When Merril talked about his dream of playing in the NFL all he heard was, that will be too hard, you can't beat those odds, it's impossible, and son don't put all your eggs in one basket! That inspired him to write Find a Way and put it on the top of the wall above all his goals. Find a Way would become a life-long philosophy that helped him achieve his dream of playing in the NFL, but also has helped him deal with the near loss of his hand as a young boy, the loss of his mother at a young age, overcome severe head trauma and battle and beat cancer. It has also become a parenting tool and helped him realize the magic that exists in all of us!
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Find a WayThree Words That Changed My Life
By Hoge, Merril
Center StreetCopyright © 2010 Hoge, Merril
All right reserved.
You Pave Your Path as You Go
I was driving on a Kentucky highway nine years after my NFL career ended when a van going fifty miles per hour broadsided me. The impact of the accident tore the labrum in my left shoulder, which required surgery. The procedure and rehabilitation went fine, but several months later, when I ducked my head into the shower, I felt a sharp pain in my back.
Working through injuries is commonplace in the world of football, so I treated this situation no differently than I had throughout my career. I sought the quickest and best way to get better. During a follow-up appointment for my shoulder, I mentioned the back pain to the Steelers’ team physician, Dr. James Bradley, who had remained my doctor after my career. He ran a few tests. The results concerned him.
“Right now one plus one equals three,” he said. “There’s no clear problem with your neck or back, but I need to figure out what the other factor is.”
Three hours into what was supposed to be a routine, half-hour checkup, Dr. Bradley sent me to get an MRI. I was already late for another obligation, so after climbing out of the booth, I hopped in my car and sped off. I wasn’t halfway there when Dr. Bradley’s number appeared on my cell phone.
“I gotta have you come back,” he said. “This can’t wait.”
Irritated by the inconvenience, I flipped an illegal U-turn and returned to his office. There he explained that he arranged an appointment with a specialist the following morning. It still didn’t register with me that all of this was about much more than a pulled muscle or pinched nerve.
I went to see the specialist the next morning. As I pulled into the parking lot, I read a sign on the building: Hillman Cancer Institute. Odd place for a back specialist’s office, I said to myself.
I rode the elevator to the right floor, walked around a corner, and opened the office door. I then walked into a waiting room full of people I didn’t expect to see. All around the room were patients with bald heads or wearing scarves. I finally began to realize what was happening. I approached the counter and the receptionist told me they’d been expecting me. She led me to an observation room.
A few minutes later, four white coats entered, and a Dr. Marks introduced himself. He and three others threw my back scans on the wall and muttered among themselves.
I overheard one doctor say, “Looks like…,” but I didn’t understand the word that came next.
“Looks like what?” I asked.
Dr. Marks turned and looked at me. “Mr. Hoge… it looks like cancer.”
I sat silent, motionless, staring at the doctor. I felt darkness, as if every light went out inside my body. I was empty. Doubtful. Fearful.
For a brief moment I thought about the irony of my emotions. Throughout my college and pro career I was honored for being a tough guy… Iron Man of the Year… All Madden Team… didn’t miss a game in eleven years… played with every injury known to man: broken foot, ribs, fingers, and hand, separated shoulder, torn groin, fractured hip and tibia, concussion, etc. And yet, hearing the word cancer spoken in the same breath as my name made me forget everything. I shrank into uncertainty. I wanted back every injury I had ever suffered simultaneously in order to take away this battle.
I knew I was not merely staring into the fierce eyes of great linebackers like Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, and Derrick Thomas. I was staring into the face of death.
Once I could speak, I asked every question I could think of. I had the doctors walk me through various scenarios, trying to reason my way out of the sentence I’d just received.
The lab needed several days to collect the official results and determine the next step. I left Pittsburgh without definitive answers and drove back to my home in Kentucky. The dark, four-hour drive was fogged with ambiguity. I reflected on my life: regrets… joys… accomplishments. The pride I felt for being a good father stood out.
If there is one thing I love more than playing football or talking about it on ESPN, it’s being a dad. I had a dad who worked hard to provide for us but did little else to help my three brothers and me become men. I vowed to change that legacy when I was blessed with kids. And I had.
Now, driving on that dark road home with thoughts of the cancer inside me, all I wanted was more time. More time to love them, teach them, and prepare them for an abundant life. I lost my mom in college and then witnessed the suffering it caused my younger brothers. As I began to relive those feelings, I imagined my children and me jumping on our trampoline out back the way we always did.
