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Lay It Down
How Letting Go Brings Out Your Best
By Randall Cunningham, Tim Willard
WORTHY PUBLISHINGCopyright © 2013 Randall Cunningham
All rights reserved.
YOU'RE NOT THE STARTER
PUTTING YOUR LIFE INTO PERSPECTIVE
Disappointment is the gap between expectation and reality.
In 1996 I quit football. I'd been with the Philadelphia Eagles for a number of years, but I was done. I never wanted to play football again.
Though I look back now with fondness on my time in Philadelphia, most sports analysts would say it was an eleven-year roller-coaster ride—so much good, so much of the unexpected, and even times when we experienced the unthinkable. For the most part those years allowed me to get into contact with who I was supposed to be as a man in this life. But the later years actually allowed my joy and love of football to depart from me. It was humbling to realize that I was no longer wanted as a starting quarterback when no one invited me to join them for the 1996 season.
So I returned to Las Vegas, the city of my alma mater, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), and started my own tile business—Custom Marble and Granite Accessories. For a year I worked with my laborers, experiencing the rigors of real life on my hands and knees, cutting rock and making marble and granite countertops. It was a rewarding experience. I loved handling the raw materials and observing how they took shape during the refining process. I grew to understand contentment during that year away from the game I had loved. I learned to take nothing for granted, to cherish all the little moments of life as much as the big moments.
But many people kept asking me, "Hey, Randall, when are you coming back?" I felt a prompting to seek God's will for what was next in my life. I was content to keep at the tile business. But did God want me to get back into the game?
To be honest, I didn't want to play football anymore. So I prayed very specifically that God would make it clear if he wanted me to go back to the NFL: "Lord, I don't know if I'm supposed to play, but whatever your will is ... I'm ready for it. If you want me out there, God, you're going to compel teams to call me. I'll go back if you want me to go back—but if you leave it up to me, God, I'm not going back."
The calls started coming. First Jeff Fisher, who was then coaching the Tennessee Titans. Then Mike Ditka in New Orleans.
I dropped down on my knees. "Okay, God. I see that you want me to go back. I'm not sure why you want me there, but I'll go because you want it to happen. I'll go back, not because I want to, not because I want a Super Bowl ring; I'll go back to see what it is you want me to do."
I received clear direction from God to go back into football, and I signed with the Minnesota Vikings. I was there to back up Brad Johnson, but in my second year playing with the Vikings I received my shot to be a starting quarterback once again. Brad fractured his right leg in the second game of the 1998 season against St. Louis. I came into the game and threw the winning touchdown. The scoreboard read 38–31. Victory!
We lost only one game the whole regular season.
What a whirlwind. There I was, a thirty-five-year-old, once-retired, backup quarterback, slinging bombs down the field to rookie Randy Moss, who would become one of the best receivers of all time. I ended up receiving league MVP honors and had the best year of my career. I threw for 34 touchdowns and only had 10 interceptions. My passer rating was 106, which was a Minnesota Vikings record. Our offense set the single-season scoring record with 556 points scored. (That record stood until the Patriots broke it in 2007, scoring 589 points with—guess who?—Randy Moss. I was not surprised.)
In the world of football, it was a great year. And for me personally? I called it a blessed year.
But the season ended in disappointment. There we were, the highest-scoring offense in the history of the game, watching Morten Andersen, placekicker for the Atlanta Falcons, dash our Super Bowl dreams with an overtime field goal in the NFC championship game. It was a crushing blow for a football player.
Prior to the end of that season I'd been rewarded for my offensive performance with a five-year, $30.5-million contract, even though I told the Vikings I only wanted to play one more year. But after the season, things began changing on the team, beginning with the loss of our offensive coordinator, Brian Billick, who took the head coaching job with the Baltimore Ravens. He was the brains behind our offense.
The Vikings headed into the 1999 season with a new offensive coordinator, Chip Myers, who had been promoted from wide receivers coach after Billick's departure. Things were going as normal until Chip died unexpectedly of a heart attack right before the season. We didn't know what was going to happen after that. We were mourning the death of a great coach and friend. We didn't know who the offensive coordinator was going to be. We scored points, but not like we had in the past. Overall, we weren't firing on all cylinders. We struggled.
The NFL is a "What have you done for me lately?" league. It only took until halftime of the fifth game of the season for Coach Denny Green to bench me. Near the end of the season, however, they asked me to start again, but with a pay cut. Nine months after receiving a thirty-million-dollar contract they wanted me to willingly give up some of it. I said, "Thank you, but no. I'm going to honor my contract." I was due one million dollars after the season, which they paid me. But then they released me.
