In 2018, four weeks into my eighth season as an NFL linebacker, I tore a pectoral muscle. As soon as I heard the news from the doctor, I was devastated.
It was a consequential moment in my career. My season was over, just like that, and my career—which I had fought so hard for—was in
Tears flooded my eyes. My first reaction, honestly, was to find the nearest restroom stall. I actually started walking there so no one would see me cry, but I didn’t make it. I stopped myself in the hallway, a few yards short of the restroom, and let it out right then and there—crying, bawling—in front of my teammates and the coaching staff of the Chicago Bears.
Here I was, for them all to see. You might be surprised to hear that I wasn’t judged. I wasn’t condemned. I was loved. They sat with me. They mourned with me. They cried with me. They saw me, the real me, and instead of having to be the tough guy, I was allowed to cope with the pain and uncertainty of my future. It was exactly what I needed at that moment.
This wasn’t the first time I allowed myself to cry in front of my teammates, but it was another teaching moment in a lifelong lesson for me. Locker rooms, like businesses and bars, hallways and homes, are easy places to find ways to hide. Instead of ducking into a restroom stall, though, people choose to hide within themselves and then put on masks in order to fit in.
For much of my football career, I was afraid to be seen by my teammates. I was afraid to be known. I was afraid to be me. Maybe you can relate to that feeling, but I’m here to tell you that hiding does not produce growth. In fact, it does the opposite; hiding stymies growth altogether. We create habits and make conscious or unconscious decisions to try to escape from pain, fear, and insecurity. But instead of escaping our emotions, our hiding compounds it all.
I want to tell you a few things about myself here, and maybe you’ll learn some things about you in the process.
* * *
I’m sure you’ve lost someone close to you at some point. Until recently, I’d been extremely fortunate; loss and death had not been a big part of my life. I’d only attended one funeral, for a friend’s father.
But several years ago, death came for someone I loved. Jerry and Judy Price were our neighbors when we lived in Phoenix while I was playing for the Arizona Cardinals. They’d been married for 40 years, but they epitomized a tender sort of love that even my wife, Ngozi, and I would marvel at after just one year of marriage. We couldn’t have asked for better neighbors. Ngozi and Judy connected right off the bat, and Jerry was like a mentor to me. We could talk about anything.
That’s why it struck so painfully when Jerry called me near the end of his struggle with cancer. He said he was in a good place with God, and he was ready to go. He wanted my blessing. Of course I said yes—what else could I do? But I also needed something from him before he left. I asked him for a few final words of wisdom. I needed a little more of the guidance I knew only he could give.
“If you could tell me anything,” I began, “anything about what you know about me or about life, what would it be?”
We talked about our spirituality for a bit, and then, eventually, Jerry gave me the last piece of advice he would ever give me. First he paused.… He always liked to keep me waiting a little bit.
“You are worth getting to know, Sam,” he said. “Never forget that.”
To really understand why those words meant so much, you have to understand the person I used to be.
* * *
Hiding was always the easy option for me. I learned how to do it at a young age, well before playing in the NFL was anything more than a distant dream; it started with literal hiding spaces where people couldn’t find me.
I remember one night, at age 13, I was attending the Wednesday evening youth service as usual, at our predominantly Black church. My dad was one of the pastors of this relatively large congregation, and typically I tried not to be noticed.
But this night I decided to stand out. I thought I was The Man in a red Tommy Hilfiger shirt, a pair of reversible blue Nautica shorts, and a brand-new pair of purple FUBU shoes. You see, the school I attended outfitted all the students in uniforms, and my weekend attire usually consisted of random combinations of basketball shorts and T-shirts. So I didn’t have a ton of experience keeping up with fashion. On this night, I was quite proud of my new digs.
It might have been a church, but people are still people, and some people tend to be mean, especially to little kids who try too hard to impress. The second half of Wednesday night service was always fine; that’s when I was with a bunch of middle schoolers my own age. It was the first 45 minutes I dreaded; when we were grouped together with high schoolers.
Being 13 was hard enough, with the voice cracks, the awkward growth spurts and acne. Puberty had started doing its work on me, but what made it even harder was being around opinionated high schoolers. When they saw my outfit that night, they did not hold back.
“Bro, what are you wearing?” several of the guys asked. “Who dressed you? Do you even know how to wear clothes?”
In the African American community, poking fun at someone for their attire or their speech is commonplace. But because I went to a predominately white school and had grown up in a Nigerian household, I wasn’t used to this kind of roasting. So when these high school kids began poking fun at me and my clothes, it devastated me. But the comments that followed were even worse.
“Oh, you know who that is, right?” one said to his friends. “That’s Dr. Acho’s son. You can’t talk about him.”
The words cut like knives. Everyone knew my dad and loved him. He was gregarious, full of energy, and the last person to leave the building after every service. And here I was, his teenage son who everyone knew for the wrong reasons. I was ashamed, and I ran and hid.
