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By Kirk Cousins
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 Kirk Cousins
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AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
It was a hot, sunny day in the middle of July in Holland, Michigan. I pulled into my parents' driveway, where I could see my dad wearing a Washington Redskins shirt and hat. I saw my high school principal, Mr. Stahl, and his three boys, all of whom had NFL trading cards for me to sign. There was a writer with a bag slung over his shoulder waiting to interview me.
There was a time when I didn't see myself playing college football, much less the scene that is now before me. It has been a wild and certainly unexpected journey that has landed me in the NFL with the Washington Redskins.
Less than three months ago, I sat in my parents' family room and took a phone call from Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan, telling me that they were going to select me with their next pick in the NFL draft. My heart sank. I had had very little interaction with the Redskins in the days leading up to the draft, and they had already used the second overall pick to select their franchise quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. Out of thirty-two NFL teams, I figured they were the thirty-second most likely to draft me. I was polite to Coach Shanahan but shocked. I hung up the phone and said to my family, "The Redskins are going to take me."
Rather than the celebratory scene I'd dreamt about, there was a quiet somberness that filled the room. I wouldn't even have the opportunity to compete for the starting job. A moment later an NFL official stepped to the podium and said, "With the seventh pick of the fourth round, number 102 overall of the NFL draft, the Washington Redskins select Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Michigan State." And just like that, my life had changed, and the NFL draft moved on to the 103rd pick. It was a chilling reminder of the fact that professional football is a business, and they're not in the business of making me feel happy.
My family and I sat there in silence. A moment later, the draft experts began debating my selection. "Why would the Redskins take a second quarterback?" Based on their discussion, it sounded like I was going to be the most controversial pick of the draft. My family and I had been praying for months that God would put me where he wanted me. We had released the draft process to him. Now, like so many times before, I would have to put my words about trusting God into action.
As I stepped out of my car, I could hear my dad telling Mr. Stahl's boys about the severe burns I had received when I was nineteen months old. "In a freak accident, Kirk pulled a pot of boiling water over on himself and severely burned his chest, stomach, upper arms, and underarm areas. After two weeks in the hospital, the doctor told Kirk's mom and me that he should be all right, although he may never be able to throw a ball properly. 'Time will tell, as he grows, if his range of motion will be limited due to the severity of the burns,' the doctor said." My chest, upper arms, and underarm areas were classified as third-degree burns.
Considering this doctor's statement, the fact that I played college football and will now (Lord willing) be making a living throwing the football is a miracle reflecting God's healing power. Trusting God has been a lifelong theme. I certainly felt the struggle to trust him on draft day.
While the experts droned on about my unexpected selection (which was later in the draft than I thought it would be), Kyle broke the family room silence. "Why are we disappointed?" he asked, "We should be thrilled. Kirk was just drafted to play in the NFL!"
Kyle was right. It was time to trust God that he had answered our prayers and that he had, in fact, placed me with the Washington Redskins by his design. This wasn't the first time I had to trust God despite the way everything looked around me. Let me go back a few years, to where the act of trusting God began for me.
My family moved to Holland, Michigan, as I was starting seventh grade. Holland is a town that's famous for something called the Tulip Festival, its proximity to Lake Michigan, and family values. All of that to say, it's not famous for football. My parents had enrolled me, Kyle, and Karalyne into Holland Christian Schools. I learned that Holland Christian had just started a football program two years earlier and didn't even have a varsity team. The first varsity team was scheduled to take the field when I was a freshman.
My dream since the fourth grade was to play major college football. For this to happen, I needed to be recruited by schools. I knew how the recruiting process worked, and I knew that a player's sophomore and junior years of high school were critical. I was encouraged by a strong freshman season, when our freshman team went 9–0. My sophomore year, however, our four best players moved up to the varsity team, while I stayed down on the junior varsity (JV) team.
Meanwhile Keith Nichol, who would become my teammate at Michigan State, was the starting quarterback on his varsity team as a sophomore and took his Lowell High School team to the state championship. He was well on his way to becoming a West Michigan high school legend. In fact, Keith had committed to Michigan State (meaning he had received a full-ride scholarship offer) before I even played a varsity game in high school. I watched Keith's high school success, hoping I could one day have a similar experience.
After a rough sophomore season on the JV team, I was reunited with some of the great athletes from my freshman class, and we were all working hard in anticipation of our first year together on the varsity team. Our hope was to jump-start a varsity program that had not yet had a .500 season and put Holland Christian football on the map.
