TALES FROM THE COVER – PART 1
On Christmas Eve in 2007, a picture of me taken after the NAIA National Championship was chosen as the cover photo for the 2007 Year in Pictures edition of Sports Illustrated.
That’s quite a Christmas present. But not all Christmas presents turn out to be everything that you thought they were.
Sometimes the thing you thought you always wanted turns out to be a burden, something that follows you around wherever you go, and becomes entangled with your identity. This is that story.
I played football for a small private college in Helena, MT. It was a school of about 1200 students at that time, in the town that I grew up in.
Helena is a great place. Nestled in a beautiful valley east of the Continental Divide, Helena is great for outdoors-minded people (there are 3 lakes within a half-hour drive, mountains galore, hiking, fishing, skiing), and Helenans definitely love their sports. I feel very fortunate to have grown up there.
We lived just south of town, in Clancy where I went to elementary school. For high school I went into the big city (of about 40,000 people), where I graduated from Helena High in 2005. I had offers to play football for much bigger schools, both in state and around the northwest, but I turned them down for Carroll College for two reasons.
- When I went to visit Carroll, the upperclassman were incredibly nice, welcoming, and friendly. It wasn’t like other places I had visited, where you go on a tour, meet a couple players that are forced to come talk to you, get shuffled around like sheep, and head home. I felt like the Carroll players and coaches were genuinely interested in getting to know me outside of football, and took the time to connect with us as recruits.
- They win. A lot. When I was recruited to Carroll, they had just won their third National Championship in a row. That’s a pretty fucking strong recruiting tool. I’m not going to say that wasn’t a deciding factor for me, because it was. There was something special about Carroll College. I could feel it. Coach VanDiest came to my house and school numerous times recruiting me, and told me that he wanted me to play as a true freshman. That was a deciding factor for me as well.
So, in true Brandon fashion, I waited until the last day and decided to attend Carroll College and play for the Fighting Saints.
Freshman Year – Holy Shit
My true freshman year began in the fall of 2005. I was late for the bus for the first away game in Eastern Oregon. Idiot. Luckily they didn’t leave me, and I ended up with 8 tackles (1 for loss) in my first collegiate game. That season was incredible.
I don’t know any specific numbers, but that team just destroyed the competition. We had two close games and the rest we won by 20+ points. We played a bitter rival in Souix Falls (SD) in the semifinals at home, winning that game 55-0. We were on a fucking roll.
The National Championship was played in Savannah, TN against another perennial powerhouse. St. Francis (IN). I’ll never forget one play from that game. Coach VanDiest had a way with players. If you fucked up, you heard about it, and he had no qualms pulling your ass off the field in dramatic fashion no matter what down it was, or what part of the game we were in.
Well something happened with the guy I was backing up. I don’t know what, but Coach didn’t like it. He pulled him out, and screamed at me to get my ass on the field. It’s 4th and 3. It’s the second half and the game is still close. St. Francis is threatening with the ball in our territory. I’m freaking the fuck out. I run in as Gary Cooper, our leader and a guy I really look up to gives me the play and tells me, “if that gap opens up, you fucking GO!!!”. Okay. Got it. Ten thousand things are running through my mind at this point. Then the ball snaps. Everything else fades away. The gap opens. I fucking go. I smash into the running back in the backfield, hold on for dear life, and tackle him for a loss. Turnover on downs.
I don’t remember much from that game, but I’ll never forget that moment. That’s what you play for.
Sophomore Year – Facing Defeat
The ’06 season was tough. It was my first year as a starter, and it was the first time I tasted defeat in my college career. When you get so used to winning, two things can happen.
You start to expect to win. When we went into a game, we expected that whatever adversity we faced, we were going to come out on top. This wasn’t a cocky, over-confident expectation, but a trust in the guys next to you that they were going to take care of their responsibilities unselfishly to get the job done. Winning can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You also can become terrified of losing. When you are winning all the time, even the thought of losing can send you into a mini panick, and if you’re not careful, everything becomes about not losing instead of winning. This is a big destinction. If you play not to lose, you’re going to go down and even when you win, it doesn’t bring the same joy.
