By Dave Wyman
“What would you be doing right now if you weren’t playing football?”
That’s a quote from my old coach, Chuck Knox, and he used to throw it out at us every once in a while when I played for the Seahawks. It was much more of a challenge than a question and I gotta tell you, it used to piss me off. It insinuated that we were all just a bunch of grunts that weren’t good for anything but blocking and tackling.
But Chuck’s words rang true my first day at Merrill Lynch in March of 1998, the first day that I worked in the “real world.” I retired in Scottsdale, Ariz., so being the player that I was (not recognizable without a number and name on my back) and being built like I was (believe it or not, people used to think I was a receiver because I wore my 245 pounds pretty well), it wasn’t obvious that I’d had a nine-year career in the NFL as a linebacker.
At Merrill Lynch, I made an entry level salary (about $35,000), was visibly uncomfortable in the suit I had recently purchased the week before, and was the low man on the totem pole in an office full of multi-millionaire stock traders in the latter days of the tech boom.
I was making my way back to my cubicle that first day when a secretary (uhh, we were supposed to call them assistants) approached me. She was headed out to the parking lot and it was obvious she was jonesin’ hard for a cigarette. She thrust a shaky hand into her purse searching for her Camel Lights and asked me, “What are you doing right now?” I replied, “Uhh, just heading back to my cubicle to make some cold calls.”
Leroy Hill has three arrests in as many years. (AP)
Before I could finish my sentence, she grabbed me by the arm and said impatiently, “I need you to cover my phones.” She took me through a 30-second tutorial — which buttons to push, the proper greeting and how to transfer calls — then disappeared into the parking structure for her nicotine fix.
There I sat, trying to get it right.
When the phones stopped ringing for a moment, I reflected back on what Chuck Knox used to say to us and thought about my career. I remembered a night in 1988, my first Monday Night Football game. It was against the Oakland Raiders. I had two sacks in that game and I remembered running off the field after the first one with the entire Kingdome crowd of 63,000 roaring.
It felt like I was floating off the field. I was 24 years old, had hardly an ounce of fat on my body, and got paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to play a game I loved. I was living out mine and every other red-blooded American boy’s dream.
The phone rang and jolted me out of my daydream. I sprang to life and answered, “Thank you for calling Merrill Lynch. How can I direct your call?” I guess Chuck was right.
When do you suppose Leroy Hill will have this moment? I’m guessing since he was recently busted for possession of marijuana for the second time in two years, it won’t be at Merrill Lynch. But it will happen. He’ll be on the outside one day, probably sooner than later, and he’ll realize that he had it pretty good.
I always tell the players that I talk to, “Stay in until all 32 teams slam the door in your face. It’s no good on the outside.” That’s a cynical view of life, I know. It’s actually OK on the outside. I enjoy being a husband and a father and I’ve enjoyed a lot of the things I’ve done since my career ended. But I’ve yet to feel the thrill that playing professional football used to give me.
The thing about Hill’s situation that is so much more tragic and frustrating is that he’s so damned talented. I can sit here and tell you that the reason my career ended was because I was 32 years old, had 10 knee surgeries, two shoulder surgeries and missed games in all but three of my nine NFL seasons. But that would be a lie. In the end, I wasn’t good enough anymore.
That’s not the case with Leroy Hill.
When people ask me what kind of a player I was, I tell them that I was a spectacular high-school football player and athlete. I was “that guy.” I was all-state as a tight end and linebacker and the player of the year in Nevada. I was a starter on the basketball team. In track, I was the Northern Nevada sprint champion and a two-time state shot put champion.
I was a great player in college — second team All Pac-10 my sophomore and junior seasons, All Pac-10 first team and a Sporting News All American my senior year.
But in the pros, I was just one of the guys. Yes, I was an eight-year starter but I never made the Pro Bowl or any kind of all-NFL team. All that stuff I did in high school and college — in the NFL, everyone was “that guy.”
Hill, on the other hand, has the rare talent and ability to actually stand out in an NFL locker room. He’s that good. Since his rookie year in 2005, I’ve marveled over the plays he makes. He can take on any offensive lineman in the league, drop into coverage as well as any linebacker and rush the passer with the best of them. He’s quite possibly the best open field tackler I’ve ever seen.
I watched him on consecutive plays cover a running back man-to-man 30 yards downfield, blow up a fullback in the backfield — ruining the timing of a running play — and hurdle over an offensive guard to make a tackle on a screen play. He could be “that guy” in the NFL.
But instead, he’s throwing it all away.
We were all impressed this year with his attitude about his past transgressions. He did it the right way. He admitted to everything, was contrite about it, took full responsibility for his actions and apologized in a sincere manner. He talked the talk, and during the season, he walked the walk. He didn’t make the spectacular plays that he’s capable of but he had a solid season to build on.
Believe it or not, I actually feel sorry for Leroy Hill. He’ll have the moment of reflection that I had covering phones at Merrill Lynch back in 1998. But in the end, he’ll know that he had the chance and chose to throw it away.
You realize when your career is over that there’s still a lot of life to live. There’s nothing worse than living in regret, and that’s how he will live unless a team gives him another chance.
Don’t count on the Seahawks being that team.