When we hear the term diehard fan, most of us may get an instant visual of those guys all dressed up in outlandish outfits and painted from head to toe in team colors. Or perhaps you think of those people camped outside of practices and hotels waiting to get a glimpse of their favorite players.
But for me, a true diehard fan is one who cherishes the game in the “purist” sense; one who is addicted to learning as much as they can about the game. This is the category to which I belong; this is the type of fan I’ve always been.
But on rare occasions in this world, a fan can do enough things right in his life process to actually become more than just a fan; he can actually reach the pinnacle of football competition, surrounded by legends long admired only now taking on the role as teammate and peer.
Sometimes, just sometimes, a diehard fan can become an NFL player.
My accomplishments as a football player were, perhaps expectedly, first born from my being the biggest football fan in any room I entered. Never throughout my youth and growing up did I encounter a peer who knew more about football than I did.
If there were people my age range out there who did have more information than I did about the NFL, I sure wasn’t aware of it. I was consumed by football in a unique and perhaps all-encompassing sense: as a fan, as a student and as a player.
My first memories about football were of me being a Dallas Cowboys fan because I always liked the star on their shiny silver helmets. It was right around this time when I actually started paying attention to the game in more detail. I must have only been about six years old at time, but suddenly the game started taking on a new meaning for me.
Luckily, my father was there to bestow an elaborate wealth of football knowledge directly into my lap. He himself was a diehard football fan since childhood, when his father would take him to USC games in the '40s and '50s.
His father played fullback for USC during the '20s and was known as “Down the Middle Riddle.” But by all observations, neither he nor I were blessed with exceptional athletic ability. We were relegated to the standard yet devoted status of your basic diehard fan.
My father did have one of the more impressive eyes for talent I ever saw. His ability to identify and predict a player’s success was impressive and almost always on target; it also gave me a nice foundation to build my own football skills from.
Through his descriptions and comments, I was catapulted into a thought process that had me constantly prodding and probing the differences between talent and the lack thereof. This indirectly helped me to understand from an early age how the game works from an individual standpoint.
He helped me appreciate the beauty of the sport, as well as the intensity of NFL competition, for which I’ve been a fan of ever since.
Football Sundays at the Riddle house were no-nonsense, all-business affairs, which meant if you were in the living room, you either watched the game or you had to leave.
And if the 49ers were playing, my father would be so focused and nervous about the game that he was unable to take a single bite of food until the game was either over or the outcome was decided. This environment was bound to serve as an incubator for a crazed football fan.
As a kid. I would sit in the living room on Sundays with my father. He’d be fully immersed in the game while I’d go back and forth between acting out football moves and plays with my action figures, and the game itself.
Oddly enough, I believe the intimacy of executing football moves with my toys actually expanded my imagination and understanding of how to turn the human body into a football tool.
By late afternoon, and several games later, just about when I’d seen enough football for the day, I would then be consumed by a madness to reenact the very feats of glory from the day’s action by either playing football in the streets with my dad, or by going into my room and diving into my own personal manifestation of the NFL with some classic video games like Tecmo Bowl and John Madden Football, depending on how far back we want to go.
During the Tecmo Bowl era, I was the kid who was writing down stats on a piece of paper and tracking the digital athlete’s progress from one game to the next. I likely would play the game while going back and forth with my toys in order to get the complete sensory experience.
The more I watched football, the more I loved it—and the more I loved it, the more I wanted to play it. When I was eight years old I signed up for Pop Warner, fully prepared to live out my dreams of game-winning touchdown runs and acrobatic feats of amazement.
Little did I know, playing organized football in full gear was extremely demanding on me physically. I distinctly remember the coaches having us lay around in a circle as we did leg-raises for so long that you could hear numerous kids literally crying from the pain.
It may seem odd, but at the time I didn’t realize how much pain and torture was involved in getting a player into football-type shape—not to mention the bulky gear overwhelmed my tiny body and made running and basic coordination a task in itself.
The fun I came to expect from watching football and playing it casually at the park was a far cry from reality. To my surprise and disappointment, I was turned into a backup offensive guard who only saw action a few plays each game, and only to keep parents and their children happy.
There was one particular game that I didn’t get to play at all, and I ended up crying to my father afterward as we walked to the car. He told me I didn’t have to play if I didn’t want to. That was the last time I played Pop Warner football.
I wouldn’t strap on a helmet again until I was in high school, nearly six years later.
My freshman year was a big year of learning for me—I was physically awkward and had yet to really sprout like most the kids my age. I was 5’5” and just barely edged out a starting strong safety spot on a team that frankly wasn’t very good. But hey, at least I was a starter and actually playing a position I enjoyed.
By my sophomore year I had grown nearly four inches in height but was still awkward and skinny. I played tight end and outside linebacker that year and had spent much of the summer working out and training with a cousin of mine who was also a football coach.
Those days out in the hot sun working my butt off and sharpening my tools helped me improve my football skills and coordination remarkably. They also aided in improving my speed and getting me in better shape all-around.
The new and improved version of me yielded noticeable results. I was awarded most improved player on the JV team. But by no stretch of the imagination was anyone foreseeing anything near a Division I future, let alone a path that would take me all the way to the National Football League.
