible. Both of my older brothers did. My oldest brother got a full ride to the University of Minnesota (which almost never happens – baseball scholarships are typically divided) and my middle brother earned a half-scholarship to the University of Wisconsin to play golf. They were exceptional three sport athletes. They could have earned scholarships to play their “second” sports, too.

I was the baby in the family, which meant I played three sports, too. Football, basketball and baseball — and excelled at them all — except for just one thing… I was kind of a late bloomer. Going into my senior year of high school, I was 5’10 and 150 pounds “dripping-wet”. Not usually the kind of stats that turn college recruiter heads. 

My favorite sport was basketball, followed by baseball with football bringing up the rear (not far, mind you), but when you’re little, football is pretty rough. I had a piece of tape on the door frame of our kitchen with 6’6 marked off on it.  Willing myself to be taller. I practiced every sport, loved competition and had the advantage of brothers who constantly pushed me to be better, a father who was a college football coach (which gave me access to any sports field, balls & bats that I wanted) and a mother who was the world’s greatest super fan of her kids.

I wanted the accolades that my brothers had and dreamed of “going pro” every single night of the year. And when the scholarship offers didn’t roll in, I was crushed. Oh, I got recruited, but not from any school that “counted”. Looking back, I would have been blessed to accept any of their interest in me.  But I didn’t see it.

As an after thought, I eventually decided to go play for my father at the local university. I thought, “maybe it would be neat for him, and maybe it would be good for me.” And if it really worked out, I’d get a scholarship offer to a big school; if it sucked, I’d transfer to a big school and if it was just OK, I’d stay and play at home.

Turns out, it didn’t suck. And I never transferred, even though I had scholarship offers to transfer to bigger schools. Why not?

It was my brother who woke me up to a different way of thinking. We played a key rival my junior year of college that was near where he went to college.  It was rare for him to attend my game, but after we won, I walked across the field to meet him in the stands. And know what he said that was so profound…

“Does it get any better than this?” 

He said he envied me. What? I had lived my life looking up to him, but the truth was, I was playing well, was a “bigger fish in a smaller pond”, having a blast, had made great friends, met my future wife and interestingly enough, the father-as-coach-thing was working just fine. 

I left the pro dream go — for a bit. Oh, it never leaves you, but I just set it aside. When you accept the pressure of trying to achieve a very specific outcome, you can easily lose sight of simply enjoying the process of improving your body, your brain and your skillset. The positive outcomes start to happen without you “doing a thing.”

And that’s exactly what happened for me. I played better. I started to get noticed, there was even talk that I might be drafted in the NFL.

Well, I didn’t get drafted, but I did sign a pro contract with the Green Bay Packers shortly after the NFL draft. Got a signing bonus and pre-season money, too. I got to wear the green and gold, sign autographs, ride local kids bikes across the Lambeau Field parking lot and lockered next to HOF wide receiver James Lofton. I competed against seven kickers in camp and made it down to the last three before being waived. 

Later, I got invited into the most unique tryout for kickers I’ve ever heard of (at the Minneapolis Metrodome) for the Vikings, when HOF kicker, Jan Stenerud retired. The USFL had folded, which meant there were about 20 of us there. Chuck Nelson from U of Washington eventually won the job, but I did get punter/holder Greg Coleman to tell me that he was pulling for me.

Always good when the holder is on your side.

I hung up my NFL aspirations when I got cut for the third time by the New York Giants (3-strikes and you’re out?). I had done well, I thought, but it wasn’t up to me. They thought Ali Haji Shiek would do the trick (he got cut by Week 3). The whole thing felt cold and unfair and the luster of kicking for money, in front of big crowds to adoring fans had worn off a bit, for me. I was ready to try the next thing — which just happens to be what has given me my successful life 37 years later.

Don’t get me wrong. I had achieved the outcome of “pro status”, but I began to realize that I was “good enough to get to the pros, I just wasn’t good enough to stay in the pros.”

I had spent my adolescence wanting and wishing to make it to the pros. Who could have guessed my trip there would have gone through a Div.III school. Who could have guessed that I would meet my my wife there. Who could have guessed that I would be so lucky to have four great kids and all the rest?

You’re young. You have dreams. Go for ’em all and love it. You’ll find that you’ll gravitate toward the dream that you feel you might just be able to accomplish.

So my advice is this… worry less about how you look to your friends or to what other kids think or say. Whether you have all the accolades, press clippings or a huge social media following. Pay more attention to the process of learning, growing and improving. Be grateful for everyone who helps you on your path. Learn to love that process and be hopeful that your work will show dividends. 

I guarantee you, it will…. perhaps not how you are imagine it now… but it will.

Mike Farley runs  JSH&P Small Business Branding in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, helping businesses of all kinds with marketing themselves. He also runs Mike Farley’s Kickers Camp in the summer to give back to a sport that he has enjoyed most all of his life.