'JUMP': BACK IN CHARLOTTE, FINDING PURPOSE ON A NEW PATH

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From time to time, I can be a handwritten-note guy. You don’t really know what becomes of those notes, more often than not; not that gratification is the point, anyway. It’s the thought that counts, right?

But a couple of weeks ago, just after I’d moved back to North Carolina, Will Healy — the new football coach at Charlotte, with whom I became friends when he was at Austin Peay — directed me to something on his desk. It was a note I’d written him in late November 2017, a couple of days after a sublimely magical turnaround had reached its finish line.

Here is that note:

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For anyone who can’t read some of my lefty cursive, it says:

“Wrote one of these for the entire staff. Really difficult to know what to say here. You’ve changed my whole life. At a time when I doubted myself and my future, you rebuilt value in me and you have provided me with purpose. I’ll never be able to thank you enough for that. You are hope personified in my life. I cannot wait to see what we can do together in the future. Sorry in advance that you’re stuck with me.”

And then I included the verse, 1 Corinthians 2:9.

“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived — the things God has prepared for those who love him —”

First of all, my immediate reaction to seeing that note was to tell Will that I had warned him he was stuck with me, so it should not have been any surprise that one day I just showed up on the Charlotte Football doorstep, looking for a home and a chance to help.

But secondly and more importantly, there are, if you’re lucky, truly path-altering people that you come across in your life — and then, at least for me and a whole bunch of people in this Charlotte Football building, there’s Will Healy.

People who know me know how I feel about the guy. He’s as genuine as it gets, and he doesn’t really change with the day or time; he is who he is. There’s a reason why all the assistant coaches who left in 2018 are back in Charlotte on his staff. He cares about people — and that starts with family, players and staff. And, for me, he was there at a time when it seemed as if the whole world was going dark around me.

As I kinda mentioned in the note, 2017 was jarringly challenging for me. I was dealing with losing my lifelong “dream job” at ESPN … and then another job at 247 … and then there was the brutally stark disappointment of a divorce also smushed into that same winter and spring.

Yeah … rough year. Rough.

BUT.

Out of that incredible adversity sprang hope — and, as it turned out, a future.

I had met and got to know Will the previous fall, in 2016, as he started out as the 31-year-old head coach at Austin Peay. I’d been let go by ESPN and, well, I had nothing better to do. So I regularly drove from Nashville to Clarksville and ended up going to six Austin Peay games that fall, thinking — surely — the Govs had to win one of them. I didn’t want to miss the first win. So, I just kept going back again … and again … and again.

And that win never came. I saw six losses and APSU lost all 11 games in Will’s first season. Whatever career record he ends up with, he started in an 0-11 hole.

But the byproduct of a miserable first season was the recipe for a historic year in 2017. With the nation’s longest losing streak, there was nowhere to go but up. I felt something big was coming. So did others around the program. I tried to recruit a film crew to come in and shoot the ‘17 season, thinking that this should somehow be documented. I wanted everyone to see the unique, real college football staff and program I’d stumbled upon in a sea of big business and big egos that has become commonplace in the sport.

When all those production avenues dead-ended, I eventually just picked up one of the school’s cameras and filmed the season myself. I wasn’t going to let the moment pass without capturing it, as best I could.

Quick aside on that: I actively shopped the sizzle above to, I’d say, 20 outlets — all sorts of networks, streaming services, etc., etc. Everyone was really interested until it came to investing their own money. So it still sits on a hard drive in my desk. One day we’ll tell that story in the manner it deserves, I am still convinced.

Regardless of how it was received “commercially,” those 12 weeks were the most exhilarating thing I’d ever been around or a part of. Will allowed me to speak the night before Senior Day, the final regular-season game on the ride; it was so meaningful to me to be able to thank the players for letting me join their journey, for accepting me — for changing the course of my whole story and, really, my whole life.

Reality (and a paying job) called in 2019, and I was so very fortunate to land on the ground floor of The Athletic’s foray into Nashville. My old boss at ESPN, Dan Kaufman, threw me a lifeline and bet on me to cover the Tennessee Titans and the NFL.

It was a great year, following the team’s ups and downs — and going to London (!) — in a 9-7 season. Nine-year-old me would have been through the roof at the idea of covering an NFL team for a living. Like, are you kidding me? A pro beat?

But, for 37-year-old me, something was missing. I’d experienced something entirely different, a brush with a purpose and a calling. And then it was gone. I had to find a way to again be in that place. After all, I’d told Will that he and his teams were stuck with me.

So, as that continued to weigh on me through this spring and summer, I eventually decided to make a bold, convicted leap toward happiness … toward what I felt I should be doing with my life.

Will understood. He knew what this meant to me and said, “C’mon, we’ll find a place for you.”

Actually, what he said exactly was, “Jump.”

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Man, so far, it’s been exactly what I’d hoped. More, even. I can feel the impact we’re making in this football community — and we’re still two weeks from the opener. The coaches are exactly who I knew they were; there was no doubting that. It’s been inspiring to be around them on a daily basis as they work toward the first game on Aug. 29.

But the players … these guys are remarkable. I can assure you this is not #coachspeak. I’ve never been around a more personable football team, ever. These guys love the game and they also love people. There’s still work to be done, but there’s a real sense that you can win and be successful with this group of coaches and young people. That’s a hell of a starting point. This foundation is sound as it gets.

That night when Will let me talk to the players at Austin Peay, I told them that if ESPN called me the next day and asked me to come back, I would choose to work with them. I told them that I would pick them. And I would have. It killed me being away from that last fall, but I had to make a few dollars to keep my head above water.

But when it kept eating at me this year, I found myself in that same position: I decided I would choose to be — let’s be real — an intern at a mid-tier college football program than be an NFL reporter.

And I wouldn’t change a thing. I wake up every morning energized and genuinely excited to see what that day will hold.

So, my official title at Charlotte is football analyst. But we’re taking that in broad terms. The bottom line is, if I can help the Charlotte Football program, however I can do that, I will.

I’m already so proud of what this team embodies. I’m proud that I can tell you about it. I cannot wait to see what’s in store for the Niners.

Truly, the BEST IS YET TO COME.

And thanks, Will, for letting me tag along. Again.

— Trav