A SOUTHERN STORY

I won’t let scoliosis or obstacles steal my dream of playing football

A photo of three footballs.

Growing up has always been challenging – from not fitting into high school, to not getting many chances in football. I was smaller than the other guys, I didn’t have any experience, and I got bullied.

I was introduced to football by my dad my ninth grade year at Southwest high school in Macon, Georgia. At first, I did not want to play. I thought it was a dumb game that wouldn’t make me happy.

My first day walking into the locker was different. The guys looked at me like I was lost, as if I was not meant to be there. Not knowing what position I would be good at playing, I still wanted to give it a shot. Surprisingly, they welcomed me with open arms, and did not judge me too harshly.

My teammates pushed me hard every day to be better. Playing running back was a hard job, and of course, every now and then, I made a mistake and beat myself up over it, but one thing I learned about football is we are a family. My teammates never laughed at me when I made a mistake. They just told me what I did wrong and how to fix it.

After the first four games of being with the team, I came to love the sport and wanted to take it seriously. Every day, I tried to be one of the first guys out there practicing, looking over the playbook, and taking every opportunity given.

Things started to change when I learned I had scoliosis and needed surgery. That was one of the hardest things, knowing I had worked so hard trying to play the sport and my career might end before I had the chance to start after my scoliosis surgery and numerous checkups.

My surgeon said it was possible to continue playing football, but only if I did the right things in therapy and stayed consistent. That motivated me to work as hard as I could to get healthy and finish where I started.

My high school experience was a little different than other students. I went to five different high schools with my dad. My sophomore year, I was at a new high school in Georgia. My experience was not the same as at my old high school. The school was smaller, the students were aggressive, and the environment just was not meant for me.

The coach at my new school was different. He didn’t care much about his players, nor did he care about their health, which made things a little harder for me. I felt I did not belong there. My teammates down-talked me. I was used in practice as a hitting dummy and harassed after every practice by teammates.

Every night, I went home sore, beat up, and not myself. I felt miserable going to school there and playing football. There were many times I just wanted to quit and leave the school, but I kept trying to get better and come to school with a positive mindset.

After six weeks of not seeing any playing time, I decided to quit the football team. That decision was one of my hardest because I had worked so hard to get back into playing football. I decided to keep training, get better at my position, and stay healthy until it was time to play again.

This is a photo of Justin Butts.

After my sophomore year and entering my junior year, I decided to give football another chance with a new coach. I thought it would be a different experience, and the football players would be different.

It turned out to be even worse than my sophomore year. I felt like another body for the starters to hit around during practice and wasn’t taken seriously. I felt like I deserved a chance to get more reps with the starters and playing time. Sometimes I felt I could do the same thing the starters could, but nothing worked in my favor.

During my junior year, I stuck with the team for the rest of the season. I knew deep down that the school was not the school for me, and I wanted new scenery.

After my junior year was over, I enrolled at my local high school to try out for their football team my senior year. Things seemed to be going right for me there. I was with guys I grew up with and was comfortable around. I finally had a chance to get more playing time.

I had a chance to be the wing back and have a serious role. I felt like I had a lot to prove and a lot on my shoulders because I’d never had a serious role before.

My new coach was a character. He had the same mindset as my second coach. He didn’t care very much about how you felt, your health, or anything. He just wanted you to play, and if you could not, then you could “kick rocks.” At the time, I didn’t care very much because I just wanted to play and do what I needed to do to keep my job.

During the summer, I was a running back. This made things a little hard because I’m used to running and not catching. I made numerous mistakes because I wanted to go full speed. I dropped passes, made the wrong blocks, and got confused with the wrong plays.

At the time, the school needed to win to make the playoffs. This made things even harder for me because I had only played football for a short period. I stayed after practice every day to learn the plays with my coaches so I could show them I’m worth taking a shot on.

My coaches’ attitudes made that hard because they were so harsh. I did not give up because I wanted to make it happen. Finally, our spring game was around the corner, and it was time to shine and win my spot. With all the excitement, I felt like a rookie again, and I made regretful mistakes that ruined my chances of getting playing time.

I did not stress because I felt like there was more time for me to improve and get better after the spring game. I wanted to get more exposure and went to as many football camps as I could. Little did I know, attending one football camp would change my life in a big way.

I was invited to attend Presbyterian College, a division school, to gain exposure and learn what it takes to play college football. After a successful camp, I gained confidence, but my confidence was shot down again by my coach. I was told my playing would be deducted, and I didn’t have what it takes to be a starter.

That made me feel like I wasn’t good enough to play anymore, until my dad said a new school he was working at needed football players in different positions. I thought this was a sign from God to keep going and not give up. So, I took on another challenge and ran with it.

Me leaving Baldwin County was one of the best things I could have done for myself academically and athletically. I transferred to Dooly County High School in Vienna, Georgia, a school where athletes get exposure. Even the bench players got exposure. This school was a hot spot for recruits.

New coach Jimmy Hughes was the best coach you could ask for. For him to take a chance on me and build me back up was a game changer. I decided to change my position to corner to make my time in football last longer, and that was the best decision I could have made. I felt different as a player, and had more confidence than ever.

After a decent season with Dooly County, I had tons of schools, but unfortunately no offers. Two colleges offered to let me walk on their team and be an instant starter. Sadly, that road was not the road God wanted me to take. I went to a community college to focus on my academics, get bigger, faster, and stronger to transfer.

With my mindset and where I was in life, I wanted to compete at a high level in college. You only live once, and I want to do something people said I couldn’t. I got accepted to three SEC schools all in three days – Auburn University, Ole Miss and the University of Tennessee.

I chose Ole Miss out of the three because it felt like home and I might have a chance to pursue something most people would say is insane for a small town kid like me to do – play with the big boys without much experience. I feel like I have what it takes just like any other athlete, and I will take on the biggest challenge of my life during the spring.

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