About the Author
DON YAEGER is a seven-time New York Times Best-selling author and longtime associate editor for Sports Illustrated. He has authored or coauthored 22 books, including projects with Walter Payton, John Wooden, Tug McGraw, Rex Ryan, and Michael Oher.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
With apologies to Dickens, the third weekend in April 1990 was the best of times . . . and it was the worst of times. One of the most improbable stories in the NFL—my story—goes back to April 22–23, 1990, the weekend of the NFL draft that year: two days of hell for me and my family. My beautiful mother, Rosemarie, invited the whole world to our little house in Kenilworth, New Jersey, to watch the draft.
And watch. And watch. And watch.
All twelve rounds of it. Minute after minute, my mom, my brothers Pete and Elio, and my then-girlfriend and now-wife Kathy (she’s been with me since high school) were watching as player after player got picked. Twelve rounds and 331 players, including seven of my teammates from the University of Pittsburgh who were selected. But not me. These days, the NFL has only seven rounds for the draft, and it’s a struggle to make the league if you’re undrafted. These days you might have two guys on the fifty-three-man roster each year who were undrafted. So think about it: back when I was coming out of Pitt, the league was taking like five rounds of guys who today would have a hard time getting drafted—and I still didn’t get taken.
This was like being the last kid picked on the playground. You know when you divide up teams and that last guy is there and the best guy says, “Whatever, we’ll take him”? That’s what my NFL draft weekend was like for me. I had been here before. Growing up, I was good in football, wrestling, and baseball. I was a good all-around athlete. Good, but not great. I wasn’t like The Natural when I was seven years old, like some of these guys. I was always bigger and stronger than most kids, so people thought I was older than I actually was. People would say, “Oh, you must be twelve.” I’m like, “No, I’m nine.” I also used to hang out with older kids because of my older brother Pete. And I also acted older. I didn’t back down from anybody, even when I got my ass kicked. I’d tell off the older kids, maybe flip them off. They’d chase me down, they’d beat me up, and then I’d tell them off again. I was a real smart-ass.
Anyway, when I was twelve, I was playing Little League baseball and they picked the all-star team. It came down to the last cut, and I didn’t make it. I was the first alternate or whatever they call it. So I walked home the whole way from the field along the railroad tracks that went by my house, crying my eyes out. I’m pissed, I’m embarrassed, I’m hurt, the whole thing. It was like that spark that we all get in our gut when we think nobody wants us. This burning desire goes off in you. At least it did with me. This was the first kind of defining moment for me. I got home, and we had a little pool in the back, so I washed my face off and then went inside. I never told my mom what happened. Then the coaches called up a few days later and told me, “Oh, this kid got hurt, you’re in, we need you.” I thought to myself, These SOBs didn’t pick me, okay, I’ll show them. I knew the other kids weren’t as good as me, so I had to go prove it.
Now, part of my problem up to then was that I was always thinking too much, being too careful. I was actually terrified to swing the bat. I don’t really know why. I wasn’t scared of the ball. I think I was just scared that I wouldn’t be perfect. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone; I thought, Let me just get a walk and I’ll be fine. My mother used to yell from the stands all the time, “Swing the bat!” Well, it turns out that’s probably why I didn’t get picked in the first place, and now I had to show these guys I was actually good enough, that I was actually better than everybody else. So in the second game we played, we had the bases loaded with two outs in the bottom of the last inning. The kid who was supposed to bat was having a horrible time. He had some problem, and he was like crying or something, and his mother was coming around going, “Honey, is something wrong? Are you okay, sweetie?” The problem was, he was kind of a mama’s boy, a pussy. Anyway, the coach looked at me and said, “Goose, you’re up next.” I was like, Holy crap, this is great. I get the helmet, I’m looking for my bat—I’m all jacked up. Before, I was a little scared to swing for whatever reason. Now, as I go up to the plate, I’m deciding I’ll swing as hard as I can at the first pitch: I ’m going to kill this ball. I get up there, the pitcher winds up, and I just remember how slow he seemed to bring the ball. He threw, and I think I probably closed my eyes and swung.
It’s like this awesome dream. There was this two-story building just past the right-field fence. It’s still there if you drive through town. When we were kids, that building was mythic. My brother’s friends used to talk about how nobody could ever hit the ball over that building. It was kind of like in that movie The Sandlot—how they talk about what it’s like to hit the ball into the junkyard in center field. Anyway, as the ball was coming, the moment was like something from a movie for me. Really, if the pitcher had thrown the ball over the backstop, I would have swung anyway, that’s how determined I was. I swung as hard as I could, and bam! I hit the ball. The ball cleared the building for a grand slam: the ultimate scenario. I remember coming around the bases and everybody was jacked up and excited. All the way around, I’m thinking, These assholes didn’t want to pick me. I can remember all the players and the coaches standing there at home plate as I turned third base and headed home. And that’s when I knew I could do this. It’s funny to think sometimes, what would have happened if I struck out? Would that one moment have completely changed me? Right then and there, that became the theme for my life. I know I can do this.
Ten years later, it’s all happening again as I wait for a chance to play in the NFL. To add a nice kick in the teeth, add the misery of practically every person in my family and every person in town stopping by at one time or another to look in on what’s going on. After a while, people don’t even ask, “Did he get drafted yet?” They come in, give that little pathetic smile like they don’t know what to say, and kind of move on. My mother is making macaroni the whole weekend and putting on a brave face, saying, “Don’t worry about him, he’s going to be okay.”
