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A True Story About Unsuspecting, Unknowable Beginnings

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

I loved football growing up but was never really interested in playing for my high school team. Then one day, a really good friend decided that not playing wasn't really an option...

~ Coach Dan Ashley

"Sometimes, the best choice is not having any choice at all."

It was a typical, hot and humid summer day in Milford, OH (a Cincinnati suburb) circa 1988. The summer baseball season was coming to a close and, having just spent 9 consecutive months actively playing basketball and baseball, I was looking forward to a brief break from sports altogether. Many of my friends and teammates were gearing up to begin the high school football season, with team conditioning starting that particular evening. I always loved playing backyard football and was an avid fan, but at the time, it wasn't the sport I enjoyed playing most. So, if I ever wanted a break from sports life, football was always going to take a backseat to baseball and basketball. Besides, I was 15 years old heading into my sophomore year, I had "earned" a break from sports and, of course, "I knew what was good for me." least that was my naïve thinking at the time. Not to mention, going to the football field on a hot, humid summer evening so I could run to exhaustion was the last thing I wanted to do. But as I would quickly find out, what "I wanted" didn't really matter.

"No thanks fellas. I'm taking a break and I'm not playing. Maybe next season?"

Enter Scott Hughes, a fellow teammate and one of my best friends. Scott and I hung out in the same crowd and his Dad, Art Hughes, coached our baseball team for countless years at the competitive youth level. In a lot of ways, Art looked after me way back then...shuttling me to and from baseball practice, chaperoning for out-of-town tournaments, often feeding me between games and always "coaching" me on and off the field. I never really understood at the time why Art took the time, patience and energy to look after me (and all of us) back in the day, but having now been a parent and coach, it all makes sense. Good coaches are first and foremost, good people and that's just what coaches do (more on that another day). But suffice it to say that Scott and I were good friends and spent a lot of time together. I truly loved them both and respected them immensely, but looking back, I severely underestimated how Scott, Art and a lot of other friends and parents shaped me into who I am today. More specifically, this otherwise nondescript, uneventful day ends up being one of the most impactful and life-changing moments I can remember.

Sophomore JV Season: Dan #3 (on the field at QB) & Scott #51 (on the sideline waiting for the defense to go back in)

Getting back to the events of that day...

It's late afternoon on what was likely a Monday near the end of July. It's conditioning week for football...a grueling week of sprints, miserable station workouts and other exhausting activities to get everyone into "football shape" before the upcoming two-a-day practices and pre-season routine over the next several weeks. In talking to my football-playing friends leading up to the start of conditioning, I would laughingly and sarcastically wish them all good luck and to have a great time vomiting on the field that night, knowing I would be back in the comfort of my air-conditioned house, laying on my couch and watching TV. Over the weeks leading up to this day, many of my friends and teammates applied the pressure for me to play. But I remained steadfast..."No thanks fellas. I'm taking a break and I'm not playing. Maybe next season?"

JV offense on the field again. Scott (#51) on the sideline annoyed by the obvious breakdown in pass protection.

Then came an unexpected knock at the door. Ugh...who could that be? The house where I grew up sat at the very edge of suburban life. On one side of the house was a corn field, the other side was forest and across the street was a newly developed neighborhood. But my house sat on a couple of acres and had a long driveway. Needless to say, if someone knocked at the door, then they were there intentionally. It was all too inconvenient for someone to be a random passer by or door-to-door salesman. I remember thinking that it was probably one of my younger brother's friends. It couldn't have been any of my friends because they all had football conditioning that started in 20 minutes...But I couldn't have been more wrong.

"Grab your shit, get your shoes and let's go."

Annoyed, I hopped off the couch and opened the front door. To my surprise, standing outside was my good friend Scott Hughes.

"What are you doing here?" I recall saying or at the very least, that's what I was thinking.

His response, "You're going to conditioning and we're taking you. Grab your shit, get your shoes and let's go."

So, a little more about Scott. Although we were soon-to-be sophomores at the time, Scott ended up becoming a team captain, starting middle linebacker and college football player over the next several years. We were good friends but at that moment, there was nothing suggesting that this was a friendly conversation. This certainly wasn't a gentleman's request. Rather, I quickly realized that he was ordering me to leave with him to go run my butt off on a hot, humid, miserable evening. He wasn't kidding around whatsoever.

"Sorry dude, I'm not playing football and I'm certainly not going to conditioning. But you guys have fun out there tonight.", throwing some sarcasm his way.

Scott immediately opens the screen door, grabs me and says, "Either you grab your stuff and get in the car or I will drag your ass to it. But you are going to conditioning."

Now, I can't recall exactly what was said after that. What I remember, however, is that there were quite a few expletives exchanged and some complaints tossed around amid a brief wrestling match that took place in my living room. Scott, the linebacker, versus Dan, the skinny was hardly a fair fight. Scott was victorious; Dan lost decisively...And while being pummeled into submission, I agreed to go to conditioning in exchange for ending the beat-down. Don't worry, it wasn't that violent. No punches were thrown but Scott definitely had me tied into a pretzel and slowly applied the pain until I acquiesced. And just 20 minutes later, I was running, sweating profusely and having the miserable experience I expected it was going to be. It's certainly not what I wanted, but it was definitely what I needed.

There's quite a bit more to this story that I'll unfold in future posts (spoiler alert: I've been coaching football at the youth and high school levels for almost two decades now). The relevant take-away from this experience, however, is that the notion of having "options" to choose from in deciding life's next steps is a good thing, generally speaking. But as a young, impressionable teen, having people in your life that care enough to give unsolicited and sometimes brutal "influencing" can be the best, and potentially life-altering, dose of medicine needed for our future selves.

"STOP doing what you want to do and START doing what needs to be done!"

I have a saying now that constantly resonates in my head, whether at work, on the field or at home (the quote directly above). I don't know if I made it up or if I should be quoting the author...but I know that it constantly rings true to me. It serves as a constant reminder for me stay balanced, focused and on course. It helps settle me on the crazy days, motivates me to continue pressing on the tough days and provides the clarity I need to continue making a difference. It's truly impacted who I am and if I trace it as far back as I can remember, it all started that very day when Scott Hughes taught me that sometimes, the best choice is not having any choice at all. All too often, we find out the hard way that it's not always about what we want, rather it's almost always about what we need. Unknowingly and unwittingly...I had no clue how that very moment would change the course and direction of my life, forever.

Game over! Milford Eagles win but give up a safety. I'm sure Dan contributed to that.


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