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The Pivot Point

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

—Jeremiah 29:11

Let me tell you about the most extraordinary football season of my   life, a time where I felt that God was smiling on me and the sky was the limit in my career. It's strange thinking about that time now because what I didn't know then was that it would all be over in an instant.

First of all, I love professional football. I love everything about it. I love the competitiveness (I'm the most competitive person I know!), the camaraderie, the teamwork, the discipline, the preparation, the intensity, and the physicality of it. For me, it was part of the American dream, to pursue something and be passionate about it, to be successful at something, and go try to be the very best you can be. Along with that, it was just so much fun and brought so much abundance to my family and me. To play football as a profession has been one of the biggest blessings of my life.

In 2009, I was a first‐round draft pick by the Buffalo Bills. I played my entire nine‐year career with the Bills, and they offered me an extended contract twice before my ninth season in the NFL. In my final year on my second deal with the Bills, I contemplated what I wanted to do next. Should I stick around, or should I maybe hit free agency? The Bills had been really good to me, and I loved all those guys. They were some of the best of the best. Yet there was always the temptation to try something new, to challenge myself differently.

What made the decision easy for me was that the Bills just hired Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane, and I truly trusted their vision for the organization. I also couldn't imagine the Bills breaking the longest playoff drought in the NFL and me not be a part of it. I had put so much blood, sweat, and tears into playing for the Bills, and I needed to be there for when the tide turned and the Bills would be successful again. With my faith in the Bills secure, I signed a contract extension before my ninth season—the very special 2017 season.

You see, the Buffalo Bills hadn't made it to the playoffs for 17 years. And we were going to be the winning team configuration to break that drought. That didn't seem like the way it would be at first. We traded away our most recent top picks that the previous regime had drafted, and many outsiders thought we were tanking. Tanking is when a team will intentionally have a bad season in order to get better draft picks and try to set the organization up for long‐term success.

Tanking is a nightmare for veterans on a team. Would I even be around by the time this team would be good enough to make the playoffs? Would I be cut or traded to ensure a losing season? Did I really want to take on the physicality of an NFL season when we have no shot at making the playoffs?

Our leadership council met with Sean McDermott, and he was explaining that we were, in fact, not tanking. We were simply trying to build a team of players that had a certain type of DNA that would set the culture for long‐term success, and Sean felt that this could also lead to success in the short term as well. Although it didn't make full sense to all of us in that meeting, we put our trust in the Bills' front office that we were going to go out and be in a “win‐now” mode.

It turned out to be the perfect strategy, along with the exact right combination of players and leadership. After we had won our final game of the season against the Dolphins, we watched from the locker room as the Bengals beat the Ravens to send us to the playoffs. Professionally, that was one of the most joyful moments of my life. (If you're curious, you can go on YouTube and watch our celebration.)

Life was good. I already had my contract in place. My beautiful wife, Leslie, was in the late stages of pregnancy, about ready to pop with our second child. I figured that she, the kids, and I would be in Buffalo through year 11 at that point. We had a house up there, and we lived back and forth between Buffalo, New York, and Louisville, Kentucky. I felt unbelievably lucky to have so many blessings and positive things in my life all at once.

Because my second child was so close to being born, I had an unusual attitude heading into the Jacksonville game. We were either going to beat Jacksonville and move on into the second round of the playoffs, or we would lose the game, and I would get to witness the birth of my son. It was a win‐win situation for me, something I wasn't used to feeling about possibly losing a big game. As I said, I'm very competitive.

Our game was scheduled for a Sunday, and Leslie was being induced on Wednesday. We ended up losing in Jacksonville, 10–3. All players must get an exit physical the day after the last game of the season. So we lost on Sunday, and the team doctor wanted me to do an exit physical on Monday morning.

So the season ends. I'm the only player on the team that played 100% of the snaps that year—which is pretty rare in the NFL because you could either be beating a team really badly, and they pull the starters, or you could be losing by a ton, and they could pull the starters (both had happened to me in previous years of my career). Also, injuries pop up all of the time when you would have to miss snaps, or your shoe could even come untied to cause you to miss a play. I was an alternate for the Pro Bowl, and there were two centers in the playoffs. So the chances of me going to the Pro Bowl were pretty good.

I was in a hurry to get out of Buffalo to go catch the birth of my son, but the doctor insisted I get an MRI before I leave town.

And I said, “Look, I'm good. I'm the only player who played all the snaps. Please send me home. I'm going to get out of here because I'm going to go catch the birth of my son.”

“Well, you had these stingers this year,” he said. “Just go out and get an MRI on your neck.”

I didn't want to hear it. If you're unfamiliar with “stingers,” they're a common ailment suffered by football players in particular. It's a tingling feeling in the hand or arm resulting from a nerve injury in the neck or shoulder. If you've ever played high school football, chances are you or someone on your team had a stinger at least once. And that's precisely what I told the doctor! “My buddies in high school had stingers! Why do I need to get an MRI for a stinger?” The whole situation seemed ridiculous.

