There is a famous passage from the Christian Bible. Although it is from what would eventually become a sacred Christian text, there is no need to be a believer to understand the simple truth it conveys. It is taken from a letter Saul of Tarsus, more commonly known among Christians as the Apostle Paul, wrote to an early Christian community he established in the large, cosmopolitan Roman city of Corinth, in the Roman conquered Greek Peloponnese.
Writing to his little band of newly converted Christians, Paul penned this famous line:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 1 Corinthians 13:11.
It is not difficult to grasp the simple truth of this passage. One need not be of any particular faith to recognize a rite of passage we must all traverse. Childhood, for the vast majority of us, is a time of limited understanding of the often harsh realities of the adult world. It is a time when well meaning and loving parents often fill our heads with lies and happy delusions. I cannot speak to the traditions of other faiths and other nations, but in America surely most of us recognize these.
An obscure 4th century Christian bishop, Roman by citizenship, Greek by cultural background, Turkish by modern geography, somehow survives his death in December, 343, and goes on to become a fat jolly elf who establishes a massive toy factory at the North Pole, no matter that in recent years the North Pole is at times ice free in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. This immortal little bishop lives on the ice in an ice free zone. There he collaborates with lots of tiny magical elves to make toys for all the world’s children. On the night of December 24 this bishop breaks into the homes of each of the billions of children in the world. Given the time allotted for the task and the number of children in the world, apparently the amazing burglar manages to accomplish his benevolent breaking and entering at an astonishing rate of 80,000+ homes per second, every second, without rest or bathroom breaks. He manages this partly due to the help of what are apparently genetic mutant freak reindeer, the only reindeer ever discovered with the ability of flight, and without wings! One of these mutant freak reindeer has the bizarre property of a bioluminescent nose, the only such nose ever recorded. This weird little immortal bishop drops off the sum total of his colossal manufacturing operation and takes the time to find your socks and stuff them with little sundries. Thus is the lie otherwise known as Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.
There are others. On Easter, the celebration of the anniversary of what Christians believe was the resurrection of Christ, a giant mutant rabbit appears every year for just one day. For some inexplicable reason this rotund rodent manages to acquire and carry a stash of chicken eggs roughly equal to the world’s entire production of eggs for the day. The rabbit, following the lead of our notorious jolly immortal Christian bishop, breaks into and enters the homes of children everywhere and arranges for the eggs to be decorated and hidden. Because nobody wants a house infested with slowly decaying eggs, children are urged to find the hidden eggs before they fill the house with their unique sulfurous fragrance. In the houses of particularly lucky children the rampaging rodent might leave a basket of candy, including fluorescent colored jelly things vaguely shaped like tiny eggs, but eggs which thankfully will not rot. Sadly, the teeth upon which these bizarre jelly egg things are broken are not equally incorruptible. The children devour the sweets left by the mutant rabbit, leading to inevitable tooth decay, and a visit from yet another supernatural prowler.
When children lose a tooth, so the story goes, a creepy fairy thing is instantly alerted, apparently by some sinister secret surveillance system of the bedrooms of every child in the world, which trivializes anything the CIA or NSA can accomplish. Are you creeped out yet? This decent dental demon sneaks into children’s bedrooms while they are sleeping, gazes on their innocent visages, gently holds their heads in his arms while he lifts their pillows to purloin a personal souvenir of his visit, the bloody tooth recently removed from the child’s head. As if in compensation for the outrageous violation of the privacy of innocents, the dental demon leaves behind a small pecuniary token of his hair raising intrusion, a monetary gift which presumably is left so as to forestall the otherwise inevitable prosecutions for stalking, breaking and entering, invasion of privacy and endangerment of a child.
Surely we recognize the lies our parents tell us. They are part of the early childhood experience of millions if not billions of children. They are told with the best of intentions, to fill a child’s world with benevolent fantasies of wonder. Eventually we all grow older, we recognize the happy delusions for what they are and we put away such childish things.