That night I waited until the high school students turned back to face the front of the room, then excused myself. My hiding place at church became a restroom stall, and the 30-yard walk from the classroom to the restroom was one I would never forget. I would make it often.
I’d stay there as long as I could, trying to wait out the entire 45-minute session. When I hid in that restroom stall, I felt safe. I had discovered a strategy to escape: I would simply find a place to hide. The problem arose when that temporary hiding place became a permanent one.
* * *
An NFL locker room is a lot different from a church, but there are definitely some similarities. The locker room is a place of constant interaction and communication, but believe it or not, insecurities run high. Music often booms from the speakers, and elite-level athletes argue with one another about a variety of things. In a place like a locker room, where you interact with your peers on a daily basis, you would think it would be impossible to hide.
My rookie year, with the Cardinals in 2011, was hard. Football is a competitive sport, and I am a competitive person. Whether it was a race or a drill in practice, I always wanted to come out on top. I thrived on the brutally competitive nature of the NFL, and of no surprise, many of my teammates did as well.
My teammates and I would often get into altercations at practice, both physical and verbal, which was normal. What wasn’t normal to many of my teammates was me. I was a competitor who was also a committed Christian. Many guys didn’t know what to do with that, and it often put me in an awkward place.
If I ever got upset at a player or a coach, the guys would be all over me.
“Acho,” they would say, “I thought you were a Christian. Christians aren’t supposed to get mad! Was that a curse word I just heard?”
At that point in my life, I didn’t know how to respond to the ridicule. So, instead, you can guess what I did. Yes, I hid. There was no restroom stall on the practice field, so I hid deep down within myself.
I tried to hide my emotions. I tried to hide my anger. I didn’t want to be a bad example for my teammates, and as a result, I didn’t want them to see the real me. I was afraid of sharing who I really was inside, so I hid myself from everyone and put on a mask. Hiding like this wasn’t healthy, and it didn’t help me live out my fullest potential.
It wasn’t until I started seeing a counselor and sharing my story and my scars that I began to get some real healing. He listened to a few of my stories and asked me a simple question: “What do you do when you get angry?”
My response was just as simple and direct: “I try not to get angry.”
He wasn’t buying it. After a little bit of back and forth and some careful, probing questions, we discovered the real answer: I hid. My counselor saw my hiding and drew me out into the light.
That day with my counselor, as I faced the reality of how I hid from pain and people, I let myself cry real, uncontrollable tears for the first time in a long time. I felt deeply ashamed. However, my tears weren’t met with contempt or laughter; instead, they were met with a simple, refreshing response.
“Nice to see you, Sam,” my counselor said, simply. “Nice to see you. And by the way, get used to hearing that.”
Just as Jerry Price’s words would mean so much to me a few years later, this simple sentiment made me feel so good. It changed me. It gave me permission to just be me.
A few days later I found myself facing yet another decision to either hide or show my new teammates who I really was. After a long day at practice, another player saw a look on my face and asked what was going on. Usually, I would say that I was fine or tired. But as a result of a lot of thought about what my counselor had recently told me, I determined that this day would be different. I told my teammate what I was going through. I was completely honest with him. And instead of being ridiculed, as I had previously feared, I was loved. He told me he had been there and encouraged me to keep letting it out.
So I did, and the tears started to flow. It was the first time I cried in the locker room.
Another teammate noticed my tears and quickly changed the playlist. And wouldn’t you know it, the songs he played were the exact same songs I had been listening to on my own the night before. Songs about God’s love for me. Songs of freedom. We started to worship and bond together right there in the locker room.
I stopped hiding and stepped into who I really was, and it blessed me as well as those around me.
* * *
Let this be a lesson to us all at the end of a year when so many of us have been putting on masks—brave faces for our coworkers, our kids, our partners and friends—and hiding how we really feel. Let’s take off those masks in 2021.
Hiding isn’t healthy. It hurts both the one who is doing the hiding and whatever (or whoever) he or she is hiding from. I’m learning to name my emotions: fear, anger, shame, joy, excitement. I’m also learning to be open and to be myself. I’ve heard it said that when you hide one emotion, you hide them all. You cannot choose which emotions you cut yourself off from. If you try to cut off fear, you’ll cut off joy as well. It’s the way we’re wired.
So I’m learning not to hide my emotions and to be myself in all circumstances. The benefits, on and off the football field, have been endless.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m still not perfect. I still try a little too hard with the occasional mismatched outfit on Wednesday nights. I still get upset a little too easily sometimes. And I still always want to win, sometimes to my own detriment. But I’m free. I’m me. And I’m a breath of fresh air to the people around me.
I’m worth getting to know, and so are you.
Taken from Let the World See You: How to Be Real in a World Full of Fakes by Sam Acho. Copyright © 2020 by Sam Acho. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.SamAchoBook.com
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by Janet S. Fordkoch