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The Difference Between Easy Money and Earned Money

Everyone’s heard the story about the lottery winner who ends up broke a few years later.  In my case, the lottery winners grew up in my home town.  Everyone in my high school knew them.  And the story came true.  While I enlisted in the Navy, these brothers made more money than anyone in our town could dream of.  But twenty years later, they’re back where they came from.  Here’s the story. 

Why I Loved (and Hated) Football Growing Up 

I’m from a small town, just outside of Tampa.  When I was a little kid, I wanted to play football so badly.  But I was a little kid, with asthma, so no one wanted me to get hurt.  My grandmother made me play soccer instead.  I hate soccer.  And truth be told, telling a little kid with asthma to go run around chasing a soccer ball for 60 minutes seems a little counterintuitive.  Especially when you just told him he couldn’t play football because you didn’t want him to have an asthma attack on the football field.  Soccer field, okay. 

Instead, I grew up watching our high school class do some amazing things.  When I was a freshman, I was awed at all the upperclassmen.  But as we became the upperclassmen, it was amazing to watch my peers start demolishing the competition.  And our senior year was the crowning achievement.  Our football team crushed every single team en route to securing our schools first (and only) state high school football championship.  And there were two key players to this magical season.  They were brothers. 

Everyone from my town knows who they are.  But for their sake, I’ll just call them ‘D’ and ‘T.’  D was in my class, while T was two years behind.  D was the starting linebacker on a squad that allowed just over 8 points per game.  T was the tailback and a completely unstoppable force.  These two also played basketball and ran track.   

In fact, the most athletic feat that I’ve ever seen in person was during a basketball game.  One of our players made a shot that clanked off the rim.  As it sailed away from the basket, one head rose above the crowd hustling for the rebound.  While everyone was jockeying for position, D had, in one motion, jumped from somewhere near the free throw line, singlehandedly snatched the ball from the air, and dunked the ball with authority.  In the era of Jordan, that was the most athletic move I had ever seen in person.  By a high school junior! 

Life Goes On 

After a magical high school football season, everyone went their own ways.  Most people went to college, especially from our star-studded football team.  The brothers each went to college with NFL expectations.  As for me, well I had signed up for the Navy 2 weeks before my senior year.  So, a month after graduation, I was gone.   

As my Navy career progressed, I would keep tabs on the brothers.  They each had their ups and downs in college.  While they served for prolific coaches such as Steve Spurrier and Lou Holtz, they also were dismissed from their teams due to conduct, work ethic, and performance issues.  I can’t cast judgment.  My days as a junior enlisted man were often hazy ones, with many adventures of my own.  This Leatherneck post, “You know you were stationed at Camp Lejeune if…” outlines some of my favorites: 

  • You have to sit through a three hour safety brief and then fill out a five page questionnaire just to get off for the weekend. It doesn't matter though, because five of your friends still get charged with alcohol related offenses. 
  • You've had to quit drinking to go to work 
  • You have driven over 1000 miles one way in a weekend just to party 
  • The OOD wakes you up naked on the company lawn after a barracks party. He makes you police call for the rest of the day in exchange for not logging you in 
  • A majority of the people you know are paying 15%+ interest on their new cars and dont know that's a bad thing 

And yes…each of those has happened to me.  Eventually, I stumbled through, got my act together, and carried on with my career. 

But the brothers…they never got called out on their dumb stuff.  Instead, they each got drafted, D in the late 90’s and T in 2000.  And they both played for the Dallas Cowboys.  In fact, D was the starting linebacker for 4 years.  And T, he was the heir apparent to Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith.  And they each had contracts paying them around $500,000 per year.   

I’m going to let that sink in a little.  $500K is about what I made over the first ten years of my officer career, according to my Social Security statements. 

So what happened? 

In my case, I met a great woman, settled down, and started living the way I should have.  After a fulfilling career, we settled down with a well-earned pension.  We’re raising our children and growing our business on our terms.  But we worked hard, sacrificed, and planned to get to where we currently are. 

In the brothers’ case, they kept living large until the NFL chewed them up and spit them back out.  They bounced around a couple of teams, but each of their careers lasted about 5 years or so.  They probably earned a couple of mil each, but I don’t know if they have anything to show for it.  However, I’m sure their stories put mine to shame in comparison.   

I’d heard stories about how low things got.  One of them did a 5-year prison stint for selling drugs.  They’re probably not very welcome in Dallas any more.  And the last I heard, they were both back home, doing what people do, and telling stories about the glory days.   

What’s all this mean? 

Potential:  When I look at the brothers, I see the waste of so much God-given athletic potential.  For me, it was a little different.  When I was in high school, people used to think I was pretty smart.  And some of them were pretty upset at me for seemingly wasting what seemed to be a good opportunity to go to college.  It took me a while, but I understood, and started living up to that potential.   

Humility:  But it took me getting humbled a little bit.  I used to get pretty full of myself listening to people tell me how smart I was.  I was a stand-out in a pretty small, rural school.  I never had to work hard for my grades.  Then I went to the Naval Academy.  There, I was just a knuckle-dragger.  We had a professor who stopped class one day, then bet the class that he could perform calculations faster than anyone else.  They would tell him the problem, such as the square root of 245,793,456, and he would have written it on the board, rounded to the thousandth, before they even finished punching it into the calculator.  And the Academy was full of people like that.   

Hard work:  The Navy’s officer corps is filled with people who are ridiculously smart and busting their butts every day!   So I knew that a) I wasn’t as smart as I thought, and b) even the smart people work hard, so I have to work extra hard!   

I learned all of this, eventually.  I had my fun.  But I was lucky.  I started with some potential, was humbled early in my career, and realized that hard work was the only way to succeed.  And where I am now, I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

The brothers never learned any of this.  They only had potential.  But they didn’t work hard to take advantage of it.  And they certainly weren’t humble about it.  They relied on their natural talent for so long, they were never forced to work hard.  And when they got to the top, they didn’t really want to work to keep their edge.  So finally, by the time they noticed that they needed to work hard just to keep up, the NFL just blew right by them.   

Conclusion 

The funny thing about money is this:  It largely follows the decisions you make.  When you’ve got potential and are on top of the world, it seems like the money never runs out.  If you stay focused, humble, and work hard, it’s likely to stay that way.  But if you waste that potential, you’ll probably wake up one day to find your money gone, too. 

But in my experience, the people who are most rewarded are the folks who weren’t really ever recognized for their ‘potential.’  Since they started from humble roots, all they had was their ability to work hard.  Hard work, applied properly for a long enough time, will produce more long-term wealth than short spurts of amazing talent.  Every time.   

I still fondly look back at the good old days.  After all, I joined the Navy to see the world and eventually retired to the next county over.  I’ve got high school friends that I regularly see.  And there are some things that I regret, or things that I wish I had done better in my youth.  But overall, I’d like to think that my best days are ahead of me, not behind me.   

What is your best high school memory? When did you learn humility and the value of working hard? Shoot us an e-mail because we want to hear your story. 

 

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