There are, however, other happy delusions which are not so quick to depart. One such notion is yet another lie our parents tell us, if we are fortunate enough to have loving and supportive parents. It is the lie that if we only try hard enough and for long enough, we can achieve anything. Anything. We are all special, we all have enormous talents and abilities, and all we need to do is set our sights on a goal and work extremely diligently at that goal and whatever we want in life is ours for the taking. This, of course, is well meaning rubbish. Millions of children wish to be famous athletes. They could all train with the best coaches in the world every waking hour, assuming of course there were enough best coaches in the world to go around, and no amount of hard work and determination would alter the grim math that for every several thousand children striving to be a professional athlete, there is only one position open. One will make it; thousands will be left disappointed, no matter how hard they try, how determined they are or how strong their will. We celebrate the human interest stories of the underdogs, pushing through every obstacle, letting nothing stand in their way, overcoming some perceived lack of athletic ability or lack of opportunity or disadvantaged background to eventually triumph in greatness. These stories are rightly celebrated. What we don’t talk about quite so much are the thousands of others who try just as hard, push through just as much, but in the end fall short of their goals. We revel in the success stories and, if we ever think about them at all, we tell ourselves the fairy tale that somehow all the others were not as worthy. Their characters were somehow not as free of defect, their determination not as strong, their will not as indomitable. These are the lies we are told as children, and these are the lies many of us continue to believe in on the threshold of adulthood.
Titus Davis is a great athlete. Not a good athlete, a great athlete. A man born with initials of happy portent for his chosen sport of football, Titus Davis, like most professional athletes, was the best athlete in his school. Growing up in Wheaton Illinois, Titus Davis could run faster, jump higher, juke quicker and catch better than anyone in town. In fact, for athletes like Davis, it goes far beyond being the best in town. For these best of the best, elite among the elite athletes, they are the best athletes in the entire state. Think for just a moment about what that means. For the large majority of your youth, you will never meet another human being on the field of play that is your equal, let alone your better. Up until the time you begin to participate in national competition, you are the best you’ve ever met. Every single athlete you have ever faced has been inferior to you. You are a demigod on the athletic field, the Michael Jordan of your state. There has never been a single person you can’t beat. The happy delusion peddled by parents everywhere is, for you, a reality.
Most of us can only imagine what this must feel like. To feel invincible, unbeatable, special beyond normal human experience; what heady stuff is this. Unfortunately, for all but an infinitesimal minority, it is a dream, a lovely interlude from which we all eventually must wake. Eventually we are no longer better than everyone around us. Rise high enough and the world in which you move is populated with giants, and you can no longer intimidate by your mere presence. Whether you are an aspiring physicist who looks around at his fellow Ph.D. candidates at Caltech and realizes he’s no longer the smartest person in the room, or you are a musical prodigy who makes it into a world class symphony only to find the solos going to people with mastery beyond your ken, or you are a football player who makes it to an NFL training camp, only to find you are 13th on a depth chart of 13, sooner or later you exit the world of lofty superiority and enter the world of just trying to hold your own. Sure, there are the Adrian Petersons and Aaron Rodgers of the world, those that are fortunate enough to never hit a ceiling above which they cannot rise. But for the overwhelming majority, you will hit a ceiling, and it will hurt.
Titus Davis was a state champion football player in high school. He was an all state wide receiver, as well as one of the best long jumpers and sprinters in the state. From there Titus Davis went on to play Division 1 football at Central Michigan University, the alma mater of one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, Antonio Brown. At Central Michigan Titus Davis was a 4 year All MAC selection and a freshman All American. Davis broke Antonio Brown’s records for career receiving yards and touchdowns at Central Michigan. In short, once again, Titus Davis was a legendary figure, a demigod in his Central Michigan world. The stage was not yet too big for Titus Davis’ ambitions.
That was about to end. In 2015 Titus Davis entered the NFL draft. For an NFL receiver Davis had decent size at 6’ 1”, 196 pounds. He had decent speed, running a 4.51 forty yard dash. Titus Davis had below average leaping ability with a 32.5” vertical. He had tiny hands at 8.25”. In every category measured by the NFL spectacle in underwear otherwise known as the Combine, Titus Davis did not quite measure up to greatness. The man who had always been the best, who had rarely, if ever met his equal, was suddenly thrust into a world where he was, of all things, mediocre. A man so special he was the king of all athletic endeavors he surveyed was now reduced to peasanthood, hoping to somehow work his way back to the manor.
Like so many others, Titus Davis’ dreams of being drafted crashed and burned in the spring of 2015. After 250+ names were called, the man with the scoring initials sat in his home and wondered how could it be that he was not considered as worthy as hundreds of other candidates? How could it be that, without warning, Davis was not only no longer the best, he suddenly wasn’t even considered worthy of drafting? For the first time in his life, Davis had to confront the possibility his dreams of an NFL career might have been a happy delusion.
For undrafted free agents, the game is not quite over. Though the odds are long, there are always the infrequent success stories. Guys like Victor Cruz and Wayne Chrebet, Damon Harrison and Tony Romo and Kurt Warner. The NFL had been wrong about all of them. Surely going undrafted was just a mistake, a lapse of judgment in the imprecise art of projecting future performance on 22 year old football players. Surely Davis was still the best, the scouts just hadn’t seen it somehow. Such are the lies athletes tell themselves every day, everywhere.
