(Photo courtesy of WVU Athletics)

When I was just a sophomore in high school, I became a dad.

I had met the most incredible girl in Candace. She was three years older than me, but I worked up the courage to ask her out, and one thing led to another. I just didn't think that would lead all the way to fathering her baby at that stage in my life.

My grandma got pregnant when she was a teenager, my mom got pregnant when she was a teenager, and now at just 16 years old I was suddenly going to become a father as well. My grandma was still in her 50s and she was already a great-grandmother. It was only three years earlier I had said goodbye to my last biological parent, and now I was supposed to become a parent myself.

It wasn't just overwhelming for me, it was overwhelming for Candace as well. But Candace showed me what unconditional love looks like. She stuck with me and decided to raise the baby, and she also stuck around when I became a father for the second time...with a different girl.

Cheating was a huge mistake, but my son was a blessing. Candace also forgave me and helped me to forgive myself. If I wanted to know what God's unconditional love looks like, all I had to do was look at Candace. So by this point, as I'm dealing with the loss of both my parents and my friend, I was trying to go to school, provide for two kids, and keep a relationship with Candace alive...all before I had reached my junior year of high school.

Thank God I had football.

 
 

(Photo courtesy of WVU Athletics)

In a chaotic world I was living in, football was an escape from my problems. Off the field I was developing a reputation, but when I put those pads on, I felt like I was doing something right. I was bench pressing 315 pounds as a freshman, and when fall camp started before my freshman season, I realized I might be alright at football...The coach split the players into the freshmen, jv, and varsity teams, and as everyone started to part ways, he told me to stay with the varsity. That was kind of the eye opener for me.

I guess he knew what he was doing, because on my very first run, playing against guys three years older than me, I took it 80 yards for a touchdown. On my second carry I took it to the end zone again, only to find out one of my feet had grazed the sideline. But my career was officially off to the races.

With Candace cheering me on, my high school career began to flourish. I ran for 6,893 yards and 78 touchdowns in my career. I even became a YouTube sensation, and was listed as the top running back in the country.

 
 

I was a "Five-star" recruit and started to get mail every day. Alabama. Florida State. Nebraska. USC. These programs had combined for 36 National Championships, and they all wanted to have me on their side.

It seemed like football was my path towards a better future...Especially when Deion Sanders entered the picture to adopt me.

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Thomas Hager