I even get a call from Jimmy Johnson in the middle of the whole thing. Jimmy, who I work with at FOX now, was coaching at Dallas, but I knew him from way before that. Jimmy was coaching at the University of Miami when I was in high school, and he recruited me. That’s a whole ’nother story I’ll get into later. Anyway, he calls me and says, “Hey, what’s going on?”—like I somehow have some answer for why I’m not getting drafted. I answer, “Nothing, what’s going on with you?” What am I supposed to say?
Here’s the funny part of that call. The reason Jimmy has called me is that he thinks I called him. As the draft is going on, some of my friends, including this guy Crazy Mike Carisino, start calling the Dallas Cowboys. The only thing is, they call claiming to be me and leave messages saying, “Jimmy, this is Tony Siragusa, you need to draft me!” Crazy Mike comes over, and I tell him that Johnson called. He tells me what he and the guys did. I’m like, what are you doing to me? He says back to me, “You should have told him to draft you.”
All the while, my older brother Pete and my younger brother Elio are getting more and more pissed off, but they’re not saying a thing. Kathy is there too, but she’s not letting it bother her. She’s just there to support me, comfort me. Talk about somebody who’s devoted. I know plenty of women from being in the league who wouldn’t have stuck around for that. She reminds me of that a lot. She says, “I was with you when you had nothing.”
Me, of course I’m pissed too, but I’m taking it all in, internalizing the whole thing. It’s like I’m just in a fog. Just the year before, I had lost my dad to a heart attack. And that was after spending a whole year away from football because of a knee injury. Then I went back to college and got jerked around by my coaches. Now, after all of that crap, one pick after another goes by, one round after another goes by, and I’m thinking, They took that freaking guy, are you kidding me? I get so fed up, I go to play golf at one point. Me, Kathy, and my brothers go to Weequahic Park Golf Course in Newark, New Jersey, and hit the ball around. I think I shot the best round of my life, like a 77 or something. I’m a wreck out there on the course, but I’m sinking putt after putt after putt. It was unreal.
Another time we go out in front of the house and play some basketball on the rim my dad put up on one of the trees way back in the day. We like to call the basketball court our “office,” where we go to work out any problems. Siragusa family basketball isn’t exactly artistic stuff, you have to understand. Me and my brothers were all really good high school wrestlers. I won a state title, Elio finished second, and Pete was actually probably the best of the three of us. Our game is no blood, no foul. We have a little tradition that we play when things are a little tense. This is a good day for that. We also played before all our weddings. Somebody usually ends up getting a bloody nose. It’s a mess.
After the draft was over, Pete brought me out to the garage and wanted me to start working out with the weights right then and there. He cleared out the whole garage and starts saying, “You gotta get ready, you gotta get ready to kill somebody when you get out there.” He was so angry because, for him, what I was doing was partly his dream too. My uncle Marty, my mom’s brother, was like that too. Half the town was like that. They were so pissed off, it was like it almost happened to them. They felt like they were getting slapped in the face after all their hard work to support me along the way. I felt that from them, and it was a good thing. It was pure support, pure love from people who really care about you and want to see you succeed.
The thing is that, as the draft unraveled, I was not letting anybody see me lose control. I wasn’t embarrassed, I was shocked. And then that spark started up again. I remember thinking at one point, What am I going to do now, work construction? I had a million scenarios playing out in my head. I used to work for another one of my uncles in construction, which I didn’t want to do, and he made sure to discourage me as much as possible. He would make me carry cinder blocks all day long and do other kinds of crazy shit just to discourage me from wanting to do that crap. Trust me, he got the message across. One thing was for certain—I wasn’t going to do that, at least not on those terms. If you want me to do something fun like build a man cave or open a restaurant, I’m all over it. But being a pack mule hauling cinder blocks? Oh, hell no.
Really, I felt more like I somehow let down everybody in my family and my neighborhood—all the people who helped me out. With me, family is the most important thing, and this hurt. The other part of me was also feeling that much stronger because I know this is the kind of support I have. I know who’s really behind me. I’ve known that my whole life. I’m going to get into my hometown in the next chapter, but let me just say here, that’s where my real strength comes from. Yeah, I’m six-foot-three, three-hundred-something pounds, and all that, but there’s plenty of big guys in the NFL. The difference is not how big and strong you are, it’s what’s behind you. It’s your foundation. My foundation is rock-solid: from my mom and late father, to my brothers, to everybody around me.
That’s why, even on one of my worst days, I didn’t lose sight of making it. This is when I’m at my best. I love it. I thrive on it. If you want to get me fired up, don’t pick me. Let me be the last kid picked. Bet against me—it’ll be the worst decision you ever made. It’s like I need somebody to bet against me. If everybody bets on my side, it’s a lot harder for me to concentrate. But when I’m the underdog, watch out. It’s like when I play golf and I’m in a foursome where the other three guys are scratch golfers. I’ll stay right with them, shot for shot. Then, when my team needs a big drive at the end, I’m the guy who will make it happen. Maybe all the other guys hit their shots in the woods, but I’ll come through with the shot right in the middle of the fairway.