Who would be there to jump with them if I was gone? Who would help them and protect them in times of need?
From the deepest part of my soul, I began sobbing like a baby.
My wife, Toni, and I sat alone that night and talked. We would wait on telling our children, Kori and Beau, until the biopsy results came back. Explaining the news to them would be heart-wrenching, and we wanted to be 100 percent sure this was happening before we did it.
Weeks earlier we had planned a family vacation to our cabin in Idaho. The trip was only days away now, and we wondered if we should still go or stay home and await the news. After much deliberation we kept our plans, hoping deep down if we got away we might also escape the disease.
Our remote spot in Idaho is pristine. Lit by a million stars, the nights often feature the towering silhouette of a moose gliding by the cabin and disappearing into the black lake. There I can withdraw from the grind. On this visit, I hoped I would more than ever.
The hope didn’t last long.
The phone rang one day into the trip, Valentine’s Day, 2003. I was alone upstairs. It was Dr. Marks, the oncologist. He was calling with the results of the biopsy. I was done with the wondering and worrying. I wanted to know something. My heart raced as I picked up the phone. I took a deep breath. Said hello. Then listened.
“It’s cancer, Merril—non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. You have a two- to three-pound tumor in your back the size of a small football.”
I heard all he explained next—the time line… the chemotherapy… the hair loss. But I had stopped thinking of myself.
One question dominated my mind: what would this mean for Kori and Beau?
They needed to know right away. I closed my eyes and exhaled. I had to unpack reality without sugarcoating the situation or scarring their young minds. Talking with them was never a problem. We talked about everything. But sharing this news would be torture. I had to help them understand why their daddy was going to be a little different than he normally was, why I was going to start being tired and sick a lot, and, after a few more weeks, bald. I despised the task.
As the sun descended behind the lake and calm woods, the four of us sat together in the great room. I sat forward in my leather chair, and as I looked into their innocent faces, I could barely find the words to speak.
“Things are going to be a little different over the next few weeks,” I explained. “Daddy is going to be sick and will probably lose some weight. I’m also going to be tired and have to lay down on the couch a lot more than you’re used to seeing me lay down.”
Beau was seven, and as I pressed through my speech, he fumbled with his toys on the floor. Kori was nine, and her wide blue eyes remained glued to mine. She could sense this was more than her daddy having a cold.
Then I said it.
“Daddy has something called cancer… and in a couple weeks I will start to look different because the medicine I have to take is probably going to make all my hair fall out.”
There was silence when I finished speaking. I think it was more difficult for me to tell them than for them to hear it. I bowed my head and stared at the floor. A lot had changed in a few short days.
I looked up after an emotional pause. What I saw was the catalyst for my triumph over an unjust, unforgiving killer.
Kori, my blond-haired, blue-eyed angel, jumped from the couch and ran to my chair. She threw her dainty arms around me and stretched up to whisper something in my ear.
“Daddy, you’re just gonna have to find a way.”
It floored me.
Since she was old enough to understand, I’d been encouraging her to find her own way through life’s challenges. Now this extraordinarily wise child was guiding me. Now my little angel echoed the advice back to me, and it filled my body with a fire that would not quit.
I would find a way, no matter what it took.
I descended those stairs minutes earlier lugging an enormous burden. My spirit was hollow. I was crawling toward death. Dr. Marks had explained my treatment options but offered no guarantees. I had already begun considering how to best savor my last few months. Kori’s words rescued me from that defeatist mind-set. She reminded me of a lifelong philosophy I had forgotten amidst the swirl of emotions.
I looked in her eyes and saw her strength—my strength. Blood rushed through my body and I sat up straight and strong, holding Kori close to me.
In that moment, I was committed to fight the beast.
I said nothing aloud but spoke volumes in my spirit. I might go bald, I asserted to myself, but feeling tired and negative is not an option. Getting sick is not an option. And dying is definitely not an option.
I will find a way through this.
Life quickly moved on when seven-year old Beau blurted, “Dad, can we go to Wal-Mart?”
I suppose neither of us knew how brutal the battle would be.
His words were an innocent reminder of how, in a million years, he never imagined that life with Mom, Dad, and Sister would be any different.
I would make sure he was right.
