There was a time where I would be watching TV, and once a commercial would come on I'd drop to the floor and do a countless number of push-ups. My arms would be dead tired but I would keep going. I used to skip public transportation and walk over a mile every day after school my 9th grade year to make it to football workouts at McKinley Tech. Some nights and/or Saturday mornings I would go to the field by myself and run through plays as if I was in the middle of a game. I called out formations, blitzes, etc. Just me and 110 yards worth of green turf. The number of times I ran sprints over and over again because I thought I was too slow. The amount of weights I lifted every day because I was too small. The amount of film I would study because I didn't know the game enough was all to be the best player to step on the field. I wanted it, so I put the work in. I had a passion and a dream, and I chose to never let it go.
It took a while for me to finally play organized team football because my mother feared that I would get hurt. She used to sit on the porch of our house and watch me play in the street, so that was enough for her. I remember the times she would watch I would run extra hard, jump higher, and made sure I caught every pass thrown my way. I wanted to impress my mother, I wanted to give her something to be proud about.
My 10th grade year of high school was the first time I ever put on a pair of shoulder pads and a helmet. I was terrified. I worked so hard to get to that point, and once I got there I was so nervous, apart of me didn't even want to play anymore. I had a conversation with my cousin Delonte' and he told me "man, once you hear that first crack you gon be straight." He was right. My first drill was an angle tackle drill, I started in my linebacker stance, my coach blew the whistle and I took off. All the fear was still there as I dipped my shoulder and finally hit the ball carrier. It was a horrible rep, but I heard the "first crack", and the fear went away. I was finally a football player.
I played linebacker my first year at McKinley, and I was ok, if that's what you want to call it. Coach Kevin Tolland was the team’s offensive line coach and he and our defensive coordinator/d line coach Seikou Goins decided that maybe another position was my calling. It feels like yesterday Coach Kevin came into the weight room and gave me the "come see me" look. I walked out into the gym and he started off talking to me about a position change. He told me that he believed if I put my hand in the dirt I would be a much better player. I was ok with it because I didn't care, I just wanted to play football. He took me directly to the football field and put me through simple defensive line drills. That summer I worked my craft every day and became a starter on defense my junior year. Thank you for believing in me Coach Kevin, may you continue to rest in peace.
Seikou taught me so much about the game of football. I always felt like I was his prodigy. I caught a highlight reel interception one game and I came to the sideline, his first words to me were "when I caught interceptions, I scored. Score *expletive*!!" I wanted to do everything right for this guy because he wanted me to succeed in his defense. Seikou was a no cut cards type of coach, he gave it to me straight and that's what I loved most about him. The week of practice following a loss I shared a few words with my teammates that weren't favorable. The next week I was benched on homecoming in a pivotal game. I never knew exactly why he would bench me but that day humbled me. Seikou called me not to long ago with his wife on the phone, he had just recently benched his son who hasn't been doing the right thing. He wanted me to explain to his wife how that day helped me, I told her that it impacted my life for the better and it’s something I will never forget.
My senior year was approaching and I had 0 offers. I had a 1.9 GPA and I couldn't qualify for any Division 1 schools. Every week I would have at least one school expressing interest but once the question about grades and SAT scores came around id get the same reply: "Well, Mr Sturdivant, you are one hell of an athlete, but your grades aren't to the point where we can offer you, son. Keep in touch, and good luck!" We never kept in touch. My senior season came to an end and I still had 0 offers. I was walking the hallways one day, on a "bathroom break" and a 570 number came across my phone that I almost ignored...
"Hello, is this Ryan Sturdivant?"
"Yeah, who this?"
"It’s Coach Bill Reiss, from Lackawanna College, we got your film and were interested. We want you to come up for a visit."
"Oh...uh...OK! When can I come up?"
I was ecstatic. It felt like a NFL Draft call. I finally was wanted by a school. A great school at that. This was my second chance to finally be recruited by the type of schools I knew I should have been recruited by. My visit to Lackawanna went smooth, I waked in and met Coach Duda, Coach Reiss, and Coach Brown and they all talked about how my future could pan out. As soon as I was handed my signing papers I proceeded to sign, Coach Duda yelled; "Whoa there, Sturdy, you gotta look things over with mom before you make a decision like this." I waited until I got home and the next day I faxed my paperwork over and I was officially a Lackawanna Falcon.
