3 Lessons From A Former Athlete
College sports exist to obtain a degree, but I gained so much more.
Earlier this month I closed what I would label the most challenging, painstaking, yet rewarding experience of my life: running NCAA Division II Men’s Track & Field at the University of Indianapolis.
5 years, 8 months, and 13 days, which at the time seemed like it would never end, was wrapped up within a blink of an eye, leaving memories, lessons and experiences that will travel with me and through me for the rest of my life.
There were so many times when I questioned by agenda and my purpose. To be completely honest, there were so many times when I did not think I was even capable of finishing.
I thank the little voice inside of my head that encouraged me to keep pushing. From day one I had a mission, I had goals. I could not be a quitter. I couldn’t give up. Although I must admit, the mission I came in with, was not the mission I left with.
I distinctly remember my first day on campus during my visit, a young senior in high school with no real sense of the world. I had an immature mindset that thought I knew everything, in reality knowing little to nothing. Regardless, there was one thing I knew with no doubt.
The University of Indianapolis was my new home and I belonged here.
Before the university even had what would be my daily home for the next six years, there was an indoor football field in which the New York Giants had used to practice on in preparation for Super Bowl XLVI.
I walked in and was directed to the man who would not only afford my education, but help mold me into the man I am today, Scott Fangman. He reached his hand out and said to me, “Iman Tucker, welcome to UIndy,” and before I had time to decide officially, he knew I was coming. I was overwhelmed with a sense of home and security. Some may call it God, others may call it emotion, I call it a changing point in my life.
I made the mental note that it would be here that I become great, and not only reach my goals, but ascend into what I thought was greatness at a local level.
I wanted to be a record breaker.
I wanted to a national qualifier.
I wanted to be an All-American.
I had set the bar so high and expected nothing but to reach each and every goal. However, regretfully, very seldom did I take the time to ask myself, “why?”
Why did I want to be good?
What did it matter?
Who would if affect?
I was training so hard, but not once could I honestly admit to having a clear purpose for what I was doing. The reality of it was I was running for myself. All of my goals led with, “I.” All of my focus began with, “I.” All of my time revolved around, “I.” Some where in my mind I convinced myself that in the grand scheme of life my worth was found in track. The faster I ran, the more I mattered.
I struggled. A lot. I made the mistake of relying on what I did to replace who I was.
I was no longer the top dog like I was my last season of my high school career. I was surround by a Division II powerhouse of success. Everyone was good. As a matter of fact, of the scholarship athletes brought in, I truly believe that I was the worst. At first it was humbling, then it was challenging, and before I knew it. . . it was embarrassing.
My response to the adversity was to try even harder. I was on the brink of insanity attempting the same approaches over and over again to find my purpose and value within my team. I HAD to be good or else I would not fit in, I would not be liked, I would not matter. I brainwashed myself into a dark place in my life.
Then, it was taken from me.
I suffered a season ending injury accompanied by sickness that forced me to forego my freshman track season.
Two meets into a fresh career and it was already over.
I quickly spiraled into a deep depression. As if a superhero lost his cape, I lost my identity. Track was my everything. It was ingrained so deep into me that my introduction included it.
“Hello, my name is Iman. I run track.”
My friends included it as well.
“This is Iman. He runs track.”
Peanut butter and jelly. Bonnie and Clyde. Iman and track.
I had to find new meaning and a new use of my time. I turned my back completely on everything track and field. I stopped reaching out to my teammates and coaches. I was too ashamed that I was not good, and now I was hurt. I struggled. A lot. I made the mistake of relying on what I did to replace who I was. Looking back I have 3 lessons that I will take with me for the rest of my life.
The first lesson I learned was that this life has too much to offer allow a title, job, or role define who you are.
You could be an athlete, you could be a business professional, you could be a doctor. What titles do not reveal is your heart, your character, or how you treat people. A title will never establish value or worth.
You could be the president of United States and be a jerk, be selfish, and be a crook (not to allude to anyone or anything). You could be homeless and unemployed and love others, inspire people, and touch lives around you.
If we let our title define us we are forever strapped to what we do. We cannot retire, then we lose our worth. If we get fired not only do we lose our job, now we lose our purpose, our heart, our identity.
Was Jesus excited about being a carpenter? Or was it his means to an end? Was it what he used as a platform to provide, until it was his time to share his message and spirit of love to others?
I was forced to find identity in something else. Unfortunately, I had yet to develop any other skills. I could not dance, I was not the cool kid on the block, and I certainly could not sing (well or even decent for that matter).
At that point in my life all I had to lean back on was my personality and my character. I just wanted to be loved, and in doing so I resorted to loving others. Some may call it selfish, and at that point in my life, I would agree. It was in fact selfish, but it worked.
The conversations and introductions began changing. It became,”this is Iman. he is fun, and loves people. Also, I think he might also run track as well.” I was no longer leading with my name, then my title. I was leading with my name, my character, then the least significant part of it all, my title.
The simple perspective shift changed me. I no longer had to be great to matter. I just had to treat people great. Within that realm, I found greatness. Not within myself, but within life. The greatness that life really has waiting for those looking to claim it.
