KILGORE – When I was in the eighth grade, a teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I quickly answered “professional football player.”

A year later, near the end of spring football practice during my freshman season at Unicoi County High School in Erwin, Tennessee, I mangled my hip.

I finished the last day of spring drills, ran and lifted weights all summer with my teammates and even attended a camp at Mars Hill College in North Carolina a few weeks before the season was scheduled to begin.

When the pain finally became too much to handle, I went to the doctor, and he informed me I had dislocated my hip back during spring practice and had done so much damage since then that he needed to perform surgery. Quickly.

I had two operations during high school to hold the hip together, and 20 years ago I had a total hip replacement.

When it became evident I would never suit up for the Dallas Cowboys, I decided to become a teacher and a coach. I loved biology in high school, and coaching would be a way for me to still be around sports.

Turns out, they make you sign up for a lot of hard classes in college if you want to teach biology. Even worse, they expect for you to actually attend those classes and study occasionally.

I did neither, so when I got a letter from the folks who check on grades at East Tennessee State University informing me I needed to take a semester off to “re-think my priorities,” I wasn’t shocked.

I eventually ended up in East Texas, signed up for a journalism class at Kilgore College, fell in love with newspapers and decided I would write about sports for a living. The only sweating I do now happens when a game runs late and I have 10 minutes to produce a story so I don’t miss my newspaper’s deadline.

I told this story to some of the eighth-graders who stopped by my table on Thursday during “Career Day” at Kilgore Middle School. I wasn’t trying to gain sympathy. I simply wanted them to know things don’t always work out the way we planned, but they could still have a pretty cool life if they didn’t let a loss turn into a losing streak.

It remains to be seen if any of the students I talked to Thursday will follow in my footsteps and become journalists.

One young man thought it was cool I’ve been paid to watch a Super Bowl and to spend a month in Atlanta, Georgia, helping the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with its coverage of the 1996 Summer Olympics, but he’s determined to make it to “the league.”

I hope he makes it, especially since he asked me not to retire anytime soon so I can write about him when he gets drafted.

A young lady was ready to sign up on the spot when I showed her one of our ETX View magazine stories written by a reporter who spent a few days getting paid to drink coffee from local shops for the article.

I want every kid I talked to Thursday to land their dream job someday, but if I could pick a job for any of those kids, I sincerely hope one young lady in particular decides to become a counselor or a therapist.

After I told her about my injury struggles that crushed my dream of playing pro football, she asked if I cried when I got hurt. I told her I didn’t cry because it hurt, but I cried like a baby when the doctor told me I couldn’t play football again.

We talked about a few other aspects of my job, and when she got up to leave she said, “I think you would have been a great football player if you hadn’t gotten hurt, and it’s OK that you cried. Sometimes it helps, and don’t let anyone mess with you about it.”

And I thought I was there to teach them, not the other way around.

 
 

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— Jack Stallard is sports editor of the News-Journal. Email: jstallard@news-journal.com; follow on Twitter @lnjsports