As a high school senior in 2010, Anthony Hitchens—now a Dallas Cowboy—embraced the SUCCESS for Teens program. Hitchens found tremendous value in its core curriculum, the SUCCESS for Teens book, which challenges kids to set and pursue goals, and adopt positive thinking and habits.
He was excited about the program, says his Lorain, Ohio, coach at the time, Mike Collier, who remembers that Hitchens shared a video from a SUCCESS for Teens event. “He was just the type of young man who was always appreciative of his opportunities, and he was very loyal to the people who did things for him. He’s a fine young man… humble.”
A Formative Book
I interviewed Hitchens at the Dallas Cowboys’ practice facility in Irving, Texas, where we met in a small conference room. Media access time was over, and Cowboys players talked raucously in the halls. I could barely hear the soft-spoken Hitchens over the din. He thumbed the SUCCESS for Teens book in front of him as he talked.
“These are all good chapters,” Hitchens tells me. “Going through this book, you can pretty much pick any chapter and relate it to yourself. I got a lot out of it. It opened my eyes to different things.” From the book he learned about how getting through school helps a kid’s future and about the importance of other SUCCESS for Teens habits. He also picked up a nugget that stays with him to this day: “Just have a good attitude, and it’ll always lead to good things. Think positive all the time.”
It’s a lesson he needs now as much as ever. As a linebacker joining the team right after final exams and receiving his bachelor’s degree at the University of Iowa, Hitchens is a possible substitute for a standout Dallas player injured in May during training. Despite the intense pressure, “I just relax and enjoy the time. Just live in the moment.”
Hitchens has been in tense situations—and been confronted with difficult decisions—before, though, so he has learned to keep a cool head. As a teenager, for instance, he made the tough call to leave his family’s home and move in with another family so he’d be eligible to attend a better school.
If, like me, you immediately recall the movie The Blind Side, think again. “There was nothing wrong with my family before,” Hitchens emphasizes. “It was just a better situation for me to go off to college and get a degree. And it led me to this opportunity [with the Cowboys] that I have now.”
Hitchens packed up to distance himself from gangs and other bad influences. His family home “was closer to areas that weren’t so good in Lorain. So I moved closer to the school where there were fewer gangs and more focus on education.”
He honors both his families, and supporters from each were on hand when he went home for the draft; having a team on your side is another principle from the SUCCESS for Teens book. “We’re close. It’s not like I don’t see one side of the family or the other. I think we’re all in this together. It’s one big family.” Hitchens is the second-oldest of seven siblings in his birth family. His adopted family, the Andersons, already had four children, and he especially admires the way they go about their business, with the emphasis on family ties and hard work. “Their family was definitely a key to my success,” he says.
And seeking positive influences is part of Hitchens’ personal philosophy. “You just want to put yourself in the right group of people. The guys you hang around with are the guys you usually act like, whether you know it or not.” He adds, almost as a credo, “Surround yourself with good people.”
Role Models Are Important
When growing up, Hitchens was intensely interested in basketball; Kevin Durant of the National Basketball Association’s Oklahoma City Thunder is a role model for him. Durant “worked hard and might be the best player in the NBA. I liked his work ethic,” Hitchens said last year in the University of Iowa Athletics Department’s daily e-newsletter.
“I used to look up articles on [Durant] and how he talked to reporters,” he tells me. “He always put his team first, and you just knew he was a good guy.” The Cowboys rookie says he watched Durant’s May 2014 Most Valuable Player speech five times and points out that the hoops star gives all the glory to his teammates and his mom.
Hitchens does that, too, Collier says: “He was always the first guy to praise his teammates and just be a great friend and teammate to everybody who he was associated with here.” Today as a Dallas Cowboy, Hitchens says he is going about things as if he knows that kids are watching, taking notice.
Like Durant, Hitchens earns respect for his hard work. “He will work his hardest to not only be a great physical player,” Collier says, “but he works on the mental aspect of the game, too. And there’s obviously a lot to learn going into an NFL team and playing linebacker.” The NFL, in advance of the 2014 draft, praised Hitchens’ work ethic and overall approach as well as his mental and physical toughness.
Dealing with Pressure
And many people—of all ages—are watching, because veteran Dallas linebacker Sean Lee injured a knee on the first day of organized team activities in May. Sportswriters immediately began asking Hitchens whether he was ready, and Hitchens’ oft-reported answer—aligning with his humility as well as his work ethic—was, “Honestly, right now, no. But I will get there…. I’ve still got to get everything down. If we had a game tomorrow, no, but it’s a good thing we don’t. I have time to get better.”
Shortly before Lee’s injury, Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus said, “It’s a new position for him, new techniques for him and the first time in front of the huddle for him.” He’s had to learn “how to take control of the huddle, make the call, make the close calls, set the defense and all those types of things.”
So Anthony Hitchens’ world is stressful right now. To maintain inner peace, he dedicates some time to himself each day. “Just put everything away and go through all your thoughts. What do you want to do? What are your life goals?”
He often faces a long to-do list when he returns home after practice. Study a wealth of new plays, roles, responsibilities. Call his parents. Check his email. His formula for de-stressing? “You just put everything aside, turn off your TV and go to your room,” Hitchens says. To help him clear his mind, he may also turn off the lights, look at the ceiling and think about his goals for the next day.
In college, Hitchens’ stress-relief tactic was to write and write on his laptop. “I used to just write to myself. Just write anything that came to my head.” He knows that letting stress build up is a mistake, because then you burn out or give up. “That’s where it all starts, I think, when people just let too much get on their minds and then let other people influence their decisions.”
Continuing to Succeed
Count Collier among the people confident that the 22-year-old will overcome every challenge. “I told people a while back, ‘If anyone’s going to make it, that young man will.’ It’s because of his attitude and his willingness to do what’s right for the people around him.”
He has already made it, by most people’s measure. Being a fourth-round Cowboys draft choice is an accomplishment by itself. From May to August, he was competing with other players for a place on the team. “I’m just trying to do the right thing every day and carry myself with the right attitude.”
Walking back from the interview with Hitchens through the labyrinth of halls at the team facility, I told the Cowboys public relations host that Hitchens seemed shy. “That’ll change,” the PR rep responded.
But I’m sure he won’t lose that fine attitude no matter what.