Then the Dallas Cowboys picked me up for the 2000 season. Jerry Jones said, "Randall, you don't have to worry about being the starting quarterback. We have Troy [Aikman]." So I thought I was headed to the Dallas Cowboys to back up Troy. This was around the time when Troy endured a string of concussions. They wanted someone ready in case he received another one. I was happy to oblige.
I was a Dallas Cowboy—the Super Bowl–winning Dallas Cowboys. I thought, I'm backing up Troy Aikman and I'm a teammate of Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, and "Rocket" Ismail. I could not have planned it any better.
Then the unthinkable happened: Troy received another concussion. I replaced him. Now I was really living the dream, right? Wrong. Almost immediately I pulled my hip flexor and was out. That was the extent of my shining career as a Dallas Cowboy: a 1–2 record, 849 passing yards, 6 touchdowns to 4 interceptions.
Not quite like I planned it. I went from the highest-scoring offense in the league to injured backup to Troy Aikman.
Still, at the end of the season Jerry informed me it was possible that Troy might not return to play ball. There was an indication he might have to consider retiring because of the concussions. Jerry told me he wanted me to be their starting quarterback.
So I researched starting salaries, and my wife, Felicity, and I bought a place in Dallas. Hey, here we go, I thought. We're going to finish out my career here in Dallas with the Cowboys. I could almost see myself riding off into the Texas sunset (minus the cowboy hat and spurs).
But then Jerry called me again and explained that they were having salary-cap issues and that Troy wasn't done yet.
One minute Felicity and I were purchasing a home in Irving, Texas ... and the next minute my good friend Brian Billick, who at that time was head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, was calling me.
"Randall," he said. "Come on over to the Baltimore Ravens."
I thought, Wow. The Ravens just won the Super Bowl. This could be a great opportunity. The Ravens had the best defense in the league. Ray Lewis was there, and Brian Billick had been my offensive coordinator when we broke the scoring record in Minnesota, so I'd be hooking back up with that kind of offense. What an opportunity!
"Yes, I'll come."
So in 2001 I became the backup to Elvis Grbac. I chose to wear the number 1 because I was going to play only one more year. I started just two games with the Ravens that year, but we won both games.
I finally retired from football in 2002—for good this time—as a Philadelphia Eagle once again. I'm very proud of that fact. When I retired from the game I was the all-time leading rusher at the quarterback position with 4,928 yards on 775 attempts. That record stood until 2011.
Some people ask me if I'm disappointed with how my football career unfolded during those difficult few years. After all, I had just set league records with the Vikings and barely missed the Super Bowl. What was it like to go from such a high place of success in Minnesota to holding a clipboard in Dallas, then playing, then getting injured?
It's a fair question. By the world's standards, perhaps, I was being treated unfairly—inadequately rewarded for my accomplishments. Fate was having a laugh at my expense as I watched from the Dallas sideline.
But to me, that kind of life vision is limited. It places too much stock in the tangible, measurable things in life and not enough on the things that really matter, like the heart and soul of a person. Accolades aren't worthless by any stretch, but they are not the sum total of a person. There's always something going on behind the scenes. In our media-saturated culture all the fans see is a player like me getting shipped out of town to another team and riding the bench or getting injured. But that's only a fraction of life for that individual.
Don't get me wrong: moving from city to city with your family is no small task, and that kind of lifestyle takes its toll. But I didn't sit around and mope because I felt I was entitled to more in Minnesota. My life didn't end when I was injured in Dallas. I was living my life off the field. And some great things were happening.
During that time my first son, Randall II, was born and then we were blessed with my first daughter, Vashti. I was in a new chapter of life: I was watching the birth of my children. I was watching them crawl around in their diapers. I was watching them grow up. You don't get to replay that down, if you know what I mean. You only get one chance to be with your family, and I wanted to make the most of it. Felicity and I were growing closer as we experienced the fun and crazy world of parenting.
My football career was incredible. It afforded me the freedom and resources to chase after my passions wholeheartedly. For that, I'm thankful. But there is life after the NFL, as so many players find out the hard way. I'm often asked if I regret not getting to or winning a Super Bowl—the crowning achievement for any player. Early in my career I might have answered differently. But I can tell you with confidence now that it doesn't bother me.
We're not defined by singular events in our lives. We're defined by the entirety of our lives—lived to the fullest. My personal faith in God views a life well lived as one that brings honor and glory to him. What I do and the reason I do those things are directly related to making God proud.
Life will shift and change like a quarterback calling an audible at the line of scrimmage—there may be maneuvers and hits that catch us off guard. Our response in that moment is key. Do we freeze at the line and let life barrel through us? Or do we take the shift in stride and make a play?
Losing my job in Minnesota was a shift. Likewise, going to Dallas looked like a great opportunity. But neither panned out professionally. Instead, there was something waiting for me beyond the supposed disappointment of those opportunities.
