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Trent Shelton: How Failure Inspired Him to Find a New Purpose

When he didn’t achieve his NFL dreams, he had to forge a new path to success and contentment—helping others in the process.

Author and motivational speaker Trent Shelton

I sat on the bed in my old room in my parents’ house in Fort Worth, looking at the pictures on the walls, the trophies lining the shelves. Football. It had always been about football. In high school, in college at Baylor, where I’d been a star wide receiver, dreaming of making it big in the NFL. Now those plaques and trophies seemed to taunt me: “You’re a failure. You’re a loser.”

Trent Shelton on the cover of the August 2019 issue of Guideposts
     As seen in the August 2019 issue
     of Guideposts magazine

I didn’t get picked in the NFL draft. So I’d started out as an undrafted free agent with the Indianapolis Colts. They were fresh off a Super Bowl title—this was 2007. I figured I’d be there to help them get another ring. Peyton Manning and I would be making big plays all over the field. Big plays.

In training camp, I turned heads, balling out. I’m gonna make this team, I told myself. Yet the Colts didn’t play me. “They’re just trying to hide you,” veteran players said. “Keep other teams from signing you.” The Colts cut me instead. I was re-signed to the practice squad, then got cut from that.

That was the first time I holed up in my bedroom. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I felt humiliated. Since I was a kid, I’d talked about being a star in the NFL. What was I going to say now?

A week later, the Colts called me back to the practice squad. A second chance! Coach Tony Dungy talked about putting me in a Monday night game. Then something went wrong with my knee. I tried to suck it up and play through it. Coach saw me limping and told me there was no way I could be activated if I wasn’t able to go full speed. That was it with the Colts. The next season, the Seattle Seahawks invited me to minicamp. They cut me at the end of the preseason. A week later, they called and said they wanted me to come back. I packed my stuff, rushed to the airport, all ready to board the plane. My phone rang. Seattle again. They’d changed their minds. Another receiver had become available, someone who “fit into their plans” better. Someone better than me.

I got another shot, with the Washington Redskins. I ran my fastest time in the 40-yard dash: 4.3 seconds. Elite speed. The Redskins signed me to the practice squad, but I never played a game. By November, I was—you guessed it—cut.

I still wasn’t ready to face the truth. I tried Arena Football—where the smaller fields of turf laid over concrete were brutal on my body. Then I signed up to play for the United Football League, right before it went belly-up. I went into a spiral: smoking, drinking, partying. I got a woman pregnant. I might have been the son of a preacher, but I wasn’t acting like it.

Around that time, my college roommate Anthony Arline took his life. A Baylor football star like me, he’d also had a short-lived NFL career. Like me, he’d gone into a tailspin when his football dreams ran up against reality.

Was that my fate? Retreating to my old bedroom this time felt like the bitter end of everything. I turned away from the photos of me snagging a touchdown, all the trophies and plaques. They held no positive meaning for me anymore. Only reminders of failure. How was I going to move forward? How was I going to support my son? What kind of role model was I going to be?

I sat and wept bitter tears. God, who am I now without football? Why did you give me this dream just to take it away? I prayed harder than I had ever prayed before. Then it came to me: rehab time. Athletes rehab from all sorts of injuries and setbacks. Wasn’t I also struggling with a setback? A big setback.

I started out by hitting the gym with a dude from church. We’d go there in the middle of the night, when the place was empty. Pumping iron, pounding on the treadmill, holding each other accountable. I needed my friend to watch out for me as I watched out for him. I had to remake myself inside and out. I pored over the Bible. I drove to the mall and hung out at Barnes & Noble, sitting at one of the tables, reading every self-help book and inspirational book that I could get my hands on.

I’d get glimpses of what I needed to do, but you can’t remake yourself all at once. You need to take it in stages. I had to face up to the truth of who I was, not who I imagined myself to be. I made short videos of what I’d learned and posted them online, passing on the advice. RehabTime, I called it.

One of my new rules for living was to thank God at the beginning of each day, before even getting out of bed. Thank God for the life I was given. Thank God for my parents, my son. Set things right.

I was just a former football player, not a preacher, author or media star, but I got a call out of the blue. A guy I knew from Baylor asked me to speak at his church. “Who am I supposed to speak to?” I asked. A bunch of teenagers, he said. How many of them would be there? “Five thousand,” he said. Five thousand for my first speaking engagement! How long was I supposed to talk?

“Five minutes,” he said. Five minutes? It might as well have been five hours. I tried not to freak out. I wrote down all the things I should say. I rehearsed them over and over in my head. But the minute I stepped on stage, my mind went blank. I had no idea how to help these teens. All I could talk about was what I’d been through. I took a deep breath, opened my mouth and spoke from the heart. No notes, no filter. Just me straight up.

Those kids peppered me with questions afterward, hungry for more. I got a huge ovation, bigger than I ever got on the football field. That’s when it hit me: You don’t have to be perfect to help people. All you have to be is real.

My life was coming together. I was working at being a good dad, a good son, a good friend. Without even planning it, I had a whole new calling. I began posting to YouTube every day. The videos took off, getting thousands of views, hundreds of thousands—millions. It was both humbling and awe-inspiring. The comments and questions came pouring in, people asking for advice, help I’d never be able to offer if I were playing on Sunday. Help that came from my own struggles.

One day, I picked up the Bible my mother had given me way back in high school. On the cover was a football with the initials NFL. I’d always thought it was a reference to my football dreams, but then I noticed that the letters also stood for something else: New Found Life. On the first page, Mom had quoted Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” This was my newfound life.

Trent today with his wife, Maria, and their children, Tristan and Maya
Trent with his wife, Maria, and their
children, Tristan and Maya

Today I’m happily married with two kids and another on the way. I do a lot of speaking engagements, and every day I post a video and respond to all those questions from people, always trying to be honest, speaking from the heart. Admittedly, trying to keep up with 10 million Facebook followers and 1.6 million on Instagram can be tough. One morning, I woke up and checked my phone before I even got out of bed. Ding, ding, ding, ding. I was being bombarded. How would I ever keep up? I started typing answers. Something on Twitter caught my eye, and I went to retweet it.

Then I stopped myself. What was I doing? Hadn’t I told people that the best way to start the day is with gratitude? Didn’t I believe in doing that myself? No wonder I was so stressed. Physician, heal yourself! Trent, it’s RehabTime.

I put down the phone and went for a hike. There are some great trails near our house. Great for exercise and fresh air. Best of all, my phone doesn’t even work out there. No signal. Nothing to take me away from where I am. I have a new way to start the day now, to protect my peace and to connect with God. I go for a hike first thing. For 45 minutes, nothing else matters. It’s just God and me.

So you see I’m still a work in progress. We all are. There are so many ways to grow; there’s so much to learn and pass along. So much to discover.

Not long ago I was back at that Barnes & Noble, where I used to sit for hours, studying book after book, learning from people who seemed so wise, so full of faith. This time I was sitting in front of a huge stack of books, signing copies. Because this book was my own, The Greatest You, by Trent Shelton. Me, a published author. Who could have ever known? When God says he’ll give you back better than what you lost, believe him.

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