On the night of my first game as the varsity starting quarterback, I was beyond excited. My teammates and I had high expectations for the season ahead. In the back of my mind, I hoped for a strong season that would enable me to attract some attention from colleges. However, in the second quarter of that first game, I was hit on my leg as I stepped into a throw and twisted my ankle badly. I hobbled around on it for the remainder of the game, assuming I had sprained it. We won the game and I had played pretty well, throwing three touchdown passes. The next morning, however, I woke up with a very swollen left ankle, and I couldn't walk. My parents and I decided to get an X-ray so we could have some peace of mind as I prepared for the following week's game.
The X-ray revealed a fracture. As the doctor moistened the gauze in plaster and wrapped it around my ankle, I felt like I was being closed in a plaster prison—like my ankle was being locked in a jail cell. I looked again at the X-ray image.
"If it's such a small fracture, why can't I play on it?" I asked the doctor.
"Because there's ligament damage as well," he said. "Your season is over." I was devastated.
In the car on the way home with my dad, I asked, "Is my dream of playing college football over too?" I was already behind the curve in terms of recruiting, and this would put me even further in the hole. My dad said I had a choice to make. I could be overwhelmed with discouragement, feel sorry for myself, and quit inside, or I could put my trust in God and believe that he has a plan and a purpose that he'll fulfill in my life.
He reminded me of Proverbs 3:5–6, which says, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."
I did indeed have a choice to make. I could take the weight of my future upon myself, or I could trust God to lead the way. I quickly decided that I was going to embrace Proverbs 3:5–6. I would do all I could to help the ankle heal faster, which began by seeking a second opinion from an ankle specialist, who removed the cast and put me in a walking boot. He also let me know that if I could handle the pain and was willing just to drop back and pass (no running around), I could potentially play in the last few games of the season.
I was able to return for the last three games and ended up throwing twelve touchdown passes by season's end. While our team didn't do too well because of a number of injuries to key players, I felt I had made enough good throws to show college coaches that I could "spin it." I knew that, because of my injury, college coaches would not be lining up to recruit me. So I began doing work on my end to make sure they at least knew who I was. My dad and I made a list of forty Division I programs we were interested in and sent them each a letter and videotape with highlights of my play. Some schools I never heard a word from; a few sent me generic letters with invites to their summer camps. It was clear that no one was all that impressed with my tape.
Somehow, I managed to secure an invite to a Nike sponsored camp at Penn State University in May before my senior season. It was full of five-star prospects like Joe Haden, who would play at the University of Florida and later become a first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns. I would have an opportunity at Penn State to throw with over one hundred other quarterbacks, with the hope of being selected as one of Nike's "Elite 11." While there I learned that some of these quarterbacks already had forty to fifty scholarship offers in hand.
When the camp ended, I went over to thank coach Bob Johnson, who had run the QB portion of the camp. To my surprise, he knew my name. "You're one of the top two to three QBs here," he said, "Who has offered you?"
"Nobody," I replied.
"Who's on your trail?" he asked.
"Nobody," I said.
He offered to put my name and video in front of some connections of his in coaching, and soon I had camp invites from Northern Illinois, Iowa, and Purdue. The story was the same at each camp: I measured around six foot two and 175 pounds, which was considered undersized for a quarterback. As Coach Johnson told me, "You don't yet have a Division I body." Based on feedback from the college coaches, I had a good arm and could throw with accuracy. While that was nice to hear, no one offered me a scholarship.
Then I got a call, out of the blue, from Michigan State. They invited me to their camp to throw, and the next day I was in the car, driving to East Lansing with my dad. Keith Nichol, their prized recruit, was already there, establishing a connection with the coaches and beginning to learn his college offense. I threw the ball well, and while they didn't offer me a scholarship on the spot, they were encouraging and insinuated that if they were to offer another quarterback, it could be me.
Eventually, I got scholarship offers from Northern Illinois University, Western Michigan University, and the University of Toledo—all Mid-American Conference Schools—at the end of my senior football season. As I thought, prayed, and talked with my family, I just didn't have peace about any of the three. I was picking a college, not a football program. While the football programs were strong, I didn't feel a peace about going to college at any of these schools. They were good schools, but they just weren't for me.
By early November of my senior year, Michigan State still had not offered me a scholarship. At this point, my high school football season had ended, and my focus had shifted to my senior basketball season. The head coach of Michigan State football at the time, John L. Smith, was fired. I didn't know what this meant for my recruitment, so I called one of the coaches who had been contacting me. He explained that the entire coaching staff had been fired with the head coach and that I would need to start all over with whoever was hired to replace Coach Smith. Then he added these words at the end, "Unless they happen to keep someone from our staff."
