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Football and the Fourth of July

The Fourth of July is upon us. This time of year
fills me with an uneasiness that’s hard to describe. I
love this country and enjoy the festivities of the Fourth
like all true Americans, but while fire fills the night
skies over our country and gunpowder drifts across our
land, my heart begins to palpitate, my chest gets heavy
and the hair on the back of my neck tingles: Football is

Our nation’s birthday has always been the harbinger of
football and future events for me and my family. There was
a period of my life where I didn’t look forward to the
fireworks, picnics, parades, barbecues, concerts in the
park and such other Fourth of July fare. And it had
everything to do with playing in the National Football
League. More specifically, it had everything to do with
playing in the National Football League when I knew I
shouldn’t be playing in the National Football League.

July 4th heralded the beginning of woes for me; it meant I
would be going to camp within days. I had to make the team
every year I played and making the team meant playing in
every practice at game tempo. Training camp was not a
game; it was brutal, especially my rookie year.

On the Fourth of July in 1985 I remember going to watch
fireworks with my family at the high school football field
I had played so many games on. My mind was a million miles
away from my family, Orchard Park, New York and our
nation’s Declaration of Independence. Every smile was
forged, every eww and ahh sounded more like moans and
every explosion was an omen of doom, a metaphor for what
was about to happen to me, my family and my career.

I was leaving the next day for St. Louis, Missouri and
training camp in Charleston, Illinois. I had been drafted
by the Cardinals in the fourth round that April and had no
idea how I was going to support my family if the NFL was
not what King and Creator had planned for me.

I went home, picked up the phone and called my older
brother Craig, seeking advice like I had so many times
before. Craig had been in the league for five years,
playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, starting as a rookie.
I knew if there was anybody that would be able to pass
along some words of wisdom on the eve of such an
undertaking, it would be my hero.

Though the years have passed and technology mocks this
sentence, I can still hear his solemn words through our
telephone — holding the receiver in my right-hand and
wrapping the cord around my fingers with my left.

“Ronnie,” he said, “shut your mouth, respect everyone…and
pick a fight with the toughest guy on the team.”

That may have been the best advice I ever received when it
comes to playing football. I made the team that year and
did indeed have a career. But because of that night and
every other Fourth of July since, fireworks have always
been synonymous with football.

Recently, 27 years after that fateful phone conversation
with Craig, I had the honor of saying the same thing to
the Arizona Cardinals rookies — with one alteration. I
told them to shut their mouths, respect everybody…and be a
pro — which means fighting anything or anybody that keeps
you from doing your job to the best of your God-given
ability. And I told them to be prepared to do it every

I altered what my brother Craig told me because if they
tried that here in Arizona they were going to get their
face kicked in. Adrian Wilson don’t play…

But I wonder how many of these young men will heed those
words? I wonder if they feel the same beating in their
chest as I did back in 1985? I wonder how Flagstaff will
go for them? I wonder how many of them will have careers
in the NFL? I wonder if a future hall of fame player was
sitting in that room?

And of course, I wonder what Michael Floyd, Jamell
Fleming, Bobby Massie and company might have planned for
the Fourth? The Cardinals need their rookies — these
three rookies in particular — to contribute the way
Patrick Peterson, Sam Acho and David Carter contributed
last year.

After all, the fireworks are here, football is near and
it’s time for them to make their own declaration.