Lackawanna was a very different place. I was in Scranton, Pennsylvania with 100+ hungry JUCO guys with the same goal, to be recruited and sign with a D1 school. I met a lot of great guys with great stories at Lackawanna that I cherish. We all struggled together so there will always be a love between us all.
I wish I could tell you my departure from Lackawanna was smooth and I signed to a big time school. It wasn't. I was cut, cut for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lackawanna had a low tolerance for anything negative. That summer I reached out to multiple schools, and multiple schools reached out to me. One school caught my eye in particular. Shepherd University.
I was in a hotel lobby when I sent a detailed Facebook message to Ramal Faunteroy about my situation and that I was looking for a home to play my last years of college football. Shepherd had a winning tradition and I thought was my best chance of making into the NFL. I really wanted to be a part of that organization so I worked hard to get there. Coach Ramal worked with my mom and I to get me into the school, I made a promise to myself that I will give everything that I had in me to Shepherd University.
I finally got to Shepherd but I wasn't playing football yet. I missed all of training camp due to NCAA clearing house issues. Once I was cleared I began practicing thinking that this was my year to work on my craft while being on scout team and prepare myself for next season. I was wrong. That same week I received my horns, a white number 98 jersey, a travel bag, and a gray Shepherd Football shirt and I was officially a Shepherd Ram. My first game was against Urbana which was a 9 hour ride. It was week 3 and I barely knew any of my teammates. I can remember suiting up for the game sitting next to James King, a freshman at the time, I kept asking him questions because I didn't know what to do, and this was my first collegiate game! The game was winding down and Coach Ramal looked my way and told me I was going in. That nervous feeling I had at McKinley came back, I was scared again. I got a slap on the back of the helmet from Shaniel Jenkins, he told me, "let’s go yungin." I went out there and for a few plays to get my "feet wet" and once the whistle blew, I was ready for more.
My first home game was against West Virginia Wesleyan. They were a terrible team and they ran a spread offense so for defensive lineman that's what we call a stat day. I didn't expect to play much but Coach gave me the go ahead late in the game and I went in. It was 3rd and about 7 I would say, the running back was lined up on my side so I stood up expecting the read option. "HIT!!" The tackle went down, I ran forward, the QB faked the ball to the back and pulled it as if he was going to throw. I stopped dead in my tracks as if I were a deer in headlights. Once he saw me coming he pulled the ball down and began to run. I charged at him..."SACK! Number 98, Ryan Sturdivant!" I couldn't believe it. I recorded my first sack in front of thousands of fans, more importantly in front of my family who knew how hard I worked to get to this point.
After my freshman season, and good start to my career at Shepherd I began to get complacent. I didn't take my studies as serious as I should have and ended up ineligible for my sophomore season. I couldn't believe that I wouldn't be able to play and I almost gave up. I stopped working out, and I stopped watching film. I wanted nothing to do with football anymore. I got in contact with a professor at Shepherd and was granted a grade change which lifted my ineligibility and I was able to play. I missed training camp again but unfortunately I didn't come in and have the same impact I had my senior season. I took a walk with Coach Kline from the field to his car and he explained to me that it was good that I was back but I needed to get in shape. I brushed off what he told me and it came back to bite me. I played very little minutes and I battled chest and back pains throughout the entire season. After defeating Urbana on our home turf to win the MEC crown, I walked off the field looking into the stands seeing people cheer. I asked myself, "is this what being a champion feels like?"Around playoff time I had to be picked up from Shepherd and taken to the hospital in DC for chest pains I was having. The doctor then told me that I should put an end to my season but this was my first opportunity to play in the playoffs, there was no way I was missing out on that! I went back to school to hear that I was not going to play anymore that season and didn't play a single snap in our National Championship run.
I was hurt. I watched my team lose on national television and I couldn't do anything about it. I told myself that I will get to the National Championship, and I will win. The summer leading into my junior season I began to work hard like I worked when I was that kid doing pushups during commercials. I battled through so much that summer, from sickness, back pains, and working a security job that took up half my day. My trainer, Josh Sullivan helped me get through it. He'd let me come in at any time of the day or night to work out because he knew I had a mission, and he knew I wanted to work for it.
