(Photo courtesy of the Green Bay Packers)
To give you an idea of how much people in Green Bay love their team, I hadn't even stepped foot outside yet and I already had people cheering me on. When I landed at Austin Straubel Airport in Green Bay, I had people greeting me and asking for my autograph. For an athlete that struggled to even land a workout, it felt pretty nice to be welcomed like that.
And if I didn't sense that I was in Green Bay from the fans, I could quickly tell when I took Packerland Drive to get to Lambeau Field. The town is small, but for a kid from Florence, South Carolina, it felt like home.
Of course, if I truly wanted it to be home, I was going to have to make the team.
I remember when I had my first practice with Aaron Rodgers, I was like a child. I kept replying “Yes, sir” to everything he said until he finally told me I didn't have to call him that. He treated me like I was an NFL player before I ever signed a real contract, and because of that I started to act like one.
I played well enough to earn a spot on the practice squad, and even though that meant I didn't get to play on Sundays, I was still on the team. Then my next year, I survived the first round of roster cuts, and then the next. On September 1, when the Packers announced their 53-man roster, my name was on it. I had made the cut.
I was going to get to live out my dream of playing in the NFL. I just had no idea that dreams can sometimes turn into nightmares.
As I sat in the locker room after the NFC Championship game, I tried to hide. The lockers in Seattle are really deep, and I was just hoping people would forget about me. That didn't happen, by the fans or the media.
The Packers PR representative told me I didn't have to do the interviews if I didn’t want, but something told me I needed to do it. It was probably just as awkward for the reporters asking the questions as it was for me answering them. In some ways it felt like I was facing embarrassment head on, but in order to really do that I would have to check my social media.
That’s when I realized just how big of a deal this was to some people.
I received death threats. People called me the N-Word. People were saying the meanest, most hurtful things they could think of. I had gone from anonymity to the most hated person on the team in one play. People felt like I had personally taken their Super Bowl dreams and shattered them.
It was so bad that the NFL offered me resources to make sure everything was okay, but I declined.
In some ways, what actually hurt was the phone calls with my parents, or lack thereof. My emotions went on a downward spiral in the aftermath of that game. My parents would check in occasionally to see how I was doing, and behind the phone I would tell them I was fine. But my mom wasn't looking me in the eye as I told her that.
I was so down on myself that I had two options with my parents. I could either lie to them and say I was doing great, or not speak to them so I didn't have to lie. And neither was a good option.
When we got back to Green Bay, my assistant coach Sam Gash gave me a number and told me to give this person a call. Listed next to the number was the name Earnest Byner, who I soon discovered had been through the same thing as me.