This month I want to tell you about a man named James Lawrence Eason. His story. One that’s given me a deeper appreciation of my own narrative. No doubt, there is plenty of connective tissue between our respective universes.
Unless you are a die-hard Oilers or Niners fan, it’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of James Eason. Or ‘Bo,’ which is his chosen name.
In 1970, at age 9, Bo took a sheet of paper and proceeded to sketch out his next 20 years. The dream included becoming the best safety in the NFL and winning a Super Bowl.
His plan was completely unreasonable, by most standards. His tiny high school in Clarksburg California—today a total enrollment of just 186 students — had never produced a professional athlete. On any level. Further, only 0.08% of high school football players, nationwide, ever end up strapping on an NFL helmet on Sunday. And yet, young Bo was undeterred.
Of the 27 players on the Eason’s football team at Delta High School, FOUR, including Bo and his brother, went on to play in the league for a combined 25 years. Ironically, or perhaps not, no other athlete from Delta High School has played professionally ever since.
I suppose you could say the ‘odds’ don’t matter, nearly as much, when your obsession is to be The Best at your craft. What we are talking about is an entirely different kind of discipline.
You could say the ‘odds’ don’t matter, nearly as much, when your obsession is to be The Best at your craft. What we are talking about is an entirely different kind of discipline.
Undersized, under-skilled and often overshadowed by his older & more talented brother, Tony, who started at quarterback for the Patriots in the 1986 Super Bowl—Bo had to fight his way onto a college field at UC Davis.
From there, he continued to defy the odds. In 1984, the Houston Oilers drafted Eason in the second round. He started at safety for the majority of his first four seasons with the Oilers, before being traded to the San Francisco 49’ers—prior to the 1989 season.
In the fourth preseason game of 1989, he suffered a violent leg injury. And just like that, Bo Eason’s football career was over. Buried, unceremoniously, in the turf of Joe Robbie Stadium, the home of the Miami Dolphins. To further rub salt in the wound, the 49′ers went on to win the Super Bowl that year — without him. Not the way the script was written.
What does one do, when a dream is so rudely wrestled away? A football field was the only stage Bo Eason ever knew.
Don Miller, author, and founder of StoryBrand, says our goals in life are like a trapeze. When we reach one goal (or hit a roadblock), we must be prepared to have our hand extended — ready to grab for the next one.
Eason, still full of ambition, set his sights on a different stage. As the curtain came down on his football career, the next leg of Eason’s journey took him to the theater. He moved to New York City, to study theatrical performance.
Seems rather strange, doesn’t it? Like two opposite ends of the machismo spectrum. From the football field to the Broadway stage. For me, though, this is where the story starts to get particularly fascinating.
Despite the fact that the tread had prematurely worn thin on his athletic tires, his 4+ years in the NFL offered a front row seat to observe The Best. He’d played with and against guys like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, in their prime. He’d gained an entirely new appreciation for the sacrifice required to excel at the highest level.
He understood the fundamental precept that discipline transfers. Skills transfer. Experience transfers to the next leg of the journey. That is, if you attach the same muscle.
Patterns of success reveal themselves.
Eason says, “There is nothing magical about being the best at your position. It’s a very tangible process. But one that requires a willingness to ‘run the miles.’”
“Once you commit to running the miles toward your dream, your dream will start running toward you as well. And at some point, the two will meet.”
Except, of course . . . you may be faithfully running for 15-20 years, waiting for that union to occur. And the truth is, most people don’t have that kind of endurance. Showing up and doing the work required, is simply too painful. At the first sign of adversity, they stop running. They simply quit.
I’m told the Navy Seals have a credo about the two kinds of pain in life. There is the temporary pain of discipline and the permanent pain of regret. We can only avoid one of the two and the decision is always ours to make.
There is the temporary pain of discipline and the permanent pain of regret. We can only avoid one of the two and the decision is always ours to make.
This reminds me of a Tony Robbins. In an interview that I‘ve now watched three times, in full, Tony was asked why so many people in today’s society seem to be unhappy and unfulfilled.
Tony said, “We live in a culture where most people are ‘dabblers.’ They try a million things, master none and then wonder why they are left unfilled. When they hit a plateau or a dead end, they immediately say, ‘this must be the wrong job, the wrong relationship, the wrong business,’ because it’s not instantly gratifying.”
In other words, “They are constantly looking for the next hit of sugar—the next thing that feels good—instead of moving past what doesn’t feel good and getting to where they actually own something. Progress equals happiness.”
He continued, “Whatever you believe, live it. Start today. Ultimately, it should lead you to growing and giving. If you are growing, you are alive. If you are giving, you feel ten times more alive.” I’ve witnessed this exact same thing in my life as well. Generosity is the key.
