I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “Can’t win for losing.” Sometimes, I think the saying should be “Can’t lose for winning.”
My name is Victor, and I always win. I’m the victor in everything I do. I’ll risk anything, defeat any opponent, pay any cost…to win. Now that I’m well into my thirties, I can admit that winning has cost me more losses than I ever imagined possible.
The first time I won—and lost—I was twenty two years old and the starting quarterback at Texas A&M. We were headed to the Cotton Bowl and the world was mine to conquer. I had my whole life planned out: we would win the game; I would enter the draft; some big-time NFL team would pick me up—preferably the Dallas Cowboys—and my future would be assured. Every minute of my free time I was training, lifting weights, drawing up new plays, and dreaming about the Hall of Fame and Superbowl rings. I lived, breathed, ate, and slept football.
My team had never lost a game once I’d taken the helm as quarterback. I certainly wasn’t going to let my team lose the championship game.
The world was at my feet and I could do no wrong. Everyone loved me and cheered for me, especially my high-school sweetheart, Mandi. We’d been together since our junior year in high school. She was a beautiful girl, cheerleader captain, everything a guy like me could have wanted. Everyone agreed we were the perfect couple. She wanted to be a model, and once I joined an NFL team, I knew she’d have every break she could ever dream of. With my millions and arm, and her classic looks, we’d be the perfect couple of football TV too.
What few people knew was that Mandi had a problem. She’d hid it from me pretty well, too, but I’d started to suspect once she went to college in Dallas and I headed to College Station. Her bright cheerful ways had always had a few dark valleys, but those periods of darkness became more frequent and more shadowed. This beautiful girl didn’t have any friends, shy and unsure and miserably depressed. She called me often, and more frequently she was sobbing and desperate, not happy or excited about her classes. I loved her, but her constant need for me to anchor and support her began to wear on me.
One night she called me at 3 AM, crying and hysterical. Evidently she’d jumped in her car and began driving to College Station in the middle of the night, only to have an accident. I rushed to her aid, naturally, only to learn she’d been drunk driving. At least no one had been hurt, but neither of us could deny her problems any longer.
She admitted she hadn’t been to class in months and barely left her apartment. When she begged to come live with me, I didn’t know what to say. I lived in an apartment with three other guys off campus. We didn’t have room for her, and my Daddy would have hunted me down with a shotgun and dragged us both to the church before he’d let us live together unmarried.
Besides, I wasn’t ready for that much commitment, not yet. I had the big game, my career, our careers, to think about. I had to win the game to assure our future. I drove her home to her apartment and called her parents while she slept like the dead. They came and took her to a clinic in Houston. I know she was terribly hurt. She must have felt like I’d abandoned her. But I simply didn’t know how else to help her. She needed help, professional help, and the next time I talked to her on the phone, she sounded steadier, more alert and calmer than she’d been in months.
The game was only a week away. I don’t remember Christmas that year. With Mandi safe and getting treatment, I focused all my will on that game. I would win. She would be better. Everything would be better. I just had to win the game.
With my family in the stands cheering me on, I stepped out onto the field and we played one hell of a game. Even though we were six points down at the two-minute warning, I wasn’t worried. My coach handed me the ball and sent me out on the field with the final words, “Victor, the game’s on you. Take us all the way, son.”
I’d done it countless times before; I knew I’d do it again. Without any hurry at all, we steadily moved the ball down the field. Quick toss to my receiver, and he zipped out of bounds to gain another first down. We crossed midfield. We entered the red zone with plenty of time left. Even though my favorite target of the season dropped the ball and came back to the huddle with tears in his eyes, I wasn’t worried. I told him to shake it off.
I’d simply run this one in myself.