You can still lose when you play to win, but playing to win puts you on a higher plane. You can feel good about your effort when you play to win because you know that you gave everything, and you did it for the right reasons. And winners don’t blame others. Winners take responsibility for their own shit.
In the 2006 season, we got beat. Hammered actually. Beat by a better team, on that particular day. The score was close up in Havre, but it didn’t feel that close on the field. MSU-Northern came to play that day at Blue Pony Stadium. They beat us physically and they played with more fire and passion than we were used to seeing outside of our own locker room.
That loss set the tone for the rest of the season. We would have a chance to play Northern for a third time that season in the playoffs, and it would seem that we were back to our old ways, winning that game by a good margin. But we weren’t. Something was off. That certain feeling was gone. It’s hard to explain, but there is a feeling that permeates everything and everyone that is a part of it with a sense that you are all part of something bigger than yourself. The feeling that collectively you all have a higher purpose and that destiny is right there waiting for you, all you have to do is reach out and take it.
That feeling was gone. Some would call it a collective consciousness or group flow. Everyone is responsible for contributing to the flow. I put a lot of blame on myself for the hardships of this season.
In my personal life, things were not going well. I got dumped by my high school sweetheart at the beginning of the ’06 season. Looking back, what I should have done was to confide in my teammates and open myself up fully to them and accept their comfort and connection. But that’s hard to do with a group of badass dudes that beat the shit out of each other every day and pride themselves on strength and “toughness”.
So I took a much more destructive route. I started drinking heavily. It was not uncommon for me to get a handle of cheap vodka, drink alone in my apartment until I blacked out and fell asleep, skip all of my classes the next day, head to practice, go home and start the process over.
I was disconnected from it all. The school, myself, my friends and teammates, and especially from any kind of higher purpose or group flow. I was so deep into this fucking awful cycle of depression, self-loathing, self-destruction, and victimization that I couldn’t connect what was happening to me to what was happening to our team. But they were one in the same. After the loss to Northern, we had lost ouselves.
We all tried to deny it to ourselves and we were still hopeful, but it was never more clear than in the quarterfinals game against St. Xavier (IL). It was a cold day, winds howling and snow falling faster than the shovels could clear. The energy was off. You could feel it in the way that you can feel when your parents are disappointed in you. They don’t have to say anything, but you know you fucked up.
We played hard. We gave everything we had in that game, but the things that usually go our way, didn’t. When it was all said and done, we lost in the quarterfinals of the 2006 playoffs 14-7, and I stood on the field crying for a solid 15 minutes. I cried about the loss, sure, but more than that I cried about my life, the loss of my purpose, of my connection to my teammates and all of the destructive shit I was putting myself through.
I felt awful. I felt awful, but in a different way than I had over the course of the season. This feeling was not focused on myself. It wasn’t about me anymore. I felt so bad for the seniors that had just played the last game of football they would every play. There won’t be any pick-up games of football or rec leagues. The thing about the game of football is, when you’re done, you’re done. It’s over. I still had two years of playing time left. The seniors were retired and I felt responsible for letting them down.
My struggles were amplified over Christmas break when my roommates left without saying much (I don’t blame them, I’m grateful they hung it out with me as long as they did). I was really depressed and didn’t leave my Mom’s house for a couple weeks. When school began again, I missed some classes and practices and was seriously considering transferring to another school. I wanted a fresh start.
That all changed when Coach came to my Mom’s house. I thought I had been pretty good at concealing my depression, but Coach wasn’t buying it. He showed up one afternoon and I was still laying in bed, which I had been doing for a couple weeks at that point. When he walked into the room, without anyone saying a word, I instantly felt a change. Just the thought of him seeing the condition I was in made me feel ashamed. I couldn’t hide anymore. We talked for about an hour, and the jist is, he helped me realize that everything that I need to get my shit together and get my life back on track was right here. The team needed me, and I needed them.
Junior Year – Holy Shit (x1000)
Going in to my junior year at Carroll, things were starting to settle. I felt more comfortable in my role as a defensive leader. My focus had shifted back to what was important for me in my life at the time, football.