Armed with this happy delusion, Davis embarked on the arduous road of making his mark in the NFL as an undrafted free agent. Davis was signed by the San Diego Chargers immediately after the 2015 NFL draft. A dream deferred then, but surely not denied. Davis made it through San Diego’s training camp until the final cuts. He was released on August 30, 2015. Was his dream over? Not yet. On September 23, 2015, Davis was signed to the practice squad of the New York Jets. It was a new hope, an opportunity to prove everyone wrong about him. If he had to work himself up from the practice squad, so be it. He would outwork everyone, he would dominate again, and eventually he would force the team to notice. Such were the happy delusions that sustained Davis and all those like him.
On October 14, 2015, Davis was released by the Jets. Not yet ready to give up his dreams, Davis latched on to the Buffalo Bills practice squad a week later. On November 9, 2015, the Bills released Davis. In three months three different NFL teams had given up on Davis’ dreams, but Davis wasn’t ready to give them up himself quite yet. On November 16, 2015 Titus Davis was signed for his second tour of duty on the Jets’ practice squad, only to be released yet again on November 26. Did Davis give up? No he did not. On January 28, 2016 Titus Davis was signed for a third time by the Jets, this time to a futures contract that turned into a place on the 90 man roster and a spot in the Jets 2016 training camp.
On August 6, 2016 Titus Davis left the New York Jets training camp after less than two weeks of practices. Initial cuts were still several weeks away. Davis still had time to make his mark, but he walked away. Davis left word on his way out that he was giving up football. For reasons known only to Davis, he decided at the age of 23 to put away his childhood dreams.
I do not know Titus Davis. I never met the man. I do not know why he decided to quit playing football. Perhaps like an increasing number of young players he got his bell rung one too many times and, aware of the risks of permanent brain damage, decided the risks outweighed the potential rewards. Perhaps he never really loved the game in the first place and only played so long because he was naturally so good. Perhaps the first sign of real adversity scared him. Perhaps there are personal issues of which we cannot hope to be aware. There are myriad explanations for why a young man might walk away at the tender age of 23.
If I were to place a bet, however, my bet would be this. Titus Davis, like so many others with whom he was competing, was always the best. He always won. He always dominated. He always got the awards and the records and the acclaim. Then one day, it all stopped. Suddenly there were no awards, no records, no acclaim. Suddenly he wasn’t special. After beating his head against the wall in five different stints with three different teams, perhaps Titus Davis looked around Jets camp and finally realized he wasn’t actually so special. Perhaps he looked at his competitors and realized that not only was he not even close to the best any more, he wasn’t even close to a spot at the back of the rotation. Perhaps he realized that even if he worked as hard and as long and as diligently as he was humanly capable of, he was unlikely to ever be anywhere close to the best. Perhaps he realized that the highest he could ever aspire to would be a 5th or 6th receiver, condemned to a short, brutal career careening into headlong collisions on special teams, risking life and limb to do so. Perhaps Davis realized no glory, no honors, no awards awaited him at the end of this quest. Perhaps Titus Davis finally realized, as we all must sooner or later, that he had been chasing a happy delusion. Perhaps he realized that the lies parents tell us don’t always come true, and not every story has an inspiring ending. Perhaps Titus Davis did what virtually every one of us eventually do. He put away childish things, and began to become a man.
Titus Davis was replaced on the Jets roster by an undrafted free agent wide receiver out of Duquesne, Chris King. Like Davis, King is a player with mediocre physical measurements for an NFL wide receiver. Like Davis, he has decent size, decent strength, decent speed, and exceptional nothing. Like Davis, King is already on his third NFL team, having been signed and waived by the Arizona Cardinals and the Atlanta Falcons since May 2016. Like Davis, King was once the best athlete he knew, a giant fish in a small pond. Like Davis, King is now coming to grips with being unexceptional; in football parlance, Just Another Guy. Perhaps King will be one of the very few who beat the odds. Perhaps he will fight and claw his way to NFL stardom, or at least a decent NFL career. Perhaps. Much more likely: King will scratch and fight and claw on the road to nowhere in pursuit of a happy delusion. In the end it won’t be nearly enough. In the end King will eventually get tired of beating his head against the unyielding ceiling of his not-quite-good-enough talent. In the end King, like Davis, will come to grips with his happy delusions. He will put away childish things, and he will become a man.