My junior season was my first training camp since my freshman year at Lackawanna. My goal was to be a starter. I had trust in the work that I put in over the summer and I believed that it was my time to become that player I always knew I could be. My teammate Myles Humphrey and I practiced every single day and we both gave our best every single rep. We sometimes would look across at each other with the most tired looks because we just wanted a little break. We never missed a practice. Any injury we had we worked through it because we knew we had a goal, and nursing a hurt thumb, or shoulder wasn't going to cut it. As training camp went on, a couple of guys were converted to play defensive end and they were given the opportunity to battle for a starting position while I was locked in as a 2 behind Myles. I couldn't believe that I didn't win a job but I didn't let that stop me from achieving my goal. I came into the season and I played my role which led to a 13-1 season and a trip to the Final 4.
December 10th, 2016, that was the last time I cried in my locker. We lost to North Alabama for a trip to the National Championship. It hurt so bad because we fought so hard to get back to that game but came up short one game.
Later that month I got real sick. I tried my hardest to tough it out and not go to the emergency room. I was so sick to the point I couldn't move, I was stuck in bed from sun up to sun down. I began to feel a little better the day of my mother’s birthday. I was able to get up and get dressed and celebrate with her and family. I just turned 21 two days before, so my cousin wanted to take me out on the town for the first time me being legal. We went to a club over on 8th street, we were all having a good time until I began to have chest pains again. I was used to the pains so I took it as nothing. As time went on I began to sweat, I was sweating so much I took my coat off. I began to sway side to side with my eyes closed. My cousin, Black looked at me and said "you ite, cuz?" I replied, "yeah, man, I'm vibin'." I kept swaying then I threw my arm around my cousin, Malcolm's shoulder and started to laugh to distract him from seeing how I was feeling. I walked out of the club because I felt like I needed some air in order to feel better. I walked outside and my chest felt as if it was closing. I had shortness of breath, I became terrified. I walked back into the club and went to Delonte. I whispered, "Fool, I'm bout to dip fool." He replied, "what's wrong, you good? Hol fool, I knew you was messed up since we was at your mother jont." He drove me home and the entire time I was gasping for air, he wanted to take me to the hospital but I told him no! I went into the house and flopped down on the couch crying and asking God what was wrong with me. My mother came in and heard me and she was terrified. She helped me upstairs to the bed I was laying in the entire week and I went to sleep.
The next day the pain went away, a little. My sisters, mother, and girlfriend kept telling me that I need to go and I finally gave in. December 31st I went to the emergency room and explained to them the chest pains and they decided to put me through an EKG test. I took the test and met with the doctor and it ended up being a routine visit. I was ok! At least I thought. I was still feeling week and I started staying at my sister’s house. The weakness came back and I thought I was about to go down the same road I was in before. I started sweating more than I've ever sweated before to the point where I had to change my clothes at least three times a night. I woke up one morning and was sweating so hard I began to shake. I tried to rush to the bathroom and almost fell flat on my face because the weakness in my legs. My mother yelled, "Oh, Jesus!" and I told her I wanted to go to the hospital. I went to the emergency room and I was put into a bed this time and hooked to IVs. I was put through another EKG test and met with more doctors who told me to cancel all sports related activities indefinitely. At that time I though indefinitely meant to miss spring football and return for my senior season.
I was sent home feeling better than ever. We were sitting in my sister’s living room watching TV and my phone rang. It was Kaiser. I answered and they explained to me that a cardiologist wanted to meet with me and talk about my EKG results. I googled what cardiology was and learned that it had something to do with my heart. At first I was nervous, then I thought to myself "this ain't nothin." I met with the doctor a couple days later and he diagnosed me with Wolff Parkinson White Syndrome, a condition I was born with and not knowing I've been battling during my entire football career. I had to make a choice that I thought I would never have to make. To end my playing career. It’s not something I want to do, but it’s what I have to do.
So April 29th, 2017, I was forced to say goodbye to the game that I love, and hello to my future.
I am thankful for my time as a football player. I look forward to my future and I believe that football will still be a major part of it. I have been holding this story in my heart for some time now, I felt like it was time I let it out.
Thank you for reading.
"Any time that you give your best effort, that you give everything that you possibly can give, there is satisfaction in knowing that I did my absolute best. I did all I could do. There's victory in that." - CT Fletcher
From the Editor
Hope you enjoyed Ryan's piece. I encourage you to check out his personal blog he started.