I never would have believed that a Junior Varsity District Championship game my junior year at Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas in 2011 would be the last football game in which I ever played. I probably would have 'left it all out on the field' like you're supposed to in the final football game of your career. I would have gotten off the line faster. I would have sealed the edge on Quick 3.
We won. I had one reception for 19 yards on a go route. My friends and I hoisted the trophy at midfield. We danced naked in the showers afterwards.
The following fall, my senior year, my coaches moved me from my life-long position at wide receiver to defense. I won the starting job at cornerback, which was my older brother's position in high school, as if I were replacing him in the newest season of Friday Night Lights. The drama continued when I tore my quad muscle in a preseason inter-squad scrimmage tackling my best friend.
We're not friends anymore.
I'm kidding. He didn't Tonya Harding me. But I can point to that moment and say, "That's where my life was forever changed."
Growing up in Texas, I dreamt of playing football at a prestigious college in the northeast. I lived in an upper-middle-class suburb of Austin, but I had hip-hop visions of "getting out" and making it in a big city. At the Harvard football recruit camp in the summer of 2012, I caught a touchdown pass on a post route in a 7on7 drill. The man coaching the defensive back that I had just toasted in front of God and every coach there jogged up to me and checked my wristband. It was light blue to signify that my GPA and SAT scores proved that I was not a dummy.
"I'm Aaron Kelton," he said in a kind, excited, slightly raspy voice. "I want you to come play for me at Williams College."
"No thanks!" I said in my diseased, hotshot, 17-year-old head. I had never heard of Williams. My dad had to tell me it was Division 3 football. I was destined for D1-AA greatness.
And then my "friend" sabotaged my football career.
I didn't play my senior fall. The tear in my quad began to cause muscle spasms in my low back as I clumsily crutched around school every day. I didn't understand this new pain, so an orthopedist took an x-ray and found that I had a 4-year-old fracture in the L5 (very bottom) vertebrae of my spine. This meant I had played my high school football career with a broken back. I finally understood the nagging back pain I could never shake, but refused to tell anyone about at the risk of not being able to play.
Fortunately, the fracture had healed enough to where, with the appropriate rehab, I could continue my football career. I went home and dug through a drawer until I pulled out a business card with a handwritten note on it: "Dear David, I hope your senior season is going well. I'm sure you have offers from lots of other schools, but I think you could be one of our best guys at Williams. Good luck! -Aaron Kelton." He had sent it in October, just as I was receiving emails from Ivy League coaches informing me that they were very sorry to hear about my injury and wished me the best of luck in my playing career. I just wouldn't be playing for them. On particularly painful days, I read Coach Kelton's note to make myself feel better.
I called Coach Kelton, and the same friendly voice answered the phone. I quickly explained everything that had happened, from my quad injury all the way to what the orthopedist said about my spine. He told me he was sorry to hear that, and asked how my parents were doing. I waited for the seemingly inevitable, "I have to revoke my offer." He flipped the script on me and politely asked, "Do you want to come play for me at Williams?"
I said yes, and thanked him profusely. After a few more minutes of chatting, I hung up and began to cry. I had a signing day in the 50-yard-long turf indoor practice facility at my high school. My friend and quarterback Baker Mayfield accepted a preferred walk-on slot at Texas Tech University. He went on to be an All-American at the University of Oklahoma and was awarded the 2017 Heisman Trophy. Folks in our hometown still enjoy debating which of us had the more impressive college football career.
Eight months of physical therapy later, I found myself on Cole Field in Williamstown, Massachusetts, once again playing wide receiver, wearing #11 on my back and a football helmet on my head for the first time in over a year. I felt good. I felt so good that on a 5-yard speed-out route I dove for a pass that was thrown a step ahead of me and landed on that L5 vertebrae that probably couldn't believe it was playing football again. I caught the pass, popped up, and hurried back to the line of scrimmage. The next play, as I entered the break of my route, I felt my back go into spasm. I dropped to the grass. My back muscles were twisting and contracting. A knife was stabbing into my spine. I couldn't move my legs. The only thought going through my head was, "I'm paralyzed."
The training staff carted me off the field. The ambulance came. They removed the facemask from my Schutt helmet. I went to the hospital in North Adams that no longer exists where two doctors told me there didn't seem to be anything structurally wrong with my back. I went to a different doctor, who showed me on a CT scan that I now had two fractures in the L5 vertebrae and a slipped disc right above it. I took a medical leave of absence my freshman fall and underwent anterior lumbar spinal fusion surgery. A team of doctors removed that pesky slipped disc and replaced it with a bone graft from my pelvis in order to fuse my fractured vertebrae to the healthy one above it, creating Super Vertebrae.
I returned to Williams in February, where I was terrified of being known as the ghost kid who had disappeared after a week never to be heard from again. I was exactly right about this reputation, but thankfully that didn't seem to bother people as I turned on the extra charm to win them over. Over the next few years, I tried to play baseball. I tried to run track. I tried to play football again. My body was never able handle the stress of a varsity sport. The surgery hadn't worked the way it was supposed to. My vertebrates did not fuse together. The steel cage in my spine became unstable. I developed chronic pain.
I was fortunate to be able to work for Eph Sports Information for two years doing in-game stats for football, men's lacrosse, and women's lacrosse and last fall I became the on-air scouting reporter on the Williams College Football Show on Willinet the local access channel.