I sat alone in a dim room one week later. The soft chairs, scenic portraits, and baby-blue uniforms are a thoughtful but futile respite in a chemotherapy clinic. Especially when someone dressed in a hazmat suit enters the room cradling a large red-liquid-filled syringe.
Many cancer patients call Adriamycin “Red Death.” The nickname comes from its bloody color and what it’s capable of. It is one of the most potent of all chemotherapy treatments.
I will never forget that scene. I squinted, breathing slowly through my nose while nurse Becky prepared a vein. In less than a minute she pushed the poison into my forearm. She then confessed there was always a difference in the mind-set of those who beat the disease.
“If you want to survive,” she calmly asserted, “the majority of it is up to you now.”
The chemicals exploded through my entire body, attacking and destroying. A burning sensation was everywhere, tangibly pulsing my veins. The nurses served me ice chips to keep the thin lining of my mouth from breaking out in sores. I remained statuelike in the soft recliner—collected yet fully aware my insides were being eaten away.
While Red Death tore through my body, I was given fluids through another IV. My bladder was stretched to capacity within minutes. I slid off my chair and stood delicately.
“Make sure you flush twice,” the nurse interjected.
Embarrassed, I confessed I just really had to go.
“I know,” she said. “And what I just put into you was poison—one hundred percent. It will come out of you at about eighty percent potency. If any of it sits in the toilet, it will eat through the porcelain.”
I didn’t believe her, but I staggered into the bathroom and did my business with those words in mind. I looked into the bowl and my heart sank. There was a pool of liquid as red as what I saw in the syringe. That vial, the size of a small flashlight, held a liquid so strong it could rip through my system and exit with still enough potency to eat through porcelain. The new reality set in: two killers now waged war inside my body.
And the physical strain was not the toughest part.
Imagine trying to stay focused and determined for seven hours. Not cheerful, just positive as you sit in a chair, needles prodding you from the outside, poison tearing through you on the inside—and cancer battling back. Outside the door is a hallway filled with bodies and minds fighting the same fight.
You are all in the heat of a death battle. One killer against another—chemo versus cancer. There will be only one survivor and you have to take a side, though neither side is a friend.
There are no weekends, no days off, no breaks with cancer. And the chemo—the thing designed to cure you—is actually the toughest part of the fight. Yet, even during the most gruesome, painful moments, I remembered the gritty truth of Kori’s whisper. It was a truth I had known all my life.
If I was being forced to fight this deadly opponent, I would fight it my way. Not lying around the house or in bed with my fingers crossed, hoping I would get through it. I was not going to let some faceless monster steal my life without a fierce battle. I would not let the cancer dictate how or how long I lived.
I would grit my teeth and endure the torture every three weeks.
When I wasn’t getting treatment, I would do the things I loved. Each morning I woke Kori and Beau and made them breakfast. I studied game films and scouting reports to prepare for ESPN’s NFL Draft Day coverage. I worked out five times a week, played the entire season of my basketball league, and prepared to compete in a Fourth of July 5K run for charity.
I ate extremely healthy foods and stuck flawlessly to my workout routine because I wanted to give myself the best chance to survive. The doctors and nurses urged me to drink as much water as I could after each treatment to help flush out the toxins. I knew working out would further push the chemicals from my body.
All my life I believed it was up to me to take action to reach my goals. I’d believed it since I was a boy. Along the way I discovered that within this basic human initiative lies the most common trait of extraordinary people: the will to find a way to victory no matter the obstacle.
It was the same philosophy that allowed me to go from a small-town college in Pocatello, Idaho, to starting for the great Chuck Noll and the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers. Before that, it allowed me to overcome more common but often unspoken obstacles like my father’s abuse, a crippling boyhood accident, and the early loss of my mother.
I was a twelve-year old boy when I stood on my bed and tacked a note card to the corkboard wall behind the headboard that read: “I will play in the NFL.” It was like a moment of truth. As I stared at it I could hear all the responses I’d already received from parents, coaches, friends, and brothers. All had a similar reply.
“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, Merril.”
“A lot of kids have that dream, Merril. But you have to be realistic, too.”
“Do you know how hard that is, Merril?”
Their words bounced around my head like a thousand tiny rubber balls. I realized right then that I could accept everyone else’s message to me or I could listen to my own. I hopped off my bed and picked up another note card. In capital letters, I made another note of the three words that popped into my head. I jumped back onto my bed and tacked it at the highest point on the wall I could reach. It read: “FIND A WAY.”