In fact, I will never forget sitting in an annual one-on-one meeting with my head coach just before my junior year. He told me I had a good season at the JV level, but he asked, “How do you expect to start on varsity this year when we have both outside linebacker spots locked up by established seniors who are both faster and stronger than you?”
Admittedly, I didn’t have a good answer for him at the time, but I did feel as though I had other tools to bring to the table but was unsure how to vocalize them.
That year turned out to be a big one for me, as I started every game at outside linebacker on varsity while setting the school record with 17 sacks. I’m not sure if it has since been broken.
By this point I had officially established myself as a pretty decent high school football player. But I was still flying completely under the radar in terms of scholarship offers and any love from recruiters. To the college football world, I did not exist.
By the time my senior year came around, I had put on some muscle mass and was now looked at as one of the team leaders.
My position had changed from outside linebacker to inside while I also played tight end on offense, but defense was and always will be my bread and butter.
Although we were atrocious as a team, winning only one game all season, I was named MVP of the team after leading in tackles, sacks and contributing at times on offense.
Following my senior year, I was starting to receive some recruiting letters and questionnaires, but the losing atmosphere that year had really taken its toll on my desire to play college football. I was also afraid of the idea of having to work insanely hard at morphing my body into a giant mass of muscle.
Besides, the violence of the sport had become apparent to me after the beating my body took just from playing against high school kids. The thought of playing against much more serious competition was, in all honesty, intimidating.
I mean, my shoulders were already in intense pain for unknown reasons, and I would get the wind knocked out of me at least once a game. These things are no fun.
I had really come a long way from the eight-year-old who could barely run in pads. The type of interest and offers I was receiving were respectably a few small Division I-type schools with some lower divisions mixed in. However, the depths of my potential were nowhere near realized at this point.
Yet, to the surprise of many, I decided to hang up my cleats and put football behind me. I would always be a fan of the game, but I just felt as if playing at the college level was more than I wanted to take on. My plan instead was to go to film school to become a documentarian.
I never returned a single recruiting letter.
I enrolled into a junior college part-time for two years while working as a waiter at a restaurant. When the head coach of the JC I was attending discovered that I was enrolled there and not playing for them, he took it upon himself to personally call me at least once a week in hopes of convincing me to join the team. Each time I respectfully declined.
I was enjoying life away from the rigors and physicality of the game. I focused on the arts and being creative. I relished the freedom of not having to be disciplined or constantly busy. But in the back of my mind, I was missing the game dearly. It was starting to eat a hole right through me.
One day I woke up with a very disturbing thought in my head. I was bothered all day by this nagging concept that I was unable to shake. The thought was of me looking back on my life as an old man. Would I want to reflect on a life plagued by the idea that I never took the chance to find out how good I could’ve been, or how far I could’ve gone?
Perhaps most pressing, though, was that I simply just missed the game of football.
With careful deliberation, I decided to show up for practice at the junior college I was attending—this time with the mindset to simply approach football as a fun activity with nothing to lose. The plus side of this strategy is that it allowed me to think outside the box more than anyone I worked with in terms of technique and strategy in one-on-one matchups.
Rather than becoming a robot to coaching, I took the opportunity to really think for myself and come up with my own moves and approaches to the game. This, of course, would frustrate coaches at times, but the results quickly became unmistakable.
The down side to this liberated approach to football was that I wasn’t putting the type of focus and effort into the weight room that I could have. In that area, I admittedly accepted mediocrity.
After my first year of junior college football, it became clear that I had Division I potential and an opportunity to have my education completely paid for. The game suddenly became more important to me than it had been in the past.
With the realization of my potential and the surprising success I had as a raw, out-of-shape kid returning to shockingly dominate at the college level, it was obvious that I should embrace this opportunity by putting my entire focus into the craft. That offseason, I hit the weight room full-throttle and put on 15 pounds of muscle, taking me from a 215-pound defensive end to 230 pounds at 6’2”.
Even with the weight gain, I was clearly an undersized defensive lineman. Yet despite my size deficiencies, I managed to block three punts and two field goals on the season while amassing seven sacks in part-time duty.
My second and final year at the JC level was significantly better after a complete offseason of dedication to the sport. I set the career sack record for the school while being voted MVP of the team—as a defensive end, no less. Needless to say, such an award is typically dedicated to positions that have the ball in their hands consistently.
I subsequently earned a full ride to the University of California where I played two seasons. Along the way, I set the school’s single-season sack record. I was also named a collegiate All-American and first-team All-Pac 10.
Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to achieve so much in the sport I grew to love. I always knew I was a fan, but nobody saw this level of success coming. In fact, heading into my senior season at Cal, I wasn’t even considered the starting defensive end during the first few weeks of training camp.
These types of low expectations had always been my pattern when it came to expectation. Frankly, I never looked the part—it was always hard for people to imagine I could possibly do the things I ended up doing on a football field.
Even my own biased and ever-supportive father was continuously and completely blindsided by my success on the field.
I only wish now I’d been more vocal about how much he helped me along the way—both directly and indirectly—at becoming the person I was able to become. He was the foundation that allowed me to thrive in the world of football, especially considering that my greatest tool and asset was always my extensive knowledge of the game.
I was never the biggest, fastest, strongest or most athletic at any level I competed in, but I somehow managed to reach the highest level of the sport.
For my father, I am eternally grateful.
In 2005, I was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the sixth round. The rest of my story can be found in my article archives.