Campus Features Journeys

Wilson: A False Start and a Second Chance — Finding My Way after Faith and Football

Reflecting on life’s twists and turns, writer Russell Wilson talks about his journey to journalism school.

On this summer’s day in 2008, eighty pounds overweight and sweating through my eighteen-dollar dress shirt in a cheap institutional office chair, I know I’m a fraud, an imposter, a pretender, the disappointing real-life person behind the sparkling resume.

Across the desk from me, the rural Texas school district superintendent scans my application, clearly struggling to reconcile the nervous man before him with the one on paper. Magnified by his big square bifocals, his eyes dart back and forth languidly as they trace the lines on the page, his face expressionless apart from a permanent frown.

The silence is excruciating. A bead of sweat trickles down my back, and I again fidget with my zip-up tie, certain he senses my desperation.

He clears his throat like a country preacher, full of judgment, and studies the next page.

No high school football coach in Texas worth a damn is out looking for a job two weeks before the start of the season. I know it, he must know it. It’s the tacit statement in the room. But he is in a bind himself; he needed a coach yesterday, and here I am, God’s gift to six-man football, a 26-year-old prodigy with three years of head coaching experience and a 12-20 win/loss record.

Why am I here?

Two weeks ago, I was at the helm of a fledgling but successful football program I had built in my own image at an upper-middle class evangelical Christian school in exurban San Antonio. In two short years, I had brought it from literal non-existence to an undefeated district championship and a playoff run, not to mention Coach of the Year honors for myself. Beloved by students and parents alike, my job as coach and history teacher was already mine for as long as I wanted it.

Beneath my goateed smile and dapper demeanor, however, I was a manic-depressive basket case. An internal conflict that had been simmering for years now threatened to destroy everything I had worked for, including my very identity and all I had ever known to be true.

I was losing my faith. Rapidly. The why and how are too tedious to enumerate here, and this recollection isn’t intended as an argument against religion; suffice to say I discovered God was no longer for me–and that realization could not have come at a more inopportune time.

Men in positions of authority must have begun to grow suspicious when I stopped showing up for early morning staff Bible studies and questioned a conservative political candidate about the separation of Church and State at a chapel assembly. The heat and pressure of living a double life eventually got to me. I buckled and collapsed in a colossal implosion that ended with my sneaking onto campus after dark, hastily vacating my classroom, and slipping my resignation letter under the administrator’s door.

Poof. Gone in a cloud of dust. Nervous Breakdown Number One: complete.

Sitting in front of this prospective employer, I don’t need a job. I need therapy.

But I have bills to pay and have no other marketable skills. Of course, I don’t want to be here in this podunk outpost of a school in Red River country. I’ve spent my entire life plotting to escape small town life with good grades and a college degree, but here I am, crawling back for one more year in the middle of nowhere, grasping for one more chance at vicarious athletic glory.

The superintendent drops the final ecru sheet of my resume to his desk, huffs, sighs, sits back in his creaky chair, and fixes his eyes on me. I sit up straight, anticipating the imminent question about my sudden, unexplained employment situation, and mentally queue up the equivocating response I’ve given in four other interviewers around the state in as many days.

“Why ain’t you in law school, son?” he asks.

I blink, caught off guard. “Huh?”

He nods toward my papers on the desk and taps them. “I’ve never seen anyone write like this on a job application. Why ain’t you in law school somewhere?”

“I, well, um, I guess I haven’t considered it,” I muttered. “I majored in education. And the cost, you know. I couldn’t even if I wanted to.”

He gives me a dismissive wave of his hand and chuckles to himself.

“Look,” he says, “you don’t want this job, so I ain’t even going to offer it to you. I’ll find me a coach. Go and find something better to be doing.”

*

A little over a year later, I was living in my car in rest areas around New England.

What happened?

Rather than applying to law school or taking time to pick up the pieces of my psyche left shattered by the sudden break with a lifetime of fundamentalist dogma, I pressed on and took a job at a public school in the backwoods of east Texas. Bad idea. Nervous Breakdown Number Two arrived the week before Christmas and culminated in my rage-quitting during fifth-period geography, a moment in time that I would give anything to undo.

Rock bottom. I was mercifully allowed to resign, but I knew I was finished, and, out of a career and money, I had no Plan B. Going back home and living with my minister parents was not an option for obvious reasons.

