(Photo courtesy of Washington State Athletics)

Even though I always believed I could play at a high level, there was only one way to find out.

Back when I was still in Greenville, I posted Teddy Roosevelt's "Man In The Arena" speech on my Instagram page. The speech is profound, because the theme focuses on how it’s not about whether you win or lose, it's that you give it a shot. And when I graduated from ECU and decided to try and play one last season as a grad transfer, that was exactly what I was doing too.

I had considered playing at Alabama to compete for the starting job with Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts, but when I saw a phone called coming from Pullman's 509 area code, I thought this might be my chance.

I had been watching Mike Leach's teams since I was a kid, and I had always wondered what it would be like to play under his Air Raid offense. I got to East Carolina just after Ruffin McNeill and Lincoln Riley (two of Mike's former assistants) had just left, so I never got to play in that system in Greenville.

But when Coach Leach suddenly called, I finally had that opportunity. And for those who don't know about the system, Washington State passes the ball. A lot. It was a detail that Mike made sure I didn't miss.

"Would you like to lead the country in passing?"

It took me all of about ten seconds before I decided to commit to Washington State. I was going to become a Cougar.

 
 

(Photo courtesy of Washington State Athletics)

I never really tried to guess what God's plan for me was, or even if I was playing for the right school. I just thought wherever He puts me, I'm just going to do the best I can. I believe that He blesses the effort I put in, and if I got an opportunity, I would make the most of it.

The key word there, however, was opportunity. For several years, that was the one thing schools wouldn't provide.

When I graduated from Brandon High School near Jackson, Mississippi, I had no Division 1 offers. Zero. I was able to land a spot on the Troy football team, which is a D1 team in the Sun Belt Conference, but that wasn't on a football scholarship. It also wasn't the greatest of situations for me, because they had an established starter in Brandon Silvers. The year before I got there he broke the all-time NCAA record for completion percentage as a freshman, and since I was only a year behind him, it looked like I would have to wait three years to play.

So I put my transfer papers out there to see if there would be any takes, and nobody was willing to take a chance on me. So with few options left I decided to head over to Northwest Mississippi Community College. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I've ever made.

The facilities maybe weren't as big as D1 schools, and we weren't playing on national television, but I had a great time while I was there. I made some incredible friends on the team, and we were also winning. We made it to the National Championship Game, where we would face an undefeated Rochester team.

The thing was, our teammates believed in each other, and we played like it. The game wasn't even close...we won 66-13, and since the game was played in Mississippi, we got to celebrate in front of our fans. To this day it still remains one of my proudest moments as a football player, and the championship ring is resting on my bed back home in Brandon.

After the season ended I transferred to East Carolina so I could play at the D1 level, and I hoped to pick up right where I left off. As it turned out, I won more games in one season in community college than I did in two years at ECU. We went 3-9 my first year and followed it up with another 3-9 season, and at that point my career seemed to be going in the wrong direction.

It was around that time one of my old high school principals sent me the verse Galatians 6:9, which says "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up."

(Photo courtesy of East Carolina Athletics)

Getting that verse at that time was just a Godsend, and the timing could not have been any better. I was feeling down on myself, and to see that, it was just a reminder to keep plugging and keep doing what you're supposed to do, because at the right time God is going to reward your work.

I just had no idea that the turnaround would happen in such a big way.

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Thomas Hager