But he said, “You know, it's kind of alarming that you never suffered a stinger until this season.” So I gave in and got an MRI, hopped into my car, and drove back to Louisville as fast as I could to be with my wife for the birth of our son. I wouldn't get the MRI results right away, but I wasn't anxious about it.

Honestly, that MRI was the furthest thing from my mind on that Wednesday. There I was, in the hospital waiting room, about 50 minutes from my son being born, and I get the call.

It was the call that ended my career.

The MRI revealed that in my cervical column, at points C2 and C3, I had disc and bone penetrating into my spinal cord. The doctors were not sure why or how I wasn't lying motionless on a football field, but that's what the MRI indicated should have happened to cause this. They told me this injury meant I could no longer play football. I thought, How could this be?

At first, I was in complete denial. I brought up that Peyton Manning had a neck fusion; why couldn't I? I found myself thinking there must be some way out, like, is there any way we can make this surgery work?

I found out later that Manning's neck fusion was lower in his spine. Everything is less stable toward the top, and when you hurt your spinal cord, it affects everything below it. C2 and C3 are too high on the spinal column to do the same kind of fusion procedure.

The doctors told me I was lucky I wasn't more affected by the injury than I was with only the stingers. They told me I was fortunate just to have walked away from the field. They also said that even though there was a chance at a successful surgery, I would never pass a football physical again.

So this situation was serious. The doctors stressed that if I got hit the wrong way with this kind of injury, I could be a paraplegic and lose my ability to breathe on my own without machines. And that hit me close to home.

You see, my little brother, Evan, was born with severe cerebral palsy. He never walked, talked, or breathed on his own. I saw firsthand what that looked like. He fought and lived for 11 years—and it was hard to watch him struggle. I was 14 when he passed. And so to get that news and be able to picture myself in my brother and what could have happened—well, that was a little intense for me.

I was at the crossroads of “grateful it's not worse” but also devastated that I had to face this. I got the news that my career was over, and it just shocked me. I know that it happens to a lot of guys, but, honestly, at that moment, I just felt cheated because I felt like I had put in so much work to that point.

I mean, I had so much joy on a day‐to‐day basis in that facility. I was a captain for three years, and it should have been five. Rex Ryan, the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, doesn't do captains. He does game captains. So instead of having the gold patch on my jersey signifying five‐plus years of being captain with the same team, I only had three stars filled in. That's okay, though. I loved playing for Rex Ryan. Honestly, I loved everything about playing professional football.

I did love my role. I loved the platform it gave me, too. I was using my platform to bring people into my men's group at church during the off‐season. I was bringing people closer to their faith, closer to God.

I was playing with a lot of freedom as well. Just knowing that “hey, I can give it all I've got, and I don't have to be ashamed.” And I wanted that Super Bowl. I was so looking forward to making playoff runs. I was also going to miss Buffalo terribly, a great city that had welcomed me with open arms and I had come to know and love.

I loved it all, and at that moment, I was totally crushed.

It was such a rollercoaster of emotions because my son was about to born. I told my wife the news, and she started to cry. A nurse came in and said to her, “Honey, honey, it's not going to hurt that bad.” And she said, “It's not about the baby!” We laughed about that later, but at the time, it was far from funny for anyone in the room.

My son was born 50 minutes later, and it was such an immense rush of joy, such a distraction from the previous moment. It was a tremendous gift he came when he did because I think his arrival at that moment helped me process what was happening in the big picture. I had this incredible blessing of a son. However, I also had one of the top neurological doctors in the country telling me I would never play football again (later, I would get eight more second opinions from neurologists—they all agreed). It was one significant scary change accompanied by a huge joyful change.

So for me, I hit that pivot point. I'll explain what I mean.

For the Buffalo Bills, I played the center position, often known as the “pivot” because of its central location on the field. The center is in the middle of the offensive formation. Because he starts the play with the ball, the offense's formation is dictated by where the center lines up. Some may say it's the most pivotal position on the field because, without a clean snap to the quarterback, the play has no chance for success. (Or maybe that's just how a former center sees it.)

In that sense, the word pivot is being used as a noun. It is the central place on the field. The pivot of a city is often the metropolitan area around which all the rest of the city revolves. The pivot of a house is usually the kitchen, from which all other rooms of the house flow. The pivot of an organization would be the leader, from which all decisions are made or passed through.

Then there's the pivot that requires action. I've had my share of experiences in this brand of pivoting, both on and off the football field. But this was the most significant pivot of my life, ending my ability to play football forever. I was forced to pivot in my entire career and from a lifestyle that I was very accustomed to living.

It wasn't like I hit rock bottom at that moment. It took a while. It took some days of anxiety trying to figure out what I was all about moving forward and how I would proceed. All my eggs were in one basket, career‐wise. My whole life was football, and I was absolutely all in. I didn't have a next career lined up by any means. But when you hit that pivot point, there are some action steps that you need to take personally.

