The following is a column by Canyon football alum, former Minnesota Golden Gopher and current Canadian Football League receiver Drew Wolitarsky. In this two-part series, Wolitarsky explores how his youth in Canyon Country helped shape who he is today.
There is a philosophical question that remains at the top of most class discussions: Are we who we are because of how we are raised or by the genetic makeup we carry when we are born?
As an English graduate I regret to say that I missed that philosophy lecture, but when I reflect on my life and the upbringing I had, I realize that a lot of who I am came from the influence of my hometown.
I am a person who likes to write and has a slight obsession with the written word, and oftentimes I find myself using analogies to understand the wonderment that has accumulated in my life. The best way I have come to describe my life thus far is through the life of an eagle.
An infant eagle grows up in a nest and is fed by its mother until it is old enough and strong enough to fly, but the baby bird does not know when it is strong enough. In fact, the baby bird will stay in the nest for its whole life if it doesn’t have to move. It is the mother eagle’s job to literally push her young from the nest and trust that nature, in all its practice, will see the young bird fly.
My life has been a collection of these “nestings” and whenever I go to a new state or foreign country I am somehow surrounded by the finest people who welcome me into their homes, teach me of their trades and share valuable information and stories of their own experiences.
One of these people who had a huge impact on me was Jibri Hodge, my receiver coach/academic advisor (ask him what subject I was better in), a man who wanted to see me use my gifts to get an education, but not only that. He wanted to see me achieve something I never thought I could do, and he knew the formula: keep me up when I was down, and never let me get too high.
I remember the day after one of my biggest games in high school. I came into film feeling good, on top of the world, and he said to me, “You caught the ball well, but you’re blocking SUCKED!” I thought he was crazy, and honestly, it made me angry.
But how true is that? I was so inclined to see myself in a way where I couldn’t do wrong, where no mistake was my own. That was the illusion I used to live in, and it took me several years to accept that I had aspects of my life that I needed to work on.
When I was able to do that, to accept fault, it was amazing how easy it became to take useful criticism and apply it to my life and work. When I became honest with myself, I saw the weaknesses that I was hiding from and instead of pushing them off and pretending they weren’t there, I worked on them and reaped the reward from embarking on that difficult task of self-honesty. These are the kinds of people who allowed me to reflect on myself and helped me separate from my personal bias to see that I had ample room to improve.
Of course, it’s not only the people I remember, but the scents and the sights, too. The trips to In-N-Out Burger at midnight, spending my childhood fortune—of five dollars—at the ice cream truck buying stink-bombs and cap-guns in the necessity of playing ‘good guys’ vs. ‘bad guys’. And one doesn’t live in Santa Clarita without experiencing the hundred degree-plus summers that seem to never end.
Of all these things, though, there is always one particular smell that ties me to my hometown, and whenever I take in a breath of it, my early memories come flooding back:
Fresh cut grass.
Ironically, when I first began playing flag football, I used to stand at the line of scrimmage, and instead of partaking in the play I would pick at the grass and wiggle whatever tooth was loose at that time.
Eventually, I had to be bribed by my father to pull the other kids’ flags. He would pay me a quarter for each one that I snatched. Once that deal was struck, my father saw a vast improvement in my performance. Needless to say, the eagle was not at all ready to jump from the nest.
The grass reminds me of my family’s backyard where my brothers and I grew up playing football in the yard; at the end of each side was one tree signaling the end zone. That 60 feet of grass was where I began my ascent, where I competed with my two older brothers who had as much sympathy as a couple of wolves.
We played on that yard until I was old enough to take my abilities into the outside world, against kids from different neighborhoods and schools.
I was 10 years old when I started playing tackle football and I fell into the hands of the Canyon Country Cowboys (more recently known as the CC Outlaws). We started off with a newer staff and we didn’t win more than two games, but there was something special about the group that we had.
We were practicing on one of the Sierra Vista baseball fields and for some reason there was a span of weeks where we had no light. Whether it was because the lights weren’t programmed right or they were broken, I never knew, but we practiced with these generated flood lights that one of the parents had brought from their work.
So there we were, the youngest, most inexperienced team in the division, practicing under flood lihhts. Talk about finding a way. It would have been easy to cut practice short and go home, but our coaches didn’t see it that way, and they never gave in. We practiced and we lost and did it again the next week, and lost again, but we didn’t quit, and that was the greatest lesson I took from that team: to never let external things take me out of the running. If ever I was going to lose, it would be because of me and no other factor.
That same team, with the exception of some additional players, became one of the most dominant teams in Outlaw history, winning two ‘Superbowls’ in three years. Why? Because we didn’t quit, and when things didn’t go our way we didn’t cower or make excuses. We improvised and found a way to prepare. Notice I didn’t say win. I said prepare.
If there is one thing I have learned about the higher level of sports (this applies to any job), it’s that the men and women who have continued success are those who prepare the hardest. They do not rely on their natural gifts, they are never lazy and they are always honest and aware that there is someone else fighting for their job. I have seen many people fall victim to under-preparation, and most of the time it is not because they are lazy, but because they never had mentors that taught them how to focus their energy, or showed them what steps to take in order to improve. They were pushed from the nest and never prepped to fly.
I stated previously that my hometown influenced me to become the person I am today. I want to clarify that it wasn’t my hometown that inspired me, or believed in me. A place is only a place, a nest only a nest.
What made me question things, and encouraged me to prepare myself for the leap was not my hometown or my school or my home, but the people who made those places their responsibilities—who dedicated themselves to those institutions and all the parts of their jobs, no matter how hard I resisted. My success is owed to these people: my coaches, teachers, teammates, and family, all of whom played a key role in my development—nurturing all the different aspects of my life that would best suit me for my flight.
I could go on forever. It’s difficult to write about a place where all of my early memories were made. It would take me one-hundred pages to articulate growing up with the people in my life, and about my friends and mentors. But at the root of all these things is a hometown: the starting nest where I was born. The place where I had the privilege of coming into contact with many people who would eventually help push me from it.
These people fed me, strengthened me and forced me to fly; to feel the intense fear of leaving the comfort of home only to discover how strong my wings had become, and only then could I know the accomplishments I could achieve from that initial leap. The benefit of flying? The ability to look back and see how far you’ve traveled.
I see my hometown changing. Stores are coming and going, houses being built, and fires raging all around. But no matter how it looks my memories will remain, and the people who made my dream a reality will always have my respect and gratitude.
So I feel I must say ‘thank you’ to my hometown for introducing me to the people who taught me to never quit, and always try, so one day I could spread my wings and…well, you know how the story goes.