So I moved in with my brother and his roommate in their grungy apartment out in San Angelo, a bustling patch of civilization in west Texas. I managed to get a student loan in order to take some history classes at the local state college between morning and afternoon shifts at the only job I could find: driving a school bus. It was all part of a diabolical plan to get as far away from Texas I could get on as little money as possible and no passport.

Maine was pretty far away. Why not?

But I couldn’t just take off unannounced and vanish, lest my family call in a missing person report. I needed an excuse. The idea of law school appealed to my ego, but little else, and I was not at all interested in pursuing a Master’s degree in education. I supposed I could complete a second bachelor’s in history and then do graduate school, so I applied to the University of Maine. My G.P.A. got me accepted with no trouble, but financial aid was a different story for me as an out-of-state student. Dead end.

Well, alright, maybe I could just find a job there and establish residency. I’d worked at a summer camp all through college, and Maine was full of those, right?

It worked. I got a gig as an archery instructor and counselor for a cabin of 12-year-old boys. I pointed my car northeast with $500 in my pocket and no plan to return.

*

“Go and find something better to be doing.”

After a forgettable wet, cold American summer, I found myself truly alone for the first time in my life, marooned in rural Maine minus a plan.

Though I thought otherwise at the time, it was exactly what I needed. I spent the next four months drifting around the backroads and towns of New England, while looking for a job and a sense of belonging. I worked for a time at a wilderness camp for juvenile delinquents deep in the Great North Woods of New Hampshire, took up residence in the Dartmouth College library and audited lectures unnoticed. I found part-time employment selling shoes at a sporting goods store. Meanwhile, the daily pressure of surviving on little to no money quickly distilled life down to the essentials; I didn’t build a cabin the woods, but I did gain some self-reliance. I also learned how to ask for help, and that there are many more friendly people out there than we are made to believe.

And, perhaps most importantly, I gave myself room to breathe and time to think and decompress after the disappointment of my teaching career. How had I failed so terribly? I had chosen my major and career based on what I thought God had called and anointed me to do, which was to be his witness and righteous ambassador in the schools and save young souls and train up culture warriors for Christ. Now, no longer clad in the armor of faith, I saw myself as I really was: naive, narcissistic and ill-prepared for the real world.

That’s a bad combination. No wonder I took personal failure so hard.

*

But had I found something better to do?

By Thanksgiving, the adventurous sheen of bumming around New England had worn off. It was time to go. I caved and called my father, who wired me enough money to make the return trip to Texas with my tail between my legs.

And, stuck back home with no money or prospects but lots of time, I began to write out of pure boredom.

The story I wrote was raw, rough and entirely too personal, but I got just enough positive feedback online and from friends to convince me to keep going.

I had always been told I wrote well, but, growing up in a rough-and-tumble small town, writing was not something boys were encouraged to do, much less consider as a profession. My masculinity was already under enough scrutiny as a piano-playing, straight-A virgin who didn’t wear boots or drive a truck.

But I was no longer a kid, and no longer an impressionable, eager-to-please teenager. I was 28 years old with nothing left to lose and everything left to discover about myself and the world. I soon moved to Oregon and five years, a broken leg, and a short stack of unpublished novels later, I at last zeroed in on journalism, finding my way to the University of Oregon, perhaps the last place I expected to end up seven years ago on that hot afternoon in west Texas.

If afforded the luxuries of hindsight and time travel, I would go back to that day and wait in the parking lot for my former self to walk out of that interview and challenge him to a fight – duke it out, then and there. A knock-down drag-out with no holds barred. Before he could weasel out of it I would sock him a few good ones, wrestle him down, and then, once I had the stubborn bastard pinned, I would sit on his chest and slap him silly.

And then I would get up and leave without a word about what awaited him and let him figure it out on his own. Sounds harsh, sure, but I know better than anyone that it takes more than well-meaning words and good advice to get my attention. No matter how much we (or our parents) try to protect ourselves from all possible failures, missteps and mistakes, we need them, it’s how we’re hardwired to learn.

There’s a word for it: experience.

Perhaps that was the whole point of my little quarter-life crisis. I needed to struggle and be led out into the wilderness to get experience and be confronted with the harsh truth that the world doesn’t revolve around me, myself and I. I needed a good ass-kicking, and reality was more than happy to oblige.

The important thing is that I got up and kept going.

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