Along with that came a lot of personal development work and consciously working on my inner game and how I look at and function in life. Those steps didn't come all at once for me. Looking back, it wasn't like I got out of the league, and suddenly I had an epiphany or this blueprint of what to do. I got a lot of good advice from incredible people, and I've seen and practiced what works firsthand.

One thing that worked in my favor is the way I'm wired. I'm always thinking, “What's next? How can I make my future bigger than my past?” I just know that whatever is happening was happening for a reason.

I also had tremendous faith that God had something planned for me. Like he could help me take this traumatic event in my life and show me something exceptional that I could do with it. I just wasn't sure what that was yet. But I knew that he had plans for me and would help me prosper. I knew that I had hope and a future and that he could help me make this into a blessing.

Now, I got a lot of help in the aftermath of my forced retirement. I hit a point of obscurity for the first time in a long time because the Bills hadn't officially released me, so I couldn't go out and get a job. National media members had reached out, and I appreciate all of their help in my transition. They wanted to help me get into the sports broadcast business. But I couldn't even accept a job until June because of my contract with the Bills. By that time, all of the broadcast crews were filled for the upcoming season.

Sports broadcasting is a natural transition for many athletes who retire—they want to get into the media world, because for most of us, that's all we have known for a significant part of our lives. But you have to do it right away because if you wait a few years and you're an offensive lineman who played in western New York, they're going to say, “Who are you again?” And so I wanted to give it a shot, but I couldn't even go out and try and get a job. It wasn't like Monday Night Football came calling, but the help from so many individuals led me to be a color analyst for the Buffalo Bills Radio broadcast as well as an analyst for ESPN/ACC network.

I've also been fortunate because I've been able to create a new platform through my podcast, “What's Next with Eric Wood.” In the beginning, I looked at it as a medium to interview other athletes and talk about football and my time with the Bills. But as time went on, the scope became so much more vast. I found myself interviewing people who had fantastic advice to offer on how to lead a more effective and impactful life, people who had all faced a pivot point moment of their own and made it work for them. Spending time with all those people began to shift my thinking and change my life for the better as well.

Our new tagline became “Interviews That Impact and Inspire.” My podcast guests were changing lives, including mine, and I could use my platform to amplify their message. I find such joy in serving and uplifting others, and my show has become a vital part of that for me. I may never have connected with so many inspirational and transformative people had my life gone exactly the way I expected.

On top of all this, amid my transition, barely two years retired from the NFL, the COVID‐19 pandemic hit. Suddenly, millions of others were experiencing a dramatic pivot point themselves in the aftermath. Many of them did not have the tools they need to process it or know exactly how they were going to pivot. So many felt like they'd had the rug pulled out from under them. And the ancillary effects of this pandemic are going to be felt for years down the line. Countless people are hanging on by a thread financially, or worse, have lost loved ones. Or both. How do you pivot from those moments? That's part of why I decided I needed to write this book now.

The principles I write about are incredibly useful in practically any situation where you find yourself in the middle of a big transition. It doesn't have to be a global pandemic or a disaster. It could be anything from moving to a new place, or getting married for the first time, starting a new career, becoming a parent, dealing with a loss, or any variety of crossroads. Maybe you just want to be more effective at what you are already doing or bring more abundance into your life.

Think of each chapter as a different play in a playbook, the top strategies I've found so far for getting you to your personal what's next. The principles, or “plays,” work best when done in combination with all the others. I can't take credit for all the ideas—so many of these words of wisdom have been passed down through the generations in multiple forms.

I always believed in taking advice from those further along on their journey in life. In football, one of the most valuable things to do when you enter the NFL is to find a veteran on the team and emulate his daily habits and routines. As I transitioned into my next chapter, those referenced in this book taught me and will teach you so many valuable lessons that you can implement to enhance your life.

I'm putting my particular spin on it in a way that I hope you'll find accessible. One of my greatest gifts that I'm learning to own is my ability to connect with others, and I want you to feel that you're getting practical support from me in a way that can help you get the things you want in your life. I genuinely do want to serve you and uplift you to more extraordinary things!

Unlike an actual football playbook, there are not nearly as many plays to remember. Once you start using them, they will become second nature. However, similar to an actual playbook, all the plays require diligent practice. All the concepts are not complicated, but you must act on them to get any benefit. Just like out on the field, you will naturally be better at some plays than others, so don't be discouraged if a few take time to become habits.

I've learned so much over the past few years from my journey and my incredible podcast guests. When I'm sharing a little nugget of wisdom from them, I'll be sure to point out who said it so you can dig deeper into their way of thinking as well. Once you go down the rabbit hole of inspiration, you may notice a positive ripple effect on your life sooner than you expect.

I believe God has a plan for us, and part of my plan is to help others step into their greatness. When you transform yourself, you improve the lives of everyone around you. Your what's next may inspire and change those closest to you in ways that you can't imagine.

Whatever is going on in your life, just remember your future is so much bigger than your past!

Let me serve you, and help you embrace it!

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