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From the NFL to Neurosurgery: How One Steeler Sets an Example

I’ve always cheered on my Pittsburgh Steelers in hopes of them winning a Lombardi Trophy, but for the first time I find myself rooting for a football player in the game of life. Former NFL safety Myron Rolle is now a neurosurgery resident at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Changing careers today is not uncommon, but there’s a great lesson to be learned from Rolle’s unusual transition from the lofty perch of professional athletics to the elite group of people who call themselves neurosurgeons.

One of only five NFL athletes who’ve ever made the transition to doctor, Rolle’s story is personally inspiring because of his resilience between careers. Rather than choosing to make the departure from football, Rolle was released from the Steelers instead of another player who was perceived as having fewer options outside of football. Having more options made Rolle the easier cut. More options or not, football was something Rolle loved and fully committed to playing.

Frustrated by the reason for his release and languishing in his disappointment, Rolle recalls never feeling more like a failure than at this point in his life. Getting cut from the Steelers roster was yet another miss after parting ways with the Tennessee Titans when they hadn’t played him as he had hoped. His football future was coming up short. It was his mother, Beverly, who reminded Rolle that he actually had two goals in life.

She showed him a childhood notebook where he had written that he wanted to play for the NFL and be a neurosurgeon. At eleven years old, Rolle’s older brother had given him a copy of Dr. Ben Carson’s memoir Gifted Hands, which told the story of Carson growing up in the inner city with poor grades and becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. Rolle began focusing on two dreams: playing football and being a surgeon.

Rolle was so completely committed to football, he had all but forgotten his “dormant” dream of the operating room after the athletic arena. His mother said about football: “This one’s done.” And she pointed to the second goal: “Now we need to do this.”

Sometimes we get so far down into the depths of our own emotional paralysis of analysis about our current situation that it takes an outside perspective like Beverly’s to see the reality of our possibilities. It wasn’t long after Rolle’s conversation with his mother that he moved on to the next chapter in his life.

Rolle’s about-face after a chat with his mother reminds me of a good friend who would appreciate her encouraging words. He teaches his kids that they need to make the most of the two “Rs” in their lives. They need to be willing to take risks and always be resilient to losing. Risk-taking is necessary to expand our horizons, while resiliency is necessary to bounce back and learn from our mistakes.

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I’ve said before that the true test of a great leader is not how they perform when everything goes well but how they respond during crucible moments. I can’t think of a leader who wouldn’t benefit from applying the two Rs to their leadership approach. My friend’s risk-and-resilience rules of thumb could share company with a quote by Nelson Mandela: “I never lose. I either win or learn.”

There will never be a shortage of disappointments or challenges, so why not view them as an opportunity to learn? Sure, it’s in our nature to love winning and loathe losing, but that’s where the learning moments are hidden: just beneath the surface.

Today, Rolle is thirty-five years old and in the sixth year of his residency. He’s learning how to perform a craniotomy, how to be a good father to his four children, how to be a great partner to his wife, and how to be an attentive mentor to the twelve young black men in what they fondly call the Honor Rolle. All these learning moments are sure to have come with risks, but he’s showing us that resilience is about Rolle-ing with the punches and having the courage to get back in the game.

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