When I retired in 1996, I had begun a small Bible study I hosted at my house. I kept up with that on an interim level; whenever a season ended I'd return to the Vegas area and pick up the Bible study, and all the people involved would return as well.
With that in mind, one day I was talking with the chaplain at Dallas and asked him if I could start a Bible study with some of the guys on Mondays before practice. I wanted to go through the book The Man God Uses by Henry and Tom Blackaby. He smiled and told me that he'd been praying for a player to step up in that role and lead a study for the players. It was the beginning of my mentoring young players.
Here I was thinking I was in Dallas to be the backup to Troy Aikman on "America's Team," but God showed me that he had other plans. He wanted to raise me up among my peers to lead them in spiritual matters. What an honor! What a responsibility!
People often ask me what I think of the Tim Tebow experiment with the New York Jets. I don't comment at all on Tebow as a quarterback or his skill set or anything like that. I'm not looking at that. I'm looking beyond that. What's God doing with Tim? Why would he place him with the Jets when he might have been a perfect fit with the Broncos? I don't know if many in the public will ever understand what Tim's true impact is on society. But I firmly believe that it will be seen in the men he encourages through his involvement in their lives.
That's what was going on with me in Dallas. How could I have seen that when I retired in 1996? There's no way I could have. I had to trust God, lay down my own selfish desires, and venture into unknown waters to find out firsthand what God wanted from me. When my faith began to grow, I released the things that used to be important to me: the drive for success and the desire to do whatever I wanted to do at my own leisure (something that simply isn't possible if you want to make it as a new dad).
As I released those things, I could see myself growing as a man. Yes, I was a professional athlete. But as my career neared completion I transitioned into being a new father, a better husband, and a community leader who lived in the community.
I had things I wanted to do and my own ideas for life after football. But I found out that those notions did not align with God's plan for me. So I laid down my own desires to see what God desired for me. It turns out he gave me success in Minnesota but then gave me arguably greater success in Dallas. My impact that year was not on the football field but in the lives of those men I studied with and mentored. A few years later, that small Bible study in my home grew to become Remnant Ministries, the church I now pastor in Las Vegas.
Maybe it's difficult for a fan to understand, but this is what I tell folks in my church and the young athletes I mentor: get your priorities in order. If my life rested on what I did on the field, then I'd be in trouble. But it doesn't—thank God! That record-setting year in Minnesota was sweet. And that's part of what made the journey so special. But that was not my treasure. In the end I found contentment and purpose because I knew my life did not belong to me. It belonged to God.
This perspective may surprise some people. Sacrificing what we want to do in life for a greater purpose goes against our natural tendencies. In football you're lauded as a player when you have singular vision and strive to be the best—the best of the best—and to win a Super Bowl. It's not that I didn't want to win a Super Bowl, but those goals and aspirations are not life-or-death situations. They're temporary accomplishments. When I came back from retirement I was content to be the best I could be, to strive for excellence, and to accept whatever success or failure came my way.
When our priorities are set in the right place, we don't give up when something bad happens to us. After many years away from football, I would experience that firsthand.
Has there ever been a time when you ended up in a place or situation you didn't want to be in? Perhaps a lost job, a difficult relationship, or a frightening situation? What was your experience? How did you make it through that experience?
Detail a time in your life when you had a negative experience that ended up turning into a positive one. What doors opened for you because of it?
What are your life priorities? Are they the right ones? Are there any you believe should be changed? If so, which ones should they be?
Excerpted from Lay It Down by Randall Cunningham, Tim Willard. Copyright © 2013 Randall Cunningham. Excerpted by permission of WORTHY PUBLISHING.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Playing through the Pain: The Power of "What If…?" 3
Chapter 1 You're Not the Starter: Put Your Life into Perspective 9
Chapter 2 The Biggest Hit I Ever Took: The Day That Forever Changed Me 25
Chapter 3 Bracing Yourself: Dig Deep and Hold On 35
Chapter 4 Moving toward Hope: Called to Something More 53
Chapter 5 Principle 1 Friction Is Your Friend: Why Obstacles Are Good Training 71
Chapter 6 Principle 2 Down at Half time: Perseverance in the Tough Times 85
Chapter 7 Principle 3 Watching the Game from the Tunnel: Patience on and off the Field 113
Chapter 8 Principle 4 Limping Back to the Huddle: Grieve, Get Mad, Move On 137
Chapter 9 Principle 5 Running the Two-Minute Drill: Keep Life on Its Heels 165
Chapter 10 Principle 6 Absorbing the Hits: Spiritual Maturity Breeds Contentment 187
Conclusion: Laying It Down: Adjust for Any Situation 201