But before the we reported for fall camp, I lost a very important person in my life. My Grandfather, Howard Day was an amazing man. He was stoic, yet very compassionate, and had a great sense of humor. A WWII veteran, Grandpa Howie worked in the mines of Butte, MT as a young man, during times when the word “rough” just doesn’t do it justice. He hauled heavy machinery for many years after the war to feed his family. The man worked harder than anyone I’ve ever known, and I never heard him complain. Not once.
Howard Day died in July of 2007, and it rocked me. His passing was very hard, but nothing compared to the shame and regret that I feel about the last time that I saw my Grandfather.
The 4th of July in Bigfork, MT is a big deal. The town triples in size, and everyone comes out for the party. Fireworks in the Bigfork Bay, concerts and camping downtown, the fourth of July parade. It’s really a fantastic time of year, and as a 20-year-old kid, I was all about it.
I asked the family if I could have a few friends camp out in Grandma’s yard for the 4th, becuase my Grandparent’s house was in the perfect location. A short walk up the hill from all the bars, and away from everyone else that would be overcrowding the campgrounds by the river.
Grandpa Howard’s health was declining faster than I had realized however, and I acted completely selfishly in those days. My priority was on enjoying the moment, drinking all night with my friends, and climbing trees in the Garden Bar and jumping off the downtown bridge at 3am.
We stayed in the tent that night, woke up to brutal hangovers and even a random girl and puke in the tent. A lot of the family was there in the morning, and Grandma was nice enough to make everyone breakfast.
I went inside to see Grandpa Howard after breakfast, which would be the last time. He was very weak, and hadn’t been speaking much lately. When I sat with him, all I was thinking about was the massive hangover I had. I never fully allowed myself to accept the situation for what it was. My Grandfather was dying.
I told him about summer almost being over and the upcoming season, and I told him about the previous night and some of the shenanigans we got into. He very slightly turned his head towards me and locked onto my eyes. There was a sparkle there in his eyes, and a very tiny little smile came across his face. I’ve held onto that image in my mind since that moment, and it’s one of my fondest memories of my Grandfather. But I will always be troubled with the way that I handled that situation. I wish I could go back and spend every waking moment by his side, but I chose to be selfish and chase the party. My addiction to avoidance of feeling anything at all made me lose out on those precious moments at the end of my Grandfather’s odyssey.
From the very start of fall camp in 2007, we knew we had something special, again. Defensively, we were stacked. I mean we were fucking LOADED. We had some serious talent on both sides of the ball and I know I played defense so I’m biased, but holy shit. We knew we were good, and we were itching to prove ourselves after a quick departure in ’06.
From Game 1, we dominated. Just to give you an idea of how dominant our defense was in ’07, we didn’t have a touchdown scored on us until a fake field goal in the 8th game of the season. That still blows my mind to this day. And the thing about it was, Coach VanDiest always preached that no team, no matter the record, the talent, or what happened last time, would ever be overlooked. We played every week like we had something to prove, and we kept the gas on, full-fucking-throttle all year.
At around the halfway point in the season I was slapped with another twist of fate. My Grandpa Dale shed his mortal coil and moved on to the next stage. Grandpa Dale was the other most amazing man in my life, like my Dad, and like Grandpa Howard.
Dale Gullings was a business owner, a father of 5, and the most fun-loving and sincere person I’ve known. He said very little (those who know me can see where I get it now) which made what he did say very important, and usually profound. If it wasn’t profound, then it was usually completely silly and hilarious.
I left practice early on a Friday, to be by his side as he passed on that night. I would not make the same mistake twice. I loved my Grandfathers more than I would have ever dared to admit. As I held my Grandpa Dale’s hand as he passed away, I felt something. Sadness, sure, but also something akin to pride or purpose. I think a part of me had to grow up at that moment, had to step up and become a man. It would take me years to fully realize this, and don’t let me fool you, I’m still figuring out how to be that man, but I know that feeling. It was a big moment for me.
I drove back to Helana from Great Falls that night to make the game the next morning.
Stay tuned for tales from the rest of the ’07 season and beyond in Part 2.