Like all great comedians, I attempted to turn my despair into laughter. I began writing and performing stand-up comedy with the student comedy group, The PAC, and realized there were things I could try other than sports. It inspired me to start a satirical news blog called The Grand Salami, which inspired me to start writing television scripts. My pilot script, Griffin Gladiators, a sitcom about a high school basketball team, won an award at the Austin Film Festival in 2016. I told Dean Dave Johnson about my television script, and he introduced me to Stacy Cochran, '81, who liked my writing and a few months later asked if I wanted to be her assistant on her movie she was directing that summer in New York City. I worked 12-hour days for free while I watched how a movie was made. I threw groundballs to Finn Wittrock at a youth baseball field in the Bronx while Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit encouraged me to throw it harder. After a month-long shoot, I decided I wanted to make my own movies.
My pain worsened, and I was forced to take another medical leave of absence to undergo additional, very intensive, physical therapy. A neurosurgeon in Austin who happened to be studying Eastern medicine techniques recommended I try yoga, meditation, and cupping therapy to help manage my pain. I read Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief: Guided Practices for Reclaiming Your Body and Life by Jon Kabat-Zin, and worked to better connect with my body in an attempt to manage the excruciating pain that plagued me every day. With welts covering my back from weekly visits to South Austin Community Acupuncture and Cupping, I strengthened my core doing yoga and Pilates five times a day to stop my spine from toppling like a Jenga tower. Just as Bruce Wayne hung from the rope in The Pit in The Dark Knight Rises, I worked to correct my body that had been coiled like a spring for 5 years to support a damaged spine. The process is still underway.
I was now a full year behind my friends with whom I had entered Williams. As I began my 5th year senior fall of 2017, I knew I wanted to spend the spring semester not in Williamstown. When I told Tina Breakell, Director of International Education and Study Away, I was interested in writing for the fine arts, she recommended the Dramatic Writing program at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. I was familiar with the program for one reason: my idol, Donald Glover, had studied there before Tina Fey hired him to write for 30 Rock. Stacy Cochran, who had become my Tina Fey at this point, wrote a letter of recommendation for me (along with Professor Stephen Fix). On a trip to New York early in the fall, I visited the Tisch building in Greenwich Village. There was a creative energy in the air everywhere I went, from the classrooms to the small theaters where students put on original works. I drove to New York on multiple occasions throughout the semester to meet with anyone in the program who answered my emails. I believed getting my face in front of anyone with a possible say in my admission decision could help me. A few very anxious weeks later, I was accepted. I was now Donald Glover. I will attend NYU as a visiting student for my final undergraduate semester, and graduate from Williams in the spring.
As I signed up for playwriting and screenwriting workshops that met only for a few hours each week, I decided to look for a spring internship in television. After serving as the on-air scouting reporter for the Williams College Football Show throughout the fall of 2017 and gaining experience in delivering reports I had researched and written I was inspired to pursue opportunities in broadcast journalism. I opened the Williams alumni connections database and typed "television" and "New York City." Scores of names filled the screen, with titles like "CFO of Viacom" and "Executive Producer NBC Sports." One name jumped out at me. Andrea Park '10, Editor at CBS Entertainment. I emailed Ms. Park and introduced myself, and we set up a time to talk on the phone. We spoke for a half-hour, during which I told her about my interest in journalism and politics. She recommended I apply for an internship at CBS News, and she would be happy to refer me to the position. Go Ephs.
A few weeks later, I received an email from CBS News informing me that I had been placed on 60 Minutes as a writing and research intern starting in January. Three full days a week, I will go to the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street in Manhattan, and help produce the most famous news program in America. To celebrate, I watched the latest episode of 60 Minutes, in which the newest correspondent, Oprah Winfrey, reported on a story about solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison in California.
Coming from a predominantly-white, southern community, I learned valuable information at Williams. I studied mass incarceration. I became familiar with the gender spectrum. The knowledge and skills I developed at this institution have not only prepared me for 60 Minutes, but also to be a capable, compassionate person in the real world. Above all else, Williams taught me that when one door closes, another does not open. When a door slams in your face, there will be a moment where you look around and see doors that appear bolted shut. It will feel silly or embarrassing to even reach for the handle. But if you recognize that there is a door that will lead to something you deeply want, then you must do everything in your power to get it open. You have to tirelessly fiddle with the locks. You have to try to rip the damn door off its hinges. You have to bang on it, beg it to open, no matter how ridiculous it feels or looks.
I was lucky enough to be in a position where countless people were right there with me, shouting at me to pull harder (the door is a pull, not a push), or even clawing at the door themselves. Those are the people worth having in your life. I was at a place that offered me so many doors it didn't matter that several ended up being permanently locked. Not everyone is given those opportunities. I would say I'm blessed, but in my personal belief system that would diminish the work other people did to get me here. My parents didn't flinch when I said comedy was my new path in life. My friends never mocked me when I begged them to read another script I wrote. My girlfriend didn't roll her eyes as I practiced telling her why I deserved to work with Oprah Winfrey. They gave me my Heisman.
The timeline starting from the moment my quad ripped apart on that field at Lake Travis High School to Kris Dufour and Dick Quinn asking me to write this story is filled with highs and lows, victories and defeats. I've battled dependency on prescription painkillers. I've said the sentence, "Pilates is my life." I will now graduate from a prestigious northeastern college. If I could talk to 5th-grader David Hourin, the one who fantasized about this moment every night under his football bed sheets, the one practicing dives onto a pile of blankets on the floor of his bedroom that served as an imaginary end zone, I would smack the football out his sweaty little hands and tell him to short the housing market in 2007. But I would also hug him tightly, rub his back that doesn't hurt yet, and tell him we did it.