I get asked all the time, "When did you know you wanted to pursue sports as a career?" For me, it goes back to when I was 10 years old. I was influenced by professional athletes on TV. I went to games and watched all the sports I could – football, basketball, baseball, you-name-it. I was locked in on how big-time athletes dressed, walked, threw and ran the ball, and even their different mannerisms. I emulated them in every way I could and I got to be very good at it. One of my childhood heroes was Joe Namath. I started wearing eye-black and taping up my shoes just like Namath because I wanted to look like one of the pros.
My parents never had to push me because I loved sports. I even loved to practice. Fortunately, I had a lot of God-given talent and things came very naturally for me. It was a lot of fun to be one of the best in whatever sport I played. Early on I played on teams where the other kids were at least a year or two older than me because it was better competition for me. Growing up in Depew, N.Y. (near Buffalo), I played organized football and basketball. I also played baseball, hockey and speed skating. On top of that, I played guitar as a hobby. That was my life. Go to school, do my homework and then play sports. I was always the kid going door-to-door to organize the neighborhood football, basketball, baseball, or street hockey games.
My love for sports meant I was very motivated. I didn't need my father or coaches to tell me to go out and practice. I always wanted to get better and better in every sport. That's a very important point for young athletes to understand – the motivation and the hard work have to come from within. That's what makes the difference for youth athletes who really get serious about their sport. You sincerely have to love what you're doing, not just to play because you want to have fun and be with your friends. That's important, of course, and kids need to have fun with the games they play. Sometimes we see parents pushing their kids to play sports and living vicariously through them. That's not healthy, for anybody, in my view.
For instance, my six year-old son, Bo Cannon, wanted to play Little League baseball, but after two practices, he said he didn't like practicing. We pulled him out. At that age, if he's not having fun it doesn't make sense to make him stay. Youngsters who want to take their game to higher levels and have hopes of playing professionally need to understand that there is a lot of hard work involved.
One of the other things that children need to understand is that you can't put your love of sports ahead of getting an education. Again, remember that less than one percent of college athletes make it to the pros. But if you organize your time right, you can get your studies done and still have time to play the sports you love. In middle school, I loved watching high school sports, especially football. When I'd get to the stadium on Friday nights under the lights, I thought that it was as good as gets. But my schoolwork always came first.
When I first got to high school I played freshman football. As a sophomore I progressed to JV ball. I made the varsity as a junior and senior where I played quarterback and defensive safety. Basketball was actually my best sport in high school. I was kind of thin and small so fortunately, basketball wasn't as physical as football. I made the varsity as a sophomore.
So when did my pro dreams begin to look realistic? Not until after my sophomore year in college. I was a good high school quarterback, but I had some unfortunate injuries. I broke my hand in the first game my senior year and that put a crimp in my playing time. As a result, I didn't get a scholarship. After a year at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, where they have a great football program for kids who don't get college offers after four years of high school, I was offered a scholarship to the University of Virginia. That's when I really started throwing the ball well and learned how to read defenses. There was a big buzz after my sophomore year in college. But in my senior year, I hurt my shoulder and that meant I dropped all the way to the 10th round in the NFL draft. I arrived in Green Bay bound and determined to make the team.
The bottom line is that, no matter what adversity I faced, I never doubted myself. I just knew I would make it. It's an attitude that's essential for any young athlete with aspirations of becoming a pro. If you're a firm believer in your athletic ability and in your commitment to your sport, you can make it. That means you have to be self-motivated and have a burning desire to practice to make yourself better. Of course, you've also got to be realistic. Playing sports leaves you vulnerable to a certain amount of pain and parents and coaches need to make sure that kids play it smart and don't push themselves too hard at such an early age. It's also critical for youngsters to have good lines of communication with their coaches because most coaches only want what's best for these young players. If you've got an injury or some other problem, you need to trust your coach and make him or her aware of it. Trying to be "brave" and hide the injury only hurts you and your teammates in the end.
Playing sports can teach you so many valuable life lessons like teamwork, trust, dedication and good sportsmanship. As long as you go out there and give it 100 percent, your very best in practice and in the games, you can look yourself in the mirror when things don't go your way. Of course, you've got to be realistic, but you can't give up. If you're willing to put in the hard work and understand that injuries are definitely a part of the game, you've got a real chance to make it. And that's all anyone can ask. That's how it is in sports and that's how it is in life.
Editor's Note: Don "Majik" Majkowski played for the Packers for six seasons (1987-92). He was named to the Pro Bowl in 1989 when he led the NFL in passing yards. He will be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in July.