Eason describes generosity as the art of giving all of oneself, all of the time. He calls it, the purest expression of spirit. It’s the only way to lead, he says.
True leaders share their story – scars and all.
And you’d have to believe that, coming from a man who knows a thing or two about scars. Seven knee surgeries by the age of 27. Washed out of football. Less than five years in the league. Not enough money to live off of, much less retire from. It would’ve been easy to throw in the towel and say ‘screw it.’
Then again, in my study of this man’s story I’ve yet to detect a single hint of ‘dabbler’ in his DNA. “You can clothe yourself in excuses or accomplishments,” Eason says. And true to his character, he opted for the latter.
He chose acting school. A completely new mountain to scale. A brand new set of challenges but same universal riddle to solve . . .
What will it take to be the best at this?
He held no illusions. Having shared a field with the best professional athletes of his day—having witnessed their sacrifices first hand—he knew that in order to become the best stage performer of his time, he first needed proximity to the best. In time, patterns of success reveal themselves.
Strings were pulled and Eason found himself in the personal audience of none other than Al Pacino. The best of his era. Over a three-hour game of pool, at Pacino’s house, on Thanksgiving weekend, Pacino broke it all down for him.
“He told me I wasn’t going to like what he had to say but there was no other way,” Eason recalled.
Pacino explained that in his quest for excellence, he was going to have to do the reps. No different than the time he’d invested on the football field, he had to “have his butt on a stage more than anyone else in the next 15 years.”
Eason’s response: “Good, I work well in those timelines.”
This is strikingly similar to another story I heard recently. Rainn Wilson’s story. If you are a fan of The Office, you’ll recognize Wilson for his portrayal of the quirky and enigmatic Dwight Shrute.
Kelli and I were neve huge fans of the early years of The Office, so admittedly, before hearing his story, I knew very little about the man behind the character. Or I should say, the character behind the man. A fascinating guy, in his own right.
It’s easy to look at anyone in the public arena — athletes, actors, authors — and draw the conclusion of an anointed path. To assume that when you ‘have talent,’ doors open automatically. Often though, it’s the complete opposite.
Those who ‘make it’ are usually the ones who simply refuse to give up.
They opt for discipline over regret.
Take Wilson, for instance. He was a fledgling actor for 14 years before landing the pilot for The Office. He graduated from acting school in 1990 and for ten years, did nothing but theater. Barely making enough money to survive. He drove a moving van. Took odd jobs. Later, he grabbed every commercial, guest appearance and off-Broadway play he could get his hands on. Just to scrape by.
He confessed to the thought of quitting, on multiple occasions, but he said each time, the universe would send him a subtle message. A better paying gig. A new manager who had better contacts and resources. Something to remind him that if he had the courage to put his feet on a stage more than anyone else, greener pastures were ahead.
He tells the story of eventually moving to LA and being introduced to a new manager who asked, “What do you see for yourself out here.” Wilson responded that he’d love to be one of the cast members on the Drew Carey Show.
“I see it completely different for you,” the manager responded. “I see you starring or producing. Making great content. Really, whatever you want to do.” Wilson recalled, “I didn’t see that in myself . . . Sometimes you need someone else to recognize that talent and tell you that you are thinking too small.”
I can’t recall who said it but one of the phrases that always sticks in my head is the fact that . . .
“Sooner or later, those who make the greatest impact in life are the ones who believe that they should.”
“Sooner or later, those who make the greatest impact in life are the ones who believe that they should.”
The story we tell ourselves is the most important one and it’s often that story, that colors what we share with others.
Today, Wilson divides his time between his charitable foundation, providing education in Haiti and the his digital media company, Soul Pancake, focusing on helping the younger generation, “explore life’s biggest questions.”
Eason is now dedicated to becoming the best speaker in the world, training others to tap into the power of leadership by way of sharing their own personal story. This, after having already written and performed his one-man show, Runt of the Litter, more than 1300 times over the past 20 years. A show The New York Times dubbed, “The Most Powerful Play of the Last Decade.”
Two men, in their fifties, with unique stories. Traveling completely different paths than they first set foot on decades ago. Two guys who seemingly love sharing the true essence of who they are and the impact they wish to make in this world. The purest expression of spirit and generosity.
It would be easy to dismiss both as having been lucky to find their passion. But that would discredit the sacrifice and the scars. The blood, sweat & tears of fourteen, fifteen years or twenty years. Years of subtle and, sometimes radical, redefinition. The different chapters of life.
The older I get the more I recognize that’s the way it works. Passion follows discipline. Not vise versa.
Wilson was asked in one of the interviews, how he wanted to be defined— after all of the years and all of his different roles. He said, “I really just want to be storyteller that makes a difference in the world.”
There is power in stories.
Truth lives in stories.
We are all unique but that theme is definitely universal