On the very first play of the college football game against our rival, I took the pitch from our Quarterback Rob Klock, faked a reverse to the wide receiver Jeff Lucas, and took off down the sidelines on a 78-yard touchdown run that brought the crowd to their feet. The big game, and my overall college football career, was going very well.
It was October 28, 1986, and I was in my junior year at Shippensburg University, a solid competitor in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, a league that has produced NFL stars like Andre Reed, John Kuhn and Brent Grimes. At the time, I held 5 school records, All-PSAC and pre-season Honorable Mention All-American honors. Even though the odds were stacked against a small college player, my eyes were set upon making the NFL.
In the 2nd Q, with the game tied 7-7, I was tackled by a group of defenders in an awkward manner as my cleat stuck into the muddy field. The result was that I suffered a catastrophic, career ending knee injury. Five of the six major structures were damaged. If you look closely at the photo above, you will notice the devastating 90 degree angle that the left knee has been forced into from the hit.
At the time, the team doctors and surgeons said that it was unlikely that I would play football again, let alone the outside odds of the pro football dream. I spent the weekend in quite a negative state, the low point in my 19 year old life.
By Monday, I was undergoing surgery, with the reality of a difficult rehabilitation in front of me. However, as I laid in the hospital bed post-surgery, I decided that I was going to prove the doubters wrong, and play football again. It was a simple decision. Instead of being the end of a football career, the moment was the beginning of a life changing journey that highlighted my work ethic, fortified my determination, called upon mental toughness, and became an inspiration to my teammates who witnessed the struggle to return.
Of course, I never fully regained the pre-injury speed and agility, but the self-fulfillment and confidence that I possessed after beating the injury (and playing again) became the foundation that I relied on during future life challenges in the military and business world. At the end of the following season, I was awarded the prestigious Ray Ellis Fighting Heart award, for the character, attitude, contribution to the team and academic achievement. This is the athletic award that I am most proud of, because it was the most difficult to achieve.
Often times, unexpected adversity introduces the most opportune moment to make a life change and develop positive attributes that can be called upon throughout life. In retrospect, what seems like a painful tragedy, may turn out to be the pivotal point when you altered the course of your life for the better.
It is natural in life to be tested with an event initially deemed to be devastating, whether it is the death of a loved one, a serious medical diagnosis, loss of a job or material possessions. I don’t want to minimize the personal pain associated with these types of traumatic events, and I certainly am not equating my personal test of the knee injury with much more dire life events that many have been forced to endure.
However, I believe there are really just a few ways that a person can deal with life setbacks. These paths were articulated well in the movie “Finding Joe”, which was recommended to me in a social conversation with a senior leader at the bank.
Surrender to victim hood, and allow the negative event to forever drag downward your emotional, mental and physical health. This person descends into seclusion and deeply paralyzingly thoughts that destroy any chance of recovery into a productive life. Years after the traumatic event, the victim is still pointing to this event as the cause of their misery and unproductiveness. They simply can not overcome this obstacle.
Surrender to “negative fundamentalism”, whereas the pain is so intolerable, that the person turns to a group with a belief system that soothes the pain by providing a destructive outlet for the grief. I would include gangs, extremist hate groups, religious zealots and cults as examples in this category. The individual pain is converted into group energy, and the energy is directed in a negative way back into society.
Acknowledge and accept what happened and the obstacles that it presents in your life. Next, immediately begin to establish a plan to “stand back up” with a positive and determined mindset, then take control of your life and get on with it.
What are some practical steps to take to develop this positive and determined mindset?
Start by asking yourself a series of leading questions:
“What good can I create out of this bad situation?”
“How can I use this to change my life in a positive direction?”
“How can this event effect other lives in a positive manner?”
“What would this loved one want me to accomplish?” (family loss)
“Am I going to allow this perpetrator to forever control or destroy me?”
In 1980, 13-year-old Cari Lightner was walking to a carnival when she was hit and killed by a drunk driver. The grieving mom, Candy Lightner, learned that the driver was a repeat offender who had been bailed out of jail for a previous drunken hit and run.
Police also told Candy that the driver was unlikely to face significant jail time because courts usually went easy on drunk drivers. Lightner believed that the laws would not bring justice to her daughter’s killer, so she vowed to change the system. Lightner quit her real estate job to form Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). She worked tirelessly, lobbying to change laws and speaking out publicly to call attention to the suffering caused by drunk driving.
As Candy changed public opinion, laws were changed as well. States across the nation implemented stiffer penalties for drunk driving, including mandatory jail time for repeat offenders in California. Many states changed the legal drinking age from 18 to 21, and sobriety checkpoints were introduced. Partygoers became aware of the personal risk, and began to ensure they had a designated driver and a safe ride home. When Lightner left MADD in 1985, there had been a 40% reduction in fatalities caused by drunk drivers.
She used her darkest moment, the point of adversity, to affect positive change.
Think about the future, not the past.
One of the basic lessons taught in military survival training is that the odds for survival in harsh circumstances are vastly improved if the person focuses on answering the following question “how can I get out of this situation?” versus the standard “how did I get into this situation?”
The forward looking approach opens the mind to creative solutions and awareness of opportunities as they emerge. This is not to suggest that the past is not important, or imply that the solution is denial. Simply put, you need to move out of the downward spiral of negativity, and to do that effectively, you must look to the future.
Recognize that change is easiest when things are not going well.
As many middle aged folks know, it is very difficult to make a change when things are going relatively well. It can be a career that is productive and pays well, yet simply provides no sense of purpose. It can be a long term relationship that has grown bland and uninspiring. Regardless, it is likely very difficult to make a change in this type of scenario, because things seem “fine”, with no apparent need for radical change.
The key to handling adversity, is to see it as a diamond sourced from coal, but only after a complex application of heat and pressure.
If a medical emergency wakes you up to immediate danger, instead of a slow decline in your health, it is more likely that you will alter your diet and fitness behavior. If you are fired from your job without prior warning, you will likely be highly motivated to generate new ideas to provide income. The alarming nature of these types of events may generate the motivation (and need) to change now.
Study the challenges of historical figures to gain emotional strength and fortitude.
In my post “Who Are The Knights At Your Roundtable”, I discuss the value gained from drawing strength from respected historical figures to learn from their experiences.
Read the stories, and apply the lessons shared to your particular challenges and obstacles.
It is possible to turn a life tragedy or challenge into a life defining moment, if you possess the right attitude, a forward looking perspective, an association with positive people, and you ask the “right” types of questions to yourself . In October 1986, I thought my dreams had ended. In retrospect, it was the beginning of one of my finest moments, and a cornerstone experience in my 50 years on this planet. Adversity Empowers.