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How to Get Into the Game (Without paying your dues)

This is a story for those who are driven to perform on a larger stage.

I had no business being on a varsity football field.

Truth be told, I wasn’t on the varsity football team at the start of our preseason two-a-day practices. I was on junior varsity with the rest of my sophomore teammates.

I was not a blue-chip football prospect.

I wasn’t in the team’s preview guidebook, nor were the cheerleaders practicing cheers with my number in them. The local paper wasn’t harassing our coach for talking points of what my skills might bring to the 1997 Columbia Blue Devils football team.

I was just another powder blue practice shirt bouncing off people on the muddy secondary practice field where the freshman and JV teams prepared for the upcoming season.

Most of the varsity coaches didn’t even know my name. Why would they? It wasn’t that I didn’t have talent, I just didn’t play on the big stage.

I hadn’t paid my dues.

That’s how we’re taught to think. You pay your dues, grinding your way up through the junior levels of whatever you do. In my case, it was high school football, but we could just as easily be talking about the band, politics or the drama club.

You pay your dues. Then someone picks you and all your wildest dreams come true.

This was the methodology drilled into our brain as children.

A methodology I’ve always fought.

A methodology you’ve always fought.

My Dad was part of the railroading union. There was always this belief around our house that if you worked hard, played by the rules, and respected the system hierarchy, there would be this golden chest waiting for you at the end of the rainbow.

The concept of “paying your dues,” even in its purest, most altruistic form has never made sense to me. Getting my ass kicked for the JV football team certainly didn’t make sense to me.

Playing football, you’re going to get beat up, it’s inevitable. It wasn’t the physical abuse that bothered me, but the lack of notoriety and respect you received while getting bloodied and bruised for the junior varsity team.

I didn’t want to pay my dues.

Maybe you can relate.

The traditional system would say I didn’t deserve to play varsity football. What had I done to earn my place? Nothing.

But at the age of 15, there was nothing in life I wanted more than play varsity football. I knew in my heart that I had the skills and passion and could tap into just enough insanity to actually survive.

I wanted to perform on a larger stage and reap the reward of everything that came with that honor.

See, playing for the varsity football team in high school has perks. Attention from girls. Respect from every dude in the school. You could cut class, park in the teacher’s parking lot… the lunch ladies would even throw an extra slice of pizza on your tray.

Some people find these types of perks offensive.

But it wasn’t just the perks, I wanted to prove I belonged there.

We have two choices.

We can do what we need to to get the things we want out of life, or we can play the game the way it was designed and hope someone taps us on the shoulder when it’s our turn.

As a sophomore, how did I get on my high school varsity football team?

I became the long snapper on punts and field goals.

There is nothing glamorous about long-snapping. Glamor at first isn’t important.

The trick is to get on the stage however you can.

Did I want to be a long-snapper? No.

However, my sophomore year, our varsity football team didn’t have a single person you could consistently long-snap the football back to our punter and field goal holder (a fact the head coach of our varsity team complained about every day).

Then, one day, our head coach asked for volunteers from JV team to learn how to long-snap. I stood up. In fact, I was the only player to stand up.

If my goal was to be a starting linebacker for the varsity football team, does it matter how I got on the team? No. Do I have any chance of becoming a starting linebacker for the varsity football team on JV? No.

You get into the game where opportunity presents itself.

The rest of my JV teammates hated me. I didn’t blame them; at least a dozen of them were more deserving than I was (at least at the time). But the simple truth was none of my junior varsity teammates were willing to swallow their pride and learn a position no one wanted, even when the prize was a place on the larger stage.

The Rub

It doesn’t matter how talented you are.

It doesn’t matter how hard you work.

If doesn’t matter how much you think you deserve the larger stage.

Obscurity is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We must dare to be first.

There’s no glory languishing away in obscurity, an afterthought in the hierarchy of some system, hoping to one day be picked.

Find the thing that gets you in the game, on the stage, in front of the audience. Learn the skill your competition neglects. Do the work your peers won’t.

Forget your price and get in the game however you can.

Because you’ll never prove you belong to the practice squad.

This is the way.

Hanley

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