It was game day, and we were in the fourth quarter against Arkansas. I had another 32-tackle day, which is an SMU record. I line up and watch intently as the running back takes the ball.
My eyes light up.
He breaks down the right sideline, and I take off after him in pursuit. Now, I had an angle on him, but honestly, given the distance, there was no way I should have caught him.
My coach was breaking all of this down on film for us.
He pointed at me on tape and said, “There’s actually no way that this guy should be able to catch that guy. But he did. That’s the kind of effort that makes him the player he is.”
I never forgot that moment.
It was a great one because relentless hustling was the thing on the field I prided myself on.
The other part of that story is the running back stepped out of bounds about three yards before I caught him. So my record-breaking tackle didn’t even count. You can’t win them all, I guess.
But I wouldn’t be standing here today accepting this SMU Hall of Fame induction if I never learned that lesson.
The first “loss” I took was thinking I’d be a running back in college. Well, ultimately, it wasn’t a loss in the long run, but at the time, I wanted to score touchdowns like Bob Hayes—the Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Dallas Cowboy.
It would be hard to do that solely playing defense, you know?
After initially being recruited as a running back, I wasn’t even at SMU for five minutes before seeing a No. 58 hanging up in my locker.
Okay, now I was smart enough to realize No. 58 isn’t a running back number. So I went to the equipment guy and told him there had been a mistake.
I’m a running back, and I score touchdowns. I needed a running back number.
Of course, those people didn’t know or care who I was at the time.
I was a freshman.
“Choate? Nope, it says right here that you’re a linebacker. No. 58—yep, that’s you,” he said, after looking at their chart.
So I went to speak with the guy that recruited me, and he told me the team was short at linebacker, and they’d move me back to running back at some point.
Little did I know, he was just feeding me a line.
Eventually, he told me they never intended to move me back. It’s hard to be upset about it now because it was actually a favor.
I needed to be a linebacker.
And the team was weak on the depth chart. I started out at No. 2 immediately, and I also, immediately, started moving down.
I dropped further and further down the depth chart because I was having problems adjusting to the speed and size of the game. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
I was like King Kong on the field playing AA High School Football. I was usually the biggest and fastest guy out there.
Well, I learned very quickly that wasn’t going to be the case at the Division I level in college.
I was suddenly thrown into a situation where all of the guys were bigger and faster than me. It was a real eye-opening experience.
After initially being No. 2 on the depth chart, I fell to No. 3, and then No. 4. That’s when you see the coaches kind of looking at you and whispering and talking to each other.
I’m just thinking to myself the whole time, “Oh my gosh—I can’t believe this is happening.”
For the first time in my life, I really started doubting myself. And then I received the greatest blessing I could have ever hoped for.
I broke my wrist.
I was put in a soft cast and out for six weeks, but during that time, I put an extra effort into studying film and actually watching what was happening on the practice field.
That injury forced me to take a step back and put in the work. And suddenly, the game slowed down for me. I could see it now.
It was around the middle of the season before I got back out there, but the difference in my game was apparent immediately. I earned back that lost playing time and quickly moved up the depth chart and eventually earned my first start as a freshman.
I went out and had a good game against No. 2-ranked Texas A&M and never left the field again.
My greatest challenge as a starter, however, was dealing with the fact that I didn’t have as much control over the game.
We were ranked No. 1 in the state in high school, and the team at the time at SMU was a .500 team. Playing in the Southwest Conference was very difficult with some elite-level competition.
I played offense and defense in high school because we were a smaller school. But the ability to do that made me feel like I had some sort of control over the game. I’m going to make that tackle, and I’m going to get that extra yardage on offense.
Playing one-way in college, I don’t know, man—I felt like I lost the ability to control a game. It took me a while to adapt to that.
One thing that really helped me put things into perspective was a conversation I had with my dad. He asked me, “Did you do everything you could possibly do to win that game? Do you think there was anything you could have done differently?”
I looked him in the eyes and responded, “Honestly, I don’t think there is, dad.”
And he said, “Then you can hold your head up high. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
I never got to the point where I enjoyed losing or got used to it, but that conversation with my dad allowed me to put it into perspective and think of it differently. There’s only so much you can do. So you do what you can.
There’s certainly a lot of doing right now with the current football team.
This is probably the best SMU team I’ve seen in years. So I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what they do the rest of the way.
I’m also looking forward to being inducted into the SMU Hall of Fame. I mean, what took you guys so long, huh? 🙂
It’s such a tremendous honor to have my name placed alongside some of the other truly great athletes that have come through this program.
There are so many amazing football players and really good guys, too.
It’s a dream come true and the culmination of my football career.
I think I’ve pretty much checked all of the boxes I’m going to check as an athlete.
At the end of the day, SMU taught me the answers are always out there if you’re willing to look. You may not always be the biggest, strongest or fastest, but you can still find the path to success. Sometimes, you just have to take a step back and look at the whole picture.
Learning to study and finding answers is what college is supposed to be about, right? Don’t be intimidated by what life throws at you.
Get a process and go find what you need.