Flash forward a couple years ahead. Got healthy, got a bit stronger, began contributing to the team. Although it was fun, my perspective began to change back to my old habitual ways.
Once again, it started to become less about others, and more about me again. I was getting success in a small taste, and wanted more. I had already been blessed with even the ability to recover and run again, and I wanted more. Greed consumed me.
Me. . .
Shame. On. Me.
I was so self-oriented again at this point in my life. My heart had not been fully changed yet. Yes, I previously was serving and loving others, but it was all for me. It was about what I was getting out of the experience. I was receiving love in return for giving it out.
I was not yet prepared to have track given back to me. I was still young in the mind and selfish in the heart. I had a title again, I had my supposed “purpose” back. Yet it was not enough.
The second lesson I learned is that this life is not about “me.”
I was chasing success so hard for the next season of my life. I was introduced to a whole crew of new athletes. One of which being my current roommate and brother, Treyvon Matthews. He was a beast on the track. Together we made each other better. Iron sharpening iron. We were working so hard, putting in extra hours, watching film. We were reaching hard to great. Which is not a bad thing at all as long as you have your why established.
I did not. Not yet.
As the weeks went by my strength continued to be zapped away and the pain continued to increase. Before I knew it my experience had been cut short, yet again. With fractures in my L2-L4 I lost feeling in left leg.
I was holding onto track with my last grip like a mountaineer clinging for dear life on the edge of Everest. It was only a matter of time before my body failed me again, and it did.God work in mysterious ways. He has a funny way of humbling us when we least expect it.
Though I still suffer the chronic effects of the injury, I am humbled and grateful it happened, because this time I was going to give it right. Track was taken away from me for a reason. I am convinced that it was because I had made it about me all over again, and my fate would not be crippled by my own selfishness.
I stayed steadfast. I returned to supporting my teammates leading into my return as an athlete. However, this time my perspective was different. After so many injuries I was no longer interested in being good for myself. All I wanted to do was push my teammates to be great and see them fulfill their own potential.
It taught me a lot. Thank God for my roommate being fast, because it taught me one of the most valuable lessons in life.
My teammate went on to make it to the NCAA Division II 60 Meter Hurdle Final where he would place sixth and become an NCAA All-American. I had never felt so proud of an athletic moment in my life. Not of mine, or anyone else. I watched him go to the well everyday to fetch the water of hard work and discipline.
His gratitude and gracious spirit he showed for everything he believed I did for him gave me hope. It gave me direction that I was figuring this life thing out, and although I still falter, I know I am getting closer to the man I want to be. The man that God has called me to be.
Then it hit me. . . this is what life is about. Pouring into others and pushing them to greatness. Not for myself, but out of the loving spirit of service. Teaching boys to become men, turning girls into women. Creating a paradigm shift that will never be the same. Not to take the credit, because this was a display of his own hard work, but to give those around you the tools it takes to be successful.
I was so proud of Treyvon.
This life is not about me. Jesus gave his life for us, our parents give their everything to us, the least we can do is give our time, resources, and knowledge to those we’re surrounded by. Then, all of the sudden, when we fail and when we struggle it all of the sudden becomes less significant, because it was never about us to begin with.
We are not enough to hold ourselves up on our own when we struggle. If we fail and we are our only hope, we will continue to fail. What if, by chance, we were never the consideration?
What if we did not use ourselves as a metric of success. Yes, we look to grow and improve, but we judge our value on how well we treat others, how well we lead, and how well we give.
We create a community of giving and positivity that is contagious. It is no longer about me as an individual, it is about every one raising the bar. Then, before you know it. . . we’re all winning.
The final takeaway I learned is your kindness and giving will ultimately be what leaves a legacy
I was by no stretch of the imagination “great” as an athlete college. I have always felt average in life, period. To be honest, I rarely even consider if I am or not anymore. The reality is that it does not matter either way.
There was great before, and will continue to be great after my time at UIndy. As great as Michael Jordan was in his time, people now debate whether or not he was truly the greatest to ever play. It is all debatable and subject to opinion. What man labels, man may take away at any moment.
“With the same sword they knight, they are going to goodnight you with.”
(I bet you can’t name the rapper that quoted that.)
Accomplishments are an amazing thing. Something to proud of. Greatness is a high honor. As long as it does not define you. What stands out to folks the most is how much you give and contribute to positive growth in the lives of others. I never thought that how I treated people when I came to college is what would ultimately be the only thing that separated me from my peers.
I swore by the thought of: the less time it took for me to finish a race, the greater a legacy I would leave. Regardless of how fast I ran, I now rest with confidence that the relationships I was blessed to have with my coaches, teammates, and supporting cast will live longer than any record made to be broken.
In one’s last moments rarely seek to work harder, make more money, have more accomplishments. They simply look to foster relationships and love those around them. They look to be in the moment. Do not let a legacy, accomplishments, or goals push you away from the moments.
The moments I have had serving others, pouring into them, and watching them grow will be the legacy in which I look back on and am proud of.
Nothing more, nothing less.
When you find purpose, you find everything you need.
At one point it was embarrassing, then it was eye-opening, and now it is life changing.