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Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Uber Diaries: Respect the Grind

(Note: This is a story I wrote for an upcoming book. This one didn't make the final cut, but I still like it.)

Pickup: Sentinel Hotel

The passenger is average height, but an athletic build. He gets into the van with a duffel bag I assume is luggage. I swipe the app to reveal the destination and am a little surprised he’s not headed to the airport. Instead, he’s going to the Nike employee store, so I break out my standard joke for that destination.

“So, are you prepared to lose your NCAA eligibility over this?”

He chuckles a little bit and says, “Yeah, I think I’m okay.”

There is a bit of reality in that joke. At the entrance to the Nike employee store there’s a sign that says, in effect, shopping at the store constitutes receiving a gift from Nike and shopping there could result in a loss of NCAA eligibility.

For most people, that sign isn’t much of a problem. First, it is extraordinarily hard to get an entry pass to the store. Columbia Sportswear and Adidas have employee stores in the Portland area and it’s not hard to figure out how to shop there if you do a little digging. But with Nike, you have to know someone who works there and bring photo ID and proof of current address such as a utility bill. So it’s almost impossible anyone could stumble into the store and, say, accidentally get kicked off the Duke basketball team.

Second, as a percentage of the population, there aren’t all that many people with enough talent to be college athletes. Many people harbor dreams of competing at that level, and most will have to give up those dreams one day. You usually don’t get anything as a reward when you give up your dreams of playing college football. But if you shop at the Nike employee store, at least you get half-price sneakers in exchange.

The passenger is well dressed and looks as if he could easily afford to pay full price for his sneakers. After some prodding, he admits he plays for the NFL. He’s a running back and has been in the league for about 8 years.

It’s April and I ask a few questions about how much training you have to do in the off-season (answer: a lot, it’s pretty much a year-round thing) and then I ask another question:

“You make your living playing a game. It’s a difficult game, to be sure, but it’s a game. And I’m assuming you started playing that game because it was fun. Now that you’ve been doing it as your job for 8 years, how much of it is still fun.”

He thinks for a moment and begins telling a story:

“When you’re a rookie in the NFL, yeah, there’s some hazing, but when you step out there on that field on Sunday morning, it’s as cool as you would imagine it would be. In fact, it’s cooler than that. When you walk out there for the first time… every kid dreams of that, and now you’re there. And it’s cooler than you’d imagine.

“However, if you’re not careful, you can start to become ungrateful. You’ll start to take it for granted, and you can get a bad attitude.”

When the ride ended, I Googled my passenger and discovered he was drafted in the first round and had a few great seasons. Then he got injured and lost a whole season. When he came back the next year, he had lost his form. But he kept improving and, in the season that had ended a few months earlier, he had completed a career-year and was on his way to becoming his team’s all-time leading rusher. I didn’t know this at the time, but it makes sense when you hear the rest of his story.

He continued:

“But if you’re lucky, you can push through that bad attitude and get some of that gratefulness back. And that’s where I am now. It’s a grind, but I see it as a thing that gets me back out onto that field each Sunday. And here’s the thing, it’s still as cool as ever to be out there. That doesn’t go away.

“Now don’t get me wrong, I hate practice. And you would not believe how many boring meetings we have to go to. So is it still a grind? Yes. But now, I respect the grind.”

He hits this punchline just as we’re pulling into the driveway of the Nike Store. He had managed to tell a good story with a beginning, middle, and end, and managed to make it end at the perfect time. And when I see that, I can only have one reaction.

“Wow, you’ve had media training, haven’t you?”

He just smiles and gives a slight nod.

“I can tell you, they got you the good stuff.”

He walks away and eventually vanishes into the Nike Store. Nine months later, he will score a touchdown in the Super Bowl.

Dropoff: Nike Employee Store, Beaverton

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