Sometimes, it pays to be ignorant.
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*It's July 2015, and I just finished my first two months of college football workouts. I had to report to my defensive coordinator: Coach K.*
"Raines, you've been working hard this summer, and the strength coaches gave me a great report on you. The problem is the NCAA only lets us bring 110 players to preseason camp, and we decided to fill the last slots with upperclassmen. Realistically we were going to redshirt you this year, so it made more sense to let older players get those reps. You can start practicing with the team again when classes start back in a few weeks."
My mind was racing. I felt disappointed, annoyed, embarrassed, and above all else angry.
I got screwed.
Being an 18-year-old freshman on a college football team is tough. Being an 18-year-old walk-on on a college football team is really tough. You're trying to fit in. To be one of the guys. But you don't really feel like one of the guys, because they have a scholarship and you don't. You're on the same team, but you still feel like an outsider.
Luckily, there is one equalizer: practice.
Whether you have a full ride, a partial scholarship, or no athletic money at all, everyone puts on the same pads, competes in the same drills. And for walk-ons, practice is the one chance to show the coaches that they were wrong, that you deserve a scholarship too.
But I wasn't going to have that chance to compete at practice in preseason camp, because apparently I wasn't deemed one of the 110 best players on the team.
And I was pissed.
The thing is, college coaches are pretty good at evaluating talent. Not a huge surprise, considering that their livelihoods depend on how well a group of 18 to 22-year-old kids can compete on a field every Saturday. They play the kids who have the highest likelihood of success on the field. Coaches tend to better understand their players' abilities than the players themselves.
Don't get me wrong, I was a good high school football player. All-region, started at tight end and defensive end, team captain. However, largely because of the competitive level of my league, I thought I was a really, really good player.
160 receiving yards, 2 TDs, an interception, 10 tackles, and a blocked kick is a wild single-game stat line for a high schooler, but insane stat lines don't mean all that much when half of the offensive linemen in your region weigh less than 200 pounds.
Frankly, the talent level in private school football in Georgia isn't great.
Given my pedigree in high school, I thought I was really, really good, but my perspective was skewed by the quality of my league. I was ignorant of the skill gap between my new competition at Mercer University and what I had been playing against at Tiftarea Academy.
But never once did I stop to think, "Perhaps these grown men who have coached college football for a living for 20+ years are good at evaluating talent, and I might objectively be worse than 110 other players on our team."
All I thought was, "They really wanted ________ at camp over me? _________??? Seriously??"
I was ignorant.
(And _______ was a lot of different people, depending on the day.)
So when I did rejoin the team for practice a few weeks later, I had two goals:
1) Dominate anyone that I deemed worse that me
2) Compete against our best players as much as possible
Lucky for me, I had plenty of chances to do both. Coaches love making freshmen hit each other to test their "toughness", and as a redshirted player, I spent plenty of time on scout team competing against our starters.
As you could probably guess, I got smoked a lot. As a 230-pound freshman defensive end, I got wrecked on board drills. As someone who never had to worry about his arsenal of pass rush moves in high school, I got embarrassed in 1 on 1s with the offensive line.
Ironically, I never realized that I sucked. I was ignorant.
I wasn't oblivious to the fact that I was losing most of my reps, but I chalked it up as part of the learning curve as a freshman coming from a small high school. Plus it didn't help that I had missed preseason camp.
So week after week, I got my ass kicked at practice.
The funny thing about getting your ass kicked week after week is that if you get your ass kicked long enough, you slowly get better at not getting your ass kicked. You learn and improve.
In the context of football practice, I started firing off the ball quicker to compensate for my lack of size. Instead of blindly running at my opponent's chest (a strategy that works well against undersized high school offensive linemen, but not so well against 6'5, 300-pound men), I started using my hands to defend against my opponent's.
By the end of my first season, I still wasn't good by any stretch of the imagination. I was still undersized as a 230-pound defensive end. I needed to get stronger. My repertoire of pass rush moves needed some serious improvement.
But I was winning some reps here and there. And more importantly, I understood why I was losing the reps that I was losing. I knew where I needed to improve.
From the outside I still sucked. But to me, I was ignorant to the suck. I simply viewed myself as a work in progress.
I didn't have an overnight transformation. I didn't shock everyone and win a starting spot as a redshirt freshman. But in my second season, I played a few reps on special teams. By my third year, I had earned a full athletic scholarship and played 20+ snaps per game. And by the time I was a 5th-year senior, I was our starting defensive end and team captain.
Sometime between ages 18 and 22, I hit the point that I no longer sucked.
Thank God for ignorance.
Had I realized at the onset of my football journey 1) just how tough football was, 2) just how large the skill gap was between myself and my new teammates, and 3) just how good coaches are at evaluating talent, I probably would have quit after that season.
But I was ignorant. I thought I was better than I was, I had farfetched expectations for my ability to improve, and I viewed being snubbed for preseason camp as a motivational, antagonistic spark instead of a rational decision by my coaches.
Ignorance gets a bad rap, but applied ignorance can buy you enough time to bridge the gap between sucking and succeeding. If you fully understand the risks and low odds of success for a new endeavor from the offset, you would likely never start. But if your ignorance prevents you from quitting, and you keep hacking away day after day, you just might pull it off, whatever *it* is.
Ignorance + discipline is a cheat code.
I'm still ignorant about a lot of stuff today.
A little over a year ago, I discovered a few writers who were making good money and I figured, "Huh. That looks fun, I should do that. All you have to do is build a big audience and you can make a killing."
I never stopped to think, "Damn, it's going to take forever to build an audience. Will I run out of ideas? What percent of writers crash and burn?"
I was the left and right side of the bell curve meme.
It turns out, "just write stuff" works, if you do it long enough. Kinda like "just practice stuff" works on the football field, if you practice long enough.
Just doing a lot of things works, if you can do it long enough.
The key to doing it long enough? A touch of good ignorance 🤝
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