As it turned out, the new coach, Mark Dantonio, kept only one coach, Dan Enos, who was the QB coach on the previous staff. I believed this was the first of many signs that perhaps I was supposed to end up at MSU. From the beginning, during my recruitment to MSU, I felt like I was selling myself to them as opposed to the other way around (them selling the program to me).
My dad even received a phone call from someone close to the program who said, "Kirk will never play at Michigan State. He's behind six guys who they've either offered or will offer. They don't see him as anything more than a practice arm. I think he's a great kid, but I just wanted to let you know. I would encourage Kirk to look in a different direction if he really wants to play college football."
In January, just weeks before signing day, my dad and I drove over to Michigan State for an official visit. My dad asked Coach Dantonio about the other quarterbacks who were being recruited. One by one, he explained very honestly where they stood with each player—everything from "we've offered him" to "we're not going to offer him." I should also note that Keith Nichol had backed out of his verbal commitment to Michigan State and decided to go to Oklahoma instead. Coach Dantonio was honest in telling us that they had made an offer to a quarterback from another state and promised him that if he came to MSU, they would not offer another QB in this recruiting class. As a result, I was not going to receive a scholarship offer that weekend. Coach D said, "We like you as a person, you can throw it, and you're strong academically. We weren't able to watch you in person on the football field, so we're going to send someone to your high school to watch basketball practice and see you in person on the court."
Later that week, offensive coordinator Don Treadwell came to basketball practice but left before I had a chance to talk with him. I assumed he was there to evaluate my athleticism, but I had no idea what he thought.
At this point, I had already informed Northern Illinois that I would not be coming their way, and now Western Michigan and Toledo were pressuring me for a decision. They were coming down to the wire and needed to know what I was going to do. On one hand, I knew I could play football and go to college for free at either school. On the other hand, I still lacked the peace I was looking for. Both schools communicated to me that if I did not commit soon to attend their school, they would pull my scholarship offer and give it to someone else.
All this time, my family had been praying for God to lead, and we were embracing the truth of Proverbs 3:5–6, believing that God would.
On the Wednesday night following my weekend visit to MSU, my dad called me into his office and said, "Kirk, I believe you are going to receive an offer from Michigan State. I believe that Coach Dantonio is going to call in the next day or two and tell you that the other QB has decided against coming to MSU and in turn, he is going to offer you a scholarship. I believe there are numerous signs that point in this direction."
He then went on to list ten different signs, each of them serving as an indicator that God was leading me to Michigan State. He said, "I'm telling you this now, in advance of the call that I believe is coming, because there will be tough times ahead. You may never see the field at Michigan State. Just because I see God leading you there is in no way a promise that you'll play there. What is important for you to know is that Michigan State is God's place for you. When times get tough, it is this knowledge that will help carry you through. Being where God wants you is the most important thing of all." He then reiterated Proverbs 3:5–6 and said, "This is God's promise, you can count on it."
The very next day, Thursday, Coach Dantonio called and told me that the other QB had decided against coming. He offered me a scholarship. I didn't accept right on the spot, because I wanted to see if that inner peace that I had not felt toward the other schools would fill my heart and mind regarding Michigan State. By Friday afternoon, I had a strong sense of peace that Michigan State was where God was leading me. I called Coach D and accepted his offer. I was a Spartan. A couple of weeks later, I would make that acceptance official by signing my National Letter of Intent on signing day.
Four days after signing my scholarship, I received another call from Coach D. He called to let me know that numbers-wise, they felt they needed another quarterback, and that they had picked up a decommit from Arizona State named Nick Foles. Foles was a sought-after recruit and had broken many of Drew Brees's high school passing records in Texas. Coach assured me that it didn't change their opinion of me at all, but truth be told, I was disappointed. Had I known that Foles was coming, perhaps I would have reconsidered. It didn't matter now. I was signed, and it was a done deal. I couldn't back out at this point. The way circumstances and timing played out, I simply had to trust that God had led me to Michigan State. I never really had a chance to sit back, relax, and enjoy my scholarship, but that seems to have been a theme in my life. I've never had a standard path to success. I've always had a path where, in the end, I would look back and see how God had provided.
Excerpted from Game Changer by Kirk Cousins. Copyright © 2013 by Kirk Cousins. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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