Editor's Note: NFL.com occasionally runs book excerpts from works written about the world of football. The following is from of "Let the World See You," by longtime NFL linebacker Sam Acho.
New people and new places evoke new emotions. I had just graduated from college and had reached my dream: being drafted by an NFL team. The only problem was, I wasn't allowed to play. At the time, there was a lockout in effect, which meant that the teams were allowed to draft new players, but those players were not allowed to attend any official practices.
I'll never forget the call I received on draft day from team president Michael Bidwill: "Congratulations, Sam! You're an Arizona Cardinal!"
I was beyond excited. I had reached my goal, and this call was only the beginning. I was determined to set the league on fire. God had answered my prayers, and I was ready to do everything in my power to make an immediate impression with my new employer.
In my excitement, I asked what I should do next. It was an easy question, but easy questions, as I soon found out, don't always have easy answers.
"Well," Mr. Bidwill replied, "I'm not sure where you're at right now, but wherever you are, stay there. You're not permitted to come to our practice facility until this lockout issue is resolved."
The lockout was a labor dispute between the players and the team owners. Labor disputes are nothing new, but this one was a little different. The 2009 financial crisis had taken a toll on everyone, including the NFL owners. And they weren't too excited about the prospect of moving forward with the labor deal that was in place. They wanted a better deal and were willing to sacrifice a season or two to get it.
But I wasn't. I got off the phone with mixed emotions. I was still excited about being drafted, but I was unsure where I was supposed to go from here. I'm a doer, and since God had answered my prayers so clearly and directly, I was ready to go. Full steam ahead! No owner or lockout was going to stop that. One way or another I was on my way to Arizona. I just needed to figure out how.
The how turned out to be easy. Social media had taken off, and my older sister had created a Twitter account for me a few weeks earlier. Now was the time to use it. The problem was, I didn't know anyone on the team. What a lot of people didn't realize was that I never really watched professional football. In college we had practices on Sundays, and I had classes on Mondays. I figured I could always catch the game highlights on ESPN if needed. Now that these guys were my teammates, I had a lot of learning to do.
My research started on Twitter. I searched for guys on the Cardinals' roster who seemed normal. The search started and stopped with Calais Campbell. Calais is a gentle giant. He's six feet, eight inches tall and a solid three hundred pounds. None of those numbers are normal per se, but Calais is an amazing human being. He's got the biggest smile known to man, and he's one of the nicest guys I know. I reached out to him on Twitter and asked if there was a good place to train in Arizona while I waited for the lockout to end. He gave me directions to his training facility in Scottsdale. I asked if I could train with him, and he obliged.
A few days later I showed up at the gym, but Calais was nowhere to be found. Pretty soon someone asked me if I was one of the Cardinals players. Technically I was, so I said yes. He directed me to a workout area where the players were getting ready to begin their lift.
One thing I had learned over the years was to fake it, to pretend, to act like I belonged. Even when I didn't know who I was, I always had a pretty good idea of who I was expected to be. In school I was a star athlete, at home I was a peacemaker, at church I was the pastor's son. Putting on all these masks was effortless for me. And they worked too. People got what they expected and seemed happy. But faking it can only get you in the door. Being who God made you is what keeps you there.
I'm reminded of Moses, a Hebrew boy who had been pretending. He was adopted as a baby into an Egyptian family that owned Hebrew slaves. He acted Egyptian, but he looked like a Hebrew. His true calling would be to free the Hebrew slaves, but pretending got him in the door.
My pretending got me in the door that day at the gym. The only problem was, now that I was in, I was going to be caught. I was in a workout with half a dozen Cardinals players, and none of the guys knew who I was.
By the grace of God, one of my new teammates, Adrian Wilson, took me under his wing. Adrian is a rock-solid, six-foot-three, 235-pound man of steel. People were legitimately scared of him, both his teammates and his opponents. Still, he and I became friends because I showed him the real me, and I saw the real him as well. A-Dub, as we called him, had his own masks, too, but the primary one was of a tough guy. He had a heart for kids. I'll never forget the day he invited me to his house to teach me the playbook. He had three young kids at the time, and I caught him humming the theme song of one of the kids' TV shows. The thing is, A-Dub had a reputation for never smiling. So hearing him sing these songs and unknowingly let his guard down opened the door for me. He showed me he was human and that he loves kids, just like me.
I still don't know if A-Dub knows what he did for me that day, but I'll never forget it. Of course, he made me promise not to tell anyone, a promise I kept for years -- well, up to now. I think he was working through some insecurities too. But after that night at his house, he had my allegiance. Not only did he teach me the plays, but he also taught me how to be me. How to be real. How to let my guard down and have balance. That day, when I saw behind the mask of one of my teammates, I learned the freedom that comes from being me.
From “Let the World See You: How to Be Real in a World Full of Fakes” by Sam Acho. Copyright © 2020 by Sam Acho. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson.