There’s a touch of fall in the air these days, and to my mind, that means one thing: It’s almost football season.
As a former college player and coach, I love football. I love the competition. I love the discipline that I know it takes to be a player and/or a coach on a winning team. And I love the emotions of the game – the highs and the lows – that, if done right, can turn boys into men.
My friend Brian Shulman knows those feelings, too. A tough-as-nails punter, Brian walked on at the University of Tennessee in 1984, but it didn’t work out. He later transferred to Auburn, where he became a starter, two-time All-SEC, captain of the SEC Championship team in 1988 and an 8th round draft choice of the Green Bay Packers.
Legendary Auburn head coach Pat Dye had a way of finding players like Brian who were mentally tough, hard-working and unselfishly willing to sacrifice personal accolades for the team win. Brian Shulman is, simply put, a one-of-a-kind mind and presence.
Since his playing days, Brian has enjoyed an unbelievably successful professional career as an entrepreneur and noted innovator in the education and health care industries. Like many football players, he attributes much of his success in life to the lessons he learned – namely those about himself – on the football field.
But football wasn’t Brian’s only teacher. While at Tennessee, where the coaches didn’t think he was good enough to play for the Vols, Brian’s father, Stan, wrote him a letter to help encourage his son and keep him focused on his ultimate goals. I’ve printed the letter in its entirety at the end of this blog (and I won’t hold it against you if you jump forward to it now).
Shortly after Brian transferred to Auburn, Stan suddenly and tragically died at age 53. As it turned out, this letter was the last letter Brian’s dad ever wrote to him.
In truth, amid his progress as a student-athlete at Auburn, Brian admits he almost forgot about the letter until his mother sent it to him again a few years later, right before the first time he would play against Tennessee as the starting punter for Auburn. His mom also called Coach Dye that week in 1986 and sent him the letter. Dye ended up reading it to the team the night before the game.
The Tigers beat UT soundly and Brian had a great day punting. Believe me when I say he is not bashful about telling people that it was a pretty special day for him.
Without Brian’s knowledge, David Housel, Director of Athletics Emeritus at Auburn University, who was Auburn’s Sports Information Director at the time, got ahold of the letter and proceeded to have it printed in the program for the Auburn-Georgia game later that year. The Tigers absolutely hosed the Dawgs that weekend. Soon, the Associated Press picked up the story of the letter and both Housel and Brian received hundreds of new letters from people all over the country who read the story and the letter and were moved. Even to this day, Brian has a framed copy of that program in his house. It’s one of his most treasured possessions.
The content in Stan’s letter has great value for millennials and Generation Z students alike. Stan’s message to his son, who at the time it was written in August 1984 was going through a period of self-doubt and examination, is exactly the kind of encouragement and good sense young people need to make their dreams come to life in our complicated and highly competitive marketplace, where graduates (read: potential employees) must understand the same things outlined in this letter. (Incidentally, I also believe what Stan wrote has value for every mom and dad out there as well.)
Stan Shulman never got to see Brian become a star punter for Auburn. Nor did he see him grow up to be the highly successful businessman and great father that he is today. And as David Housel wrote in the program in 1986, somehow, someway, somewhere, between the lines of this letter, I believe Stan knew that all of that would happen. Or, perhaps because of the letter, and Stan’s lifelong influence on Brian’s life, it was bound to happen.
I humbly offer up the wisdom of Stan’s letter in its entirety here.
Even though I talk to you every day, I feel maybe at this time it best to write you a letter that may be helpful to you; that during the times you feel depressed or frustrated you can read it over and by seeing the truth it will give you impetus to continue in this endeavor.
The last time I sent you a letter was many years ago when you were at FRA football camp the first time for a week and if you can recollect the many anxieties you felt then it could be helpful now with the many anxieties you feel at this time.
Coping with anxieties is very difficult, but the only way a human being can grow with strength and build character is to struggle with each anxiety to overcome those feelings. When you overcome them, you learn the true meaning of living. Many people do not want to fight those anxieties and try to understand them. Without fighting them they escape and you never grow.
I believe if you really think about what I’m saying now you get the full meaning of living. Along with the pain and hurt, we also have happiness. It’s not all black and white. Because of emotions there are mixed feelings and while you are struggling to obtain your desired goal, you are also feeling fulfillment, self-esteem and self-worth. By knowing that you are struggling and taking on this challenge without having a guarantee of the outcome will build strength and character. With each day, you are growing stronger and stronger emotionally and Brian, this is the way you become an emotionally mature person.
Don’t look back, don’t evaluate the others; you have an objective- strive for that. By not looking behind, you will not create your own fears and create negative feelings about yourself in your own mind. By concentrating only on yourself, you will not allow your mind to wander, for when it does, it will pick up automatically negatives about your own worth.
You must discipline your thinking to stay within yourself because human beings all feel a certain amount of inadequacy, lack of self-worth, because we are human. The only way a person can overcome these feelings is to concentrate by disciplining your mind to think of what you are doing. Concentrate totally on your objective and that will prevent negative feelings to enter it. Just think of positive thoughts and it will end up positive. Don’t think of the future, because it can create negatives; don’t think of the past (like all the hard work you’ve done.) Thinking of the future can create negatives since it is unknown. Thinking of the past is a negative because we think we deserve something. Only think of the here and now and that will help you grow in your ability to accomplish what you want. If you concentrate on the here and now, you cannot receive any negative feelings because your concentration is on the immediate therefore, you’re not allowing for any distractions there, you must grow.
Here’s how you grow – you gain more strength in your abilities, more strength in your character and definitely more worth as a human being. Brian, if this is too deep, let’s talk about it and maybe I can explain it verbally one-on-one. Even though these words are easily said and deeds are hard to accomplish, if you can train your mind to think these thoughts, you must grow and feel more satisfied within you.
The outcome of this kind of thinking is tremendous self-confidence. You are an extremely bright person and I know you can accomplish this. I have seen you do these things before that’s why I know you can do it. I want you to know that I am extremely proud of you for entering this challenge and while I understand it is difficult to cope with each day, which is normal for anybody, but to stick with it as you are is enough for me to feel very proud to call you son.