I started playing football in the sixth grade, as a somewhat fat, weird and awkward defensive tackle. I was slow as molasses moving throw a frozen pipe.
Come seventh grade I grew a few hairs on my chin, sprouted a few inches and went from fat to middle school jacked (a small six pack and some pea shooter pipes for arms). I trained day and night pulling weighted sleds, doing push-ups and mimicking my favorite players from my favorite team, Ohio State.
I wore 10 like Troy Smith, worked on my speed to move like Ted Ginn Jr. and played defensive end like Vernon Gholston. All the endless hours of training and aspiring to be like some of my favorite Buckeyes paid off on the field.
Eighth grade rolled around, and I had a new favorite team, West Virginia. This time, I wore 10 to be like Steve Slaton, tried my best to play QB at 7-on-7 camps like Pat White and was a savage who bashed his head on his helmet like fullback Owen Schmitt. My brain hates me still for that.
Come freshman year of high school, I wanted to find an identity like many 14 and 15-year-old kids do. Trying to copy those players from Ohio State and West Virginia seemed to do wonders on the football field, but it didn't help my off-field confidence.
One faithful day, a teammate of mine introduced me to the Miami Hurricanes. Sure, I knew about the greats like Ray Lewis and their reputation as bad boys in the past, but I didn't know what it was like to be a Hurricane. I made it my mission to embody everything this team was about.
On the field, I hit like Ed Reed and threw up The U after every big play. But finally, I found confidence outside of football. I carried a swagger similar to guys like Al Blades and Michael Irvin. I was borderline cocky, but backed it up like my Miami idols.
Unlike the teams I admired in the past, Miami was far from good at the time. When I was a freshman in 2008, the Hurricanes finished that season at 7-6. But, I never lost interest because now I was the kid who was associated with The U.
That same "U" was the topic of a story published today in The Players' Tribune, by current Miami quarterback, Brad Kaaya.
Over the past few years, people have placed the Miami program in the ranks of mediocrity, failing to even acknowledge their storied past. Kaaya shares a colorful anecdote about seeing someone rocking a Miami hat in his Los Angeles neighborhood, and associating that bold "U" on it with greatness.
It was the same way for me. I would purposely put myself in situations that ended with a teacher scolding me for wearing my Miami hat, just so I could show off that "U". That "U" stood for more than just a football team. It was my sense of confidence, my swagger and a notch in my belt that made me feel tough.
Kaaya group up in USC Trojan territory, but he was well aware that The U was a national brand; an entity that transcended the football world.
For Kaaya and the Hurricanes faithful, The U is a representation of a whole state. The green and orange reminiscent of the orange groves in rural areas of the Sunshine State, or the picturesque Florida sunsets, a fiery orange with green palm trees swaying in the wind.
The young Canes QB was shocked that someone drove from Florida to California to see their beloved "U" play. To an outsider this seems insane. But, when you become a part of this crazed fan base, it's like following a religion. It's like taking a pilgrimage. You do it because it taps in to a deep, spiritual hold this school has on you.
What Brad described was a total takeover of the L.A. area by the Hurricanes, during their 2002 Rose Bowl showdown with Nebraska. In his words, they were "larger than life."
Before I ever stepped foot on Miami's campus, I thought they were larger than life, too. I imagined this school with a massive football stadium right smack dab in the middle of campus. When I visited Coral Gables and did a campus tour my junior year, there was no huge campus. There was no huge stadium in the middle of everything. There was a huge lake, but it wasn't what I expected.
What was there? A city that loved this small, private institution. You could go on any street corner and see a bodega or sports bar with a "U" in the window. You'd see everything from a Range Rover rocking a Miami decal, to an old man begging for change in a worn out Hurricanes t-shirt. The Hurricanes helped write the story of one of America's greatest, most diverse cities.They really were bigger than football.
For Brad Kaaya, Miami wasn't his dream school. He made it clear in the article he wanted to go to USC and follow in the footsteps of former Trojans Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer, both Heisman winners. With two scholarship options, he chose to play in Coral Gables. He knew it was a better option than San Diego State.
For me, it was a different story. I applied to three schools: Miami, Michigan State and Ole Miss. In my mind, I always thought I'd be a Hurricane. I had taken some rigorous AP courses, was involved in sports and extra-curricular activities. Overall, I was a pretty good high school student.
I heard back from Ole Miss right away. Got in. Heard back from Michigan State. Got in. Now I just had to wait for Miami. I applied early action, assuming it would help my chances of getting in. Months went by. By January, I started to find myself saying "Go Green, Go White" just in case this plan to chase my dream wasn't going to work out.
And, like a movie script for some teenage comedy about going to college, it played out as expected. I didn't get in.
Strangely, I never felt upset. I didn't regret anything. I knew the high standard Miami had set for their incoming students. Maybe it was my essay. The admissions counselor said his favorite essay was about a "how to" on making a frappuccino. I wrote a stereotypical "high school athletics sob story" about my shoulder surgery and how depressing it was, and how I ended up finding new passions like journalism. Unfortunately, I didn't have a barista background, but I could've offered a step-by-step essay on a killer post-workout shake.
Much like Brad, I felt that I had to go to Michigan State just based on the fact it was better than Ole Miss (in my case academically). I went to Michigan State, hated it and transferred. I knew that going into Michigan State I wanted to transfer. I had this slight bit of hesitation when it came to reapplying to Miami, so I looked at some other schools strewn throughout the South and chose Alabama.
I never looked back. My last three years in Tuscaloosa have really helped define me. No, it wasn't cause I admired the football players and tried to mimic Nick Saban (thank God). It was because I became comfortable in MY abilities.
Most recently, I have taken three trips to Miami, thanks to my girlfriend Lauren. She is a Cuban-American, so naturally she has family in the area. We went the first time in March. I began to start getting a feeling of admiration for the Hurricanes again. Seeing the inhabitants of the city wearing the green and orange, young and old, college educated, blue collar ... it made me realize what it really meant to be a Hurricane.
In May I wrote a few fanposts on here, figuring that it would be a healthy way to gradually ease my way back into Hurricanes fandom. They caught the eye of our site co-manager, Cam, and he asked me to be a contributor, which I am forever grateful for.
These last few months writing for State of the U has shown me that being apart of The U is more than just attending a few classes, or even rooting for the team on Saturdays. It's being part of cultural phenomenon. It's being apart of history. It's having an identity as some of the most downright confident, coolest, baddest fans on the planet.
It's rooting for guys like Brad Kaaya, who know what it's like to face adversity, but respect history. It's loyalty at its finest. Brad had offers down the road from his Pac-12 "dream schools", but he understood that The U was where he belonged. He served a duty to help bond us and give us hope in tough times.
What other school has been featured on two 30 for 30's? I couldn't tell you of another team who can have a 7-6, or 8-5 season, and still be as talked about in the off-season like Miami. It's that swagger, that winning tradition, that identity that was built over time that still stands as the definition of this team. You can knock down stadiums, go through head coaches, but you can never take away The U.
It's something I now cherish. It was like this little flame was always lit in me from the moment my friend introduced me to Miami in that freshman football locker room. The flame grew, it died down, but it never went away. Now Brad Kaaya has the chance to light the world on fire and that makes my inner desire to see this team succeed burn with an unparalleled passion.