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XFL players leave mark as grateful, determined and defiantly resilient

B.J. Daniels took over as Seattle's starting QB before the XFL suspended operations. (Getty)

When I signed on to be a sideline reporter for the Seattle Dragons, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Jim Zorn recalls final days of XFL, holds out hope for league’s return

I was excited just for more football and the opportunity to cover it, but what I walked away with was so much more than that. The XFL’s motto is “For the love of football,” and I saw that on full display every week. From the fans who amazed us with their instant support, to my co-workers who created phenomenal gameday experiences, to the players who gave it their all week in and week out, that love was apparent.

That’s why the news of the XFL shutting down operations was so heartbreaking for everyone involved.

The league was off to a great start and looked poised for future success if not for the unforeseeable obstacle of the COVID-19 pandemic. I immediately thought of the players, many of whom experienced their season being cut short for different reasons with the AAF in 2019, and felt devastated for them. But as I reflected on my time covering these players, I realized that this group of people is one of the most determined and defiantly resilient I’ve ever been around. Most of them have had to start from square one in pursuing their dreams more times than they can count but they don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves and maintain an incredibly positive outlook in the toughest of circumstances. I think it’s an outlook on life that could be helpful to us all in these unprecedented times, so here is what I took away from my experience with the XFL.

Things don’t always go as planned on the path to reaching your goals but you might accomplish something unexpected on the detours.

Seattle Dragons running back Kenneth Farrow realized his dream of playing in the NFL after signing with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2016. He even started the last two games of the season, but things came crashing down when he dealt with a shoulder and ankle injuries back to back that kept him out for the entire 2017 season. It was the first time he could remember since he was a child that he couldn’t play football and he found himself in a state of depression. Farrow knew that he had to find something outside of football to put his energy and passion into so he and a friend started a foundation called Grind With A Purpose. It’s a program designed to help high school students think about their goals and lay the groundwork for a successful future.

Farrow’s football journey hasn’t been easy. In pursuing his dream, he has played for three NFL teams in addition to stints in the AAF and XFL, but finding a purpose off the field has given him the strength to keep pursuing his dreams on it.

“I think that’s one thing the kids might not know until they get older,” Farrow said. “They kept me going at a time when I was pretty down. They were able to give to me what we’ve been able to give to them, without really even knowing it.”

Sometimes the obstacles along the way become an important part of your story.

Dragons quarterback B.J. Daniels was well on his way to breaking the yardage record at the University of Southern Florida in his senior season before suffering a devastating ankle injury.

“I remember crying and being so upset that I never thought I would have an opportunity to reach my goals,” Daniels said. “I had spent from 6 years old in my first football game to my senior year of college playing sports and football and dreaming to make it to the league, and I thought that was all over.”

Daniels ended up with a three-inch plate and 15 screws in his ankle. There was concern as to whether he would ever be able to play again so he focused on getting his degree in criminology. He even went as far as interviewing with the FBI but wasn’t going to just give up on his football dream, so he applied for the 2013 NFL draft and was selected by the 49ers in the seventh round. Daniels ended up on the Seahawks roster for a couple of seasons (winning a Super Bowl in 2013) before bouncing around on four more NFL rosters, a CFL team, the AAF and the XFL.

Daniels began the XFL season as the Dragons’ backup to quarterback Brandon Silvers, who didn’t have nearly as much experience as Daniels. It was something that he could have felt bitter or resentful about, but he chose to focus on preparing as if he was the starter every week, knowing he would be ready if and when he had that chance. When I asked him to reflect on how his love for football has evolved, he sounded like someone who realizes how every setback has made him who he is. And he wouldn’t change a thing.

“Football has given me a lot of experiences,” Daniels said early in the XFL season. “I’ve traveled the world, I’ve been awarded opportunities to be in different circles, I’ve had the chance to meet President Obama and go to Super Bowls, and it’s amazing. I’ve been able to motivate so many people from different walks of life. You know, I’ve been cut from NFL teams, I’ve been released, I’ve been fired from my job per se. I’m just thankful that I never thought I’d be back in Seattle and, not only am I here, but I’m playing football back in the same stadium where it all started. I mean life is amazing, it’s crazy how it happens.”

Daniels was officially named the starting quarterback for the Dragons later that week.

Any day that you get to do what you love is a good day. Even though so many of these players have dealt with everything from injuries to roster cuts to league shutdowns in their pursuit of their dream, the word I heard them most often use was thankful. The XFL Seattle players had to leave their families and live in a hotel room – with roommates – for months to play in a brand new league with a lot of unknowns, but I consistently heard them express their gratitude for the opportunity to still be playing football.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from Dragons players that showed their love for the game:

Brock Miller, punter: “I’ve just been doing it for so long. It’s been a passion of mine, God put it in my heart when I first started in high school and I’m just so thankful that flame is still burning and I’m just so thankful for Coach (Jim) Zorn, (Dragons director of player personnel) Tony Softli and everybody giving me this opportunity to continue playing.”

Channing Stribling, cornerback: “It’s just something that we grew up doing. One of the first things I can remember is playing sports in general. Once I started to kind of fall in love more with football… that’s kind of been my whole life, playing the game. What it brings to me is the camaraderie and passion for it, the competitiveness that you get going against someone, the love that you get when you meet teammates from different backgrounds. I think football brings a lot to me.”

Anthony “The Gut” Johnson, defensive end: “Goodness, it’s been a great experience. It’s my first time ever out here on the west coast. It’s a very beautiful city. The guys that I’m around, (defensive tackle) Will Sutton and (defensive end) Jacquies Smith and all these veteran guys who have these years in the league. Just being behind them and watching and learning from them, the different kinds of techniques they bring to the table, it’s been pretty cool.”

Godwin Igwebuike, safety: “Blessed and highly favored. … I’m blessed and highly favored. I’m just out here having fun with my guys.”

Steven Johnson, linebacker: “I want to be the best linebacker that I can be. I want to continue to grow each and every year with dreams and aspirations of getting back to the NFL because I want to play for four, five, six more years. I’m just thankful and blessed that God has allowed me to continue to stay healthy and to play the sport that I love at the professional level. The XFL is a great platform to do it on and I’m just excited. I’m really excited to continue to keep growing.”

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Maura Dooley on Twitter.

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