When you look back at the life you’ve lived, it’s occasionally interesting to think of the three, four, five, etc., significant events you’ve experienced which have shaped your ideals, thoughts, esteem, and changed the trajectory of your beliefs or actions. All of these circumstances have been meaningful enough to set you on a path you might not have otherwise encountered. In this series of posts, I’ll embark on an interesting experiment to recall and recapture the feelings associated with some of the most significant life events that have either directly or indirectly shaped my worldview and the life I live today. My hope is that, through this, you’ll begin to rehash those significant moments in your own life and realize the impact those moments still have, further prompting you to explore the insight of your interactions with yourself and others.
“A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
THE LESSONS OF BECOMING A QUARTERBACK
“Ozuna, Fancher, come here.” I turned to see two coaches huddled in the center of the football field.
I had no idea what Coach Stone wanted. We were in the middle of a water break. Most of the team and I were hovered around the furthest sideline, next to the table loaded with water bottles.
It was an early afternoon on a warm spring day, during my freshman year of high school. In the spring, we were allowed a few weeks to practice and get familiar with the plays and formations of the upcoming football season. With much trepidation, I confidently jogged toward my coaches. I knew I’d either learn of an exclusive opportunity or I’d be informed of extra responsibility. I didn’t think it would be both.
Coach Stone, the varsity baseball head coach, who doubled as a junior varsity football coach, tossed me the football.
“Brian (Fancher), I want you to run a fifteen yard deep post,” he instructed, “Ozuna, I want you to throw it to him.”
I didn’t think anything of it. Having grown up around the game of football, I was comfortable throwing one. My only hesitancy was the realization that I was standing next to the head varsity baseball coach and knowing I had the opportunity to show off my arm. In baseball, I was a shortstop. For a shortstop, a good arm was almost a prerequisite. Typical of my nature, I began thinking about the opportunities I’d have to make an impression for another sport while standing on a football field in shoulder pads. My naivete’ can sometime be my greatest ally.
Before I knew it, Fancher was five yards down the left side of the field. At the fifteen yard mark he broke his vertical sprint and began running diagonally. I’d never thrown to Fanch before, but I anticipated where to throw the ball to hit him mid-stride and released. I watched the ball as it spiraled perfectly through the air. Two seconds later the ball landed squarely in his chest. I couldn’t have made a better throw.
Wow, I thought. Even I was impressed.
Like a scene out of a Disney movie, the coaches looked at each other for a brief second and with a knowing nod, Coach stone said, “You’re our backup quarterback.”
Wait, what, I thought to myself.
I had never played quarterback before. Like Fancher, I was a receiver. I also played cornerback on defense (guarded receivers). Because a good friend of mine, Scott Hollars, was our starting quarterback and had played the position since he was in the pee-wee leagues, I never imagined taking snaps at the most important position on the football field. Had I set my sights on that, I might not have thrown a good ball to Fancher and may not have written this story.
Left to mentally absorb a new, significant role and responsibility, practice continued as normal. I accepted the offer and for the next few weeks I did what I could to appear competent enough to not look foolish at a new position while alternating reps at my other two starting jobs. With Hollars as our QB, being a backup wasn’t so bad. He was Tony Stark before Robert Downey, Jr., so I wasn’t too concerned with having to replace him due an injury.
Then, out of nowhere, it all changed.
Just before two-a-days, the end of summer before my sophomore year, the rumors began circulating, “Hollars is going to quit.” It was suggested that he or his dad wasn’t a fan of the varsity head football coach. I kept thinking it couldn’t be true. I didn’t want it to be true. At the time, I thought of myself as an offensive and defensive starter at two other positions. More than the obvious fact that he was my friend, I wanted Scott to keep playing because he was good, which made the team good. I thought it would have been a significant loss for us if he left. During the first day of two-a-days, however, the rumors were confirmed.
As we ran out onto the field that first day, our coaches huddled us up to address the elephant in the room.
“Scott Hollars is no longer with us,” said Coach Stone,”Justin Ozuna is now our new starting quarterback.” He continued, “We’re going to continue to do what we’re doing and move forward with the people we’ve got. Justin is going to do an excellent job for us.”
Speaking like a teacher in the cartoon, Peanuts, I didn’t follow the rest of what he said. I was too busy trying to drown out the sound of the beeping dump truck as it backed up and dumped the contents of its bed onto my shoulders. Everyone looked at me, and with the most conjured up appearance of confidence I could create, I stared straight ahead and began to mentally prepare for a position I’d never played in a real-life scenario. Like a first-time pararescue jumper standing at the brink of solid footing, it was my turn to jump.
Motivated by the fear of letting everyone down, I worked as hard as I could to get up to speed on the challenges of being a quarterback. I practiced my footwork, memorized where everyone on the field was supposed to be, learned how to better read defensive coverages, and focused on how to be as consistently accurate as I could throwing the football. Each day bred a new source of confidence and shined the light on a natural leadership ability I didn’t know existed.