I took the snap, did a little play action, and floated in the pocket like I was waiting for him to get open again. He ran toward the corner of the endzone, dragging two defenders with him. That left me a wide-open lane of green and I took it. I sprinted forward with a hand on my lineman’s back as he plowed through like a charging bull. Too slow, though, so I left him. I saw the goal line gleaming, and felt a defender behind me, scrambling closer, so I launched off my feet, reaching with the ball——
And got helicoptered by surely the biggest Sooner on the bench. I crossed the plane and held on to the ball, even though the world slipped out of focus. I knew we’d scored. I knew we’d won. I didn’t care about the blackness sucking me down, until later, when I awoke in agony. Even then, I wasn’t worried, until I saw my Daddy’s solemn face and the suspicious glitter of tears in his eyes.
My knee was a shattered, torn mess that a single surgery couldn’t fix. They told me I’d be lucky to walk without a limp.
I’d never play the game again.
Lying there in that hospital bed, I struggled between rage and determination. Why had I been so stupid? So what if we’d lost the game. We’d played our hearts out. There wouldn’t have been any shame in losing. I still would have gone high in the draft. But I couldn’t stand to lose. I had to win, and I paid the price.
It was my own drive, my own heart, my determination to win at any cost, that had led to the worst defeat of my entire life.
I returned home to the ranch with my family, facing endless rounds of physical therapy and surgery. My determination renewed. The Dallas doctors didn’t know me. They didn’t know I was THE Victor. I’d defeat this injury, just like I’d defeated everything else in my life. They couldn’t know my heart and will to win. I focused that formidable will on physical therapy, determined to defeat even my blown knee.
Mandi called me from her parents’ home. I didn’t even know she’d been released. We talked about the game and our future. I told her this was my last chance. I would heal myself and by late summer, I’d be well enough to walk onto the team in Dallas and try out.
She was as supportive as ever. “Don’t worry about me, Victor. You can do this. I’m fine.”
I had no idea how unfine she really was—until her parents called and told me that she’d accidentally taken too many of her prescription drugs and never woke up. My sweet, beautiful girl was gone, and I hadn’t even gone to see her, not since that night I’d called her parents and abandoned her.
Guilt ate at me. Everything began to unravel. My knee hurt like a bitch. The doctor warned me that I was pushing too hard, too fast. I had done even more damage to my fragile knee and it had had swelled up as big as my head. Dream after dream died, and I slunk home like a whipped dog, afraid to see the resignation on my Daddy’s face. Instead of going into the house, I slipped into the old barn we didn’t use much any more. Defeated, angry, and guilty, I hid from my family—and my failures.
If I’d spent more time with Mandi, if I’d been there for her, could I have helped her? Would she have taken too many of those drugs if she hadn’t been so lonely? Was my career worth her death?
And my career wasn’t going to happen. The harder I worked, the more I fucked up my knee. With constant pain and a noticeable limp, I was a cripple, not a star quarterback. I couldn’t win this game. In fact, I’d never win another game. I’d never play again. I’d never see Mandi again. Everything was over, gone, broken like my fucked up knee.
The barn smelled of decades of hay and horses. Slants of light cut through the ramshackle roof. Motes of dust danced around my head, making me dizzy as I paced—limped—in a tight circle. I noticed an old leather riding crop looped on a rusty nail, so I grabbed it and slapped it absently against my thigh. Limp, pain from my knee—slap, pain on my good thigh. Limp, slap, back and forth. The bad pain from my knee began to fade away beneath the burning cut of the crop.
Alone in that old barn, I punished myself. I punished myself for my failures, for my injury I couldn’t heal with sheer determination, for my selfishness that might have cost Mandi her life. I sliced that crop through the air with a sharp whistle that snapped against the denim and burned deep into the muscle. It was a good pain. It made me forget about the bad, hurting pain of my knee. This was a cleansing pain. Pain that helped me wash away my guilt.
All the tension and regret, doubts and rage, even my broken heart—all that emotion poured out of me. The harder I hit myself, the better I felt. I found myself unbuttoning my jeans and stroking myself to release awkwardly with my left hand while I cut my thigh with that crop.
Afterward, I felt calm, relaxed, centered, and at peace. I had grieved—and finally accepted—my losses. Mandi, my first love, was gone forever. There would be no NFL career, no Superbowl rings, no Hall of Fame. But I was still alive, my family still loved me, and I still had my Victor’s heart.
I just had to find a new game to play.