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A Different Kind of Strong

An NFL lineman learns that strength can be fostered by faith when he meets a courageous Iowa farmer.

Ryan Odens (left) and Cory Proctor

I squeezed my 300-pound frame into the seat at Texas Stadium. Far below me my Dallas Cowboys teammates were on the field warming up to face the Kansas City Chiefs, a critical mid-December game. It killed me not to be down there.

I glanced at the guy to my left, frail, thin, a cane resting against his leg. He put out a bony, calloused hand that vanished in mine. “Ryan Odens,” he said. “You look like you’ve played some ball.”

“Actually, I’m an offensive lineman for the Cowboys,” I said. “Just on the practice squad. Coach doesn’t even let us on the sideline on game day.”

“Man, wait’ll I tell everybody back in Iowa I sat next to a Cowboy,” he said.

I forced a smile. His enthusiasm only reminded me how far I had to climb. Fourteen weeks into my rookie season, I hadn’t played a single down. I knew what I had to do: get stronger, hit harder, read the blitz quicker.

I tried not to lose hope. But already I was on my second team. Dallas had just picked me up from Detroit. If I failed here, next season I’d be watching the games on TV with Mom and Dad in Gig Harbor, Washington. Would I ever get to start in the NFL?

Dallas got the ball first. The Cowboys QB that day, Drew Bledsoe, took the snap and threw a bullet to a wide receiver streaking downfield. Ryan struggled to his feet with his cane and pumped his free hand in the air. “All right!” he yelled.

Man, Ryan was a big-time fan. He’d hop up and yell every time the Cowboys made a big play. Whatever had happened with his legs didn’t keep him from showing his spirit. We talked between downs. Finally, I said, “Do you mind my asking what happened to you?”

“Rolled my truck five years ago going around a curve,” he said. “Broke my spine, five vertebrae. The doctors said I’d never walk again. Turned out it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Just then a Dallas running back broke free for the big first down and we never got back to the accident. The Cowboys scored the winning TD with 26 seconds to go. We stood to leave.

“Let me give you my number,” Ryan said. “If you’re ever in Iowa give me a call. I’d love to show you my farm.”

“Sure,” I said, giving him my number. Iowa? I didn’t expect I’d be passing through there anytime real soon.

Day after day I put in extra hours in the weight room, Alabama blasting on my iPod. Then I’d go back to my apartment and pore over the playbook until I fell asleep exhausted.

Was I making any headway? I was going up against the best of the best. Even my prayers seemed to fall short of the mark.

The Cowboys lost two of the last three games and missed the playoffs, not that I had anything to do with it. I flew back to Detroit to clean out the apartment I’d rented there. I’d just tossed the last box in my car when my cell phone rang.

“Hey man,” a voice on the other end said, “it’s Ryan Odens. From Iowa. We met at the Cowboys-Chiefs game. I figure you’re heading home soon. Why don’t you swing by here on the way?”

“Uh, well, I guess I could,” I said. “Just for the night.”

I was bleary-eyed when I pulled up to his house in Sibley, Iowa, after 12 hours on the road. Ryan met me out on the porch. “I hope you’re hungry,” he said. “We’re going to my mom’s for dinner.”

He hobbled down the stairs to his truck, his cane barely enough to support his wobbly legs. But he just kept at it. I climbed in the passenger side. “What do you grow here?” I asked.

“Corn and beans,” he said. “My brother and I farm about twelve hundred acres. I couldn’t have done it without Easter Seals. They paid for a hoist so I could get back on my tractor.”

He popped a CD in the player. Alabama’s “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” pulsed through the speakers—one of the songs I lifted weights to. I thought about how difficult it was to push myself day after day. Where does this guy find the strength?

We got to his mom’s house. Ryan opened the front door to a living room full of people. His mom came in from the kitchen. “We’re so glad you could make it,” she said. “I hope you like roast beef and mashed potatoes.”

“How’d you know?” I said.

We sat down and Ryan said grace. I took some meat from the platter, then took a bite. It practically melted in my mouth.

“So what’s it like being on the Cowboys?” someone asked. It felt odd, being the center of attention. Who knew if I’d even make the team next year?

But they didn’t seem to care. Soon they had me talking about growing up in Gig Harbor, my dad’s veterinary practice and his creaky old Fleetwood.

It was close to midnight when Ryan and I headed back to his place. I was dragging, and Ryan had to be tired too but he was belting out the words to “Forty Hour Week.” Amazing how he kept going and going. There was something I’d been meaning to ask him…

“That thing you said back in Dallas about the accident being a good thing,” I said. “What did you mean?”

He was quiet for a moment. “I thought if I just pushed myself hard enough I’d walk again,” he said. “But I couldn’t. I wasn’t near strong enough, physically or mentally. It had been three months. I didn’t know where to turn.

"One night I cried out to God. I said, ‘Show me you’re really there.’ The next day I took my first step in the therapy pool. Mom was there, like she’d been all along. My family, so many people in town—they gave me so much support.

"A few months later I was driving a tractor again. It was tough. Still is. But I know I’m not doing it alone.”

I peered out the window into the darkness. All these months I’d been comparing myself to pro football players—huge, powerful behemoths. And yet it was this skinny Iowa farmer that I felt a real connection with.

The next morning I woke early and went out onto the porch. The crisp winter air felt fresh and invigorating, inviting. Before long Ryan came out. “Well, you’ve got a good day for driving.”

“I was thinking I’d stay another night if it’s okay with you,” I said.

Ryan beamed. “That’s great!” he exclaimed. “But I hope you don’t mind me putting you to work later on.”

After breakfast we drove out to a field with a section of broken fencing. Ryan grabbed a bent metal pole, straining to wrestle it out of the ground, his legs bowing painfully. “Let me get that, Ryan,” I said.

“Nah, I can handle it,” he said, grunting. He finally extracted it. “You drive the new one in.” No problem. Then we spliced new barbed wire between the poles. “Ready for another?” Ryan asked, his breathing labored.

I looked at him in wonderment. Everything he did was a struggle, even walking, standing up. Things I took for granted.

Ryan never quit. He had a different kind of strength, a strength that didn’t come from working out and weight lifting, but from faith and determination, the things I needed most. It wasn’t an accident that we’d met.

I ended up spending a week in Sibley. There’s always something to do on a farm. But mostly I just wanted to hang with Ryan, two good old boys with a lot more in common than meets the eye.

I just finished my seventh year in the NFL, the last two with Miami. I missed last season with a knee injury. I have another uphill battle ahead of me.

I’m not worried, though. I love football, but it’s not the most important thing. A year ago I married a woman I met in Dallas. Ryan was at the wedding. He’s my best friend and a constant source of inspiration.

It’s funny. I wasn’t where I wanted to be that day at Texas Stadium. But God put me exactly where I needed to be.


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