My first season as quarterback had many ups and many downs. I learned what it was like to manage a game, motivate and support teammates, and accept criticism. I experienced the highs of throwing a touchdown pass, celebrating victories and making big plays. We ended up with a record of 7-3. On the other hand, I also felt the dreadful heartache of throwing four interceptions in one game, thinking I let my teammates down, and making game-losing mistakes. In the end, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The following season, my junior year, I moved up to varsity. I had a year of quarterbacking experience under my belt, so I knew more of what to expect. I wasn’t anxious, however, because once again, I was a backup. Going into the year, the varsity football team already had their starting quarterback. His name was Robb Havens. He spent the previous year as a junior backup to a senior starter so he had already experienced playing on the varsity level. I was ready to try my hand at a different position. I just wanted the opportunity to start for our football team.
During two-a-days, I continued to take snaps as a backup quarterback on offense, but my main position was defensive cornerback. Then, during our first pre-season game of the football year, I stood on the sidelines and watched as Robb took a helmet to his lower back. As a result, a couple of ribs had broken and he was out indefinitely.
“OZUNA!” yelled head varsity football coach Bill Froman, a tall, older, seasoned man with gray hair and big glasses. I pushed my way through the labyrinth of players standing on the sideline and ran towards the huddle in the middle of the field. Because this wasn’t yet the regular season, Coach Froman was allowed on the field.
With ten of my teammates huddled up and staring in my direction, I stepped in. Coach Froman, standing to my left, towered over me. He reached his arm across my back to rest it on my right shoulder pad like he would do every time he sent me to the huddle with a new play.
In his trademark loud and commanding voice he suggested, “I hope you’re ready to go.”
I didn’t have time to hope. I was given a passing play. I would be tested right from the start.
My heart raced as I knew I’d soon be exposed to an older group of guys, on both sides of the ball, half of which would rely on me to be good enough to make all we had endured during two-a-days worthwhile. For a second, everything came to a stand still. I should have broken the huddle and made it to the line more quickly, but I was as nervous as I had ever been. Much unlike being asked to throw Fancher a fifteen yard slant in the middle of an offseason spring practice, I had all the time in the world to think about Coach Froman’s watchful and discerning eye as he stood fifteen yards behind the offensive line of scrimmage, the live defense of Colleyville Heritage (a classified 4A Texas high school) and the possibility of things going terrible wrong.
I walked up to the line and began my cadence, “Black 86, Blaaack 86, HUT!”
Like a row of dominoes set off by the prompt of gravity, I found the ball in my hands. I dropped back in the pocket, allowed the play to develop, and saw a wide open receiver running across the middle. My eyes grew big and I released the ball. Oh no.
I knew the trajectory was off as soon as I let it go. My nervousness caused me to short arm the ball and release it way too soon. The ball got away from me. It traveled five feet over the wide-open receiver’s head. And so began my next two years as a varsity quarterback.
Similar to my year on JV, there were many ups and downs. My low point was being replaced at quarterback by a good friend and much taller, more athletic receiver named Shane Szymanski four games into the season of my junior year. It ended up not working out so we both returned to our original positions a game and a half later. I learned how to lose, but more importantly, how to fight back and put myself in the best position to win. That year we beat our cross-town rivals and went three rounds deep in the 4A playoffs. It was the most exciting time of my young life.
For three years, I had the opportunity to start at quarterback on two different levels for Rider High School in Wichita Falls, Tx. As an unassuming, naturally shy individual, the perks of being known by others who participated in school activities opened up elements of my personality, which may have not otherwise been explored. It created more scenarios for conversations, interactions, and friendships. Leadership skills became unearthed and sharpened, apathy gave way to responsibility, and an inattention to detail was overthrown by an expectation to get things right. Although I never sought out popularity or the need to fit in, both were made easier, all because of a decision two people made three years prior.
Like Jonathan Moxon in Varsity Blues, I felt my way through this time of my life, absorbing the peaks, avoiding the pitfalls. I was careful not to play into any stereotypes and when people would try to attach quarterback in their description of me, it often made me wince. “It’s really not that big of a deal,” I’d say. I just wanted to learn, lead, and try my hardest for the rest of my teammates, lessons I hold dear to my heart today.
I’m grateful I had to the opportunity to be the quarterback of my football team. It was an awesome experience with guys I’ll never forget. It did so much for me and my confidence as a teenager trying to grow into his own that I’ll always feel like with hard work, dedication, and God’s grace, I can accomplish and overcome any of life’s obstacles, including cancer.
On my worst days, when I’m feeling down and out and have limited amounts of confidence in myself, I think back to the different times of my life where I shared much of the same feelings, when someone tossed me a football to see what I could do with it. And I close my eyes, pull my arm back, and let it go. I give it my best shot. What happens next is out of my control, but at least I know I gave it everything I had.
Think back to the moments of your own life, when you’ve faced obstacles you never thought you’d endure or excel in. What about that time of your life made you feel the most alive? Try to recapture that and strip it down to who you were in that moment. Don’t allow the world to beat that down. Fight to be that person every day.