In the end, that boyhood vow saw me through more than my obstacles to the NFL. It was no coincidence that as I grew taller and could reach higher, the one note card remained posted atop all my other notes, the peak of what would become a pyramid of handwritten goals.
Those three words taught me that regardless of past or present circumstances, your future path is not paved before you. You pave it as you go, and the materials you use are up to you.
You can pave it with fear, apathy, and self-pity.
Or you can pave it with courage, resilience, and an undying spirit.
The gift bestowed to every one of us is our will. It can be given away but it cannot be taken away, no matter what. And at the end of every day—and every life—what you have done with this gift determines whether you are an ordinary or extraordinary person. The extraordinary find a way.
Each time I sat in that treatment facility, Red Death pulsing through my body, I knew I could not turn away from the philosophy that had given me my dreams. At age thirty-eight, with my life on the line, it was again up to me to find a way to victory.
Now I want to show you how.
The critical lessons are straightforward. You will understand them cognitively right away. Application comes next. This is the real battle. I do not believe we learn anything new until we can apply it successfully, continuously, in our own lives.
My goal, then, is not to merely tell you how to find a way. I will show you how by giving you a front row seat to some of the greatest battles in my own life. The battles encompass the years before, during, and after my eight years in the NFL.
While playing professional ball was the hard-won culmination of a lifelong dream, many of the obstacles outside the NFL posed a greater challenge. In fact, had I not overcome some of my early battles, my NFL dream would not have become a reality. Had I not won certain victories in the NFL, I would not have overcome the challenges after it.
Embodying the “find a way” philosophy became second nature to me because I would not accept defeat, not because someone taught me the ten steps to success. This book is therefore about transcendent lessons learned the hard way—the real way—through gritty, gutsy action in spite of opponents or odds.
Through these lessons you will come to see that you are not defined by how many times you fall but by how many times you rise again. You might fall a thousand times, but if you rise a thousand times plus one you will be victorious. I carry this mind-set with me wherever I go, in whatever I do. Victory is never the absence of failure. It is the will to be the last one standing.
This is no easy task. But every one of us is able.
I was never a great student. I did, however, excel in one subject: statistics. The proficiency has helped me in my new day job as an NFL analyst on ESPN. But I’ve learned that no matter how many numbers you crunch—no matter how small the odds of victory might be—no amount of statistical evidence can account for the variable of the human spirit.
When the numbers say it can’t be done, when history says it has never been done—one undying spirit can rewrite the books and change history forever. One undying spirit can always find a way to victory.
I won’t pretend to know what challenges you have faced in your life, or what challenges you are facing now. If we were sitting down together, I would ask you about them and listen. But the truth is that I don’t need to know the specifics to assure you that you can find a way to victory. “What lies behind us and what lies before us,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” How true these words have been in my life.
They are also true in yours.
The journey we will take from here will be entertaining, for sure. It will give you a rare look at the world of the NFL and what it took to survive and thrive in one of its storied franchises, the Pittsburgh Steelers. But I encourage you to push yourself beyond the intrigue and entertainment inside these pages. The stories I share were not chosen for their dramatic value. They were chosen for their ability to illustrate the emotions, choices, and actions required to break through to victory despite the obstacles.
Our experiences vary in detail—we are born into different families, given different skills and opportunities, and forced to face different challenges. Yet we are wired with similar needs and desires. No matter your age or life experience, I know you have dreams. I also know you have fears and anxieties that battle against your hopes and expectations. And, ultimately, I know you want to succeed.
We all have intense reasons to live that are greater than avoiding death. And we all have intensely significant reasons to reach our dreams that are well beyond enjoying mere fame or fortune. Finding a way is about tapping into those core spiritual motives inside of you and taking fierce, resourceful, and consistent action until victory is yours. My hope is that by witnessing how this has played out in my life, you will comprehend how it can play out in yours.
I could spend the next two hundred pages filling your mind with every success principle known to man. But once you put this book down, you will still have to find your own way through life’s challenges. I would rather show you how I did it so you will know what is possible in your life.
The ability to find a way is within everyone.
Excerpted from Find a Way by Hoge, Merril Copyright © 2010 by Hoge, Merril. Excerpted by permission.
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