I didn’t set out to be a pioneer. I just set out to be a punter in the National Football League, and I happened to be Black. Despite the odds stacked against me, through a life of overcoming disappointments, forging new trails, and taking a leap of faith when new opportunities came around, I reached that goal—and those after it.

Words Last a Lifetime

The wisdom of momma, dad, teachers, coaches, mentors, and the importance of their words, can linger in your spirit for a lifetime. Remember the old saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” That’s a lie from the pit of hell, because words matter.

I can remember it like it was yesterday, words that were spoken to me, regardless if they were positive or negative, they agreed with something in my spirit. We can all remember words, even those from years and years ago. When you let them push you forward, words of encouragement and affirmation are much more powerful than negativity, and those words help shape your life. Even today, I have to be careful about the words that come out of my mouth.

The Journey Shapes You

I learned so much at Florida A&M University, but Consistency and Dependability were two of the critical areas. My kicking coach, Pop Kittles, gave me a life lesson on consistency one day in practice. I was booming the ball straight down the field over and over again, when he stopped me and said, “Baby, why are you kicking it straight to him?” I said, “Pop, that’s where he’s at.” Pop looked at me and said, “Kick it where he ain’t. Make him work for it, and if you kick it where he ain’t, and kick to the corners consistently, they will find a place for you in the NFL.” I believed the words he spoke that day. Back to how important words are. Pop Kittles taught me how to Flip the Field.

My head coach at the time was Rudy Hubbard, who was just inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2021. He gave me a great lesson on dependability. In my junior year, we lost a game by three points and being a placekicker, I was extremely disappointed that we didn’t try the field goal. Coach Hubbard told me with a straight face, “You think you are better than you really are?” He said, “I’ve got to be able to depend on you, not just for the 53-yard field goals but the 23-yard field goals as well.” Another life lesson that I learned at FAMU and ran with.

Don’t Limit Your Future

In 1976, after three-and-a-half years, Cincinnati drafted me and began my career with the NFL. Another disappointment came when I was cut after training camp, so, because I had my degree from FAMU, I returned to Jacksonville to become a teacher. Knowing that was not the end of my dream, regardless of how many people tried to throw dirt on me, because of the pit they thought I was in, every time I would shake it off and pack it under my feet. Pretty soon, I had packed enough dirt under my feet and walked out of that pit to resume my dream.

Now, it’s not enough for me to be the “first Black punter.” Instead, I will use my platform with the Black College Football Hall of Fame to give back to kids like me through a scholarship program called “The Golden Touch Award” for Black punters and kickers at HBCU schools to provide the resources to go to camps, to sharpen their skills, and to nurture their passions. Let’s make sure the door or window opened by the first Black punter remains open to young men with the same dream I had.

It’s no secret that 2020 was a hard year for so many people around the world, made even more painful by political unrest and heightened demands for racial justice. We’re past February’s Black History Month, but there are lifetimes of histories to hear, understand and share, and a wealth of hope that fuels fires that keep on burning. Hope is the gasoline that fuels your faith, and if you don’t have faith, you have nothing. Remember you have the faith to “Flip the Field” and get a Leg Up on Life!