“Some of my greatest lessons in life came from pain. And the thing I've learned about it is the ability to learn is a gift even if pain is your teacher." — Inky Johnson
It was the fourth quarter of my last career football game. It was a heated rivalry match as was expected. We led 14-10 in front of several thousand fans, including most of my family, and more via satellite throughout the globe. I limped up to the line playing with a broken bone in my right foot, adrenaline still carrying me play by play.
As the ball was snapped our halfback sought to shed an unblocked defender in the back field. He shot like a cruise missile directly into the back of my leg. Pain shot like a bolt of lightning from my knee throughout the rest of my body.
Lying on the ground, I writhed in pain. Yet equally as painful was the realization that my career might end like this just minutes before the final whistle blew. I knew I had to do something but the surprise duo of mental and physical anguish was an unexpected test.
Would I stay on the ground rolling around in pain or get myself off the field to avoid our team being forced to use an injury timeout? This was my gut check moment.
In the book “Help the Helper” Kevin Pritchard and John Eliot, Ph.D. share the story of Pritchard’s playing days at Kansas for legendary college basketball coach Roy Williams. Williams was known for holding a practice simply known by players as their “gut check”, an unyielding, borderline unmerciful challenge of endless suicide sprints to push the players beyond their perceived limits.
Like the peak challenge of that training day, many of us have faced our own gut checks in life. These are the times that push us to our limits. But what many will tell you is that these moments of adversity produced something greater than themselves in the end.
Lessons in Pain
Inky Johnson knows something about gut checks. He is a living example of how a young man with great promise faced adversity and an unfair circumstance with relentless courage. When Inky lined up against Air Force in 2006 for Tennessee’s varsity football squad he was nearly a shoe-in to be a future NFL draft pick. The play that he will never forget took place late in the game near the sideline as he delivered a hard yet relatively routine hit after the ball was caught by a receiver. Only this time it wasn’t.
Inky was carted off the field and faced a greater gut check then he had ever found on the field. Fighting for his life, Inky barely survived a freak injury leading to the loss of his ability to move his right arm. His NFL dreams were over. But rather than lay on the turf and cry about it, Inky had other plans.
Knowing he couldn’t be the physical leader he once was, Inky set his sights on another form of leadership. He studied hard to get his master’s degree in sports psychology and has since become an author and one of the most highly sought-out public speakers in the country.  His gut check lends a powerful backdrop to his talks on facing adversity and leading a life that truly matters.
A Legacy of Hope
Another hero of mine is my friend Matt. Not one to brag he would immediately tell you it’s not him who’s the hero. It’s his wife Amy and their children. When Amy was diagnosed with terminal cancer she and their whole family faced a gut check beyond anything I could comprehend. She was so full of life and love, someone who immediately changed a room and every heart who encountered her for the better.
Rather than choose what would be so easily understood in focusing on her own pain and fears, Amy decided she needed to help others in need. She and her family started “Amy’s Yard Sale” a non-profit focused on helping families with financial need during their own fight with cancer. You can learn more about the incredible work they do within the video link listed below .
Just as Amy wouldn’t give up, neither has Matt following his loss. He fights on to serve others in the greater-Philadelphia community with such selfless grace that it blows me away. His gut check could have ended with bitterness but he chose to leave a lasting legacy for his amazing wife instead.
As I lay on the cold turf at Weston Field that day I remember something happening. The pain was still there but I suddenly felt my fingertips pushing on the ground and popping up to my “good leg”. I hopped off the field like a wounded kangaroo and dove to the sideline to avoid our team having to use a timeout. It was a small moment, insignificant compared to the ones listed above, but it reminds me of how strong I can and should be the next time I face a gut check.
Just like me and the heroes I mentioned above, you are going to face your own gut checks. How will you respond? Will you choose self-pity and bitterness or will you be heroic in serving a greater cause and push yourself off the ground? Use the gut checks ahead and the pain that comes with them as a teacher and leave behind a legacy beyond yourself. And like Inky, Amy and Matt your life will only shine brighter having faced and overcome your own gut check.