Brandon Ingram could hardly breathe. He’d try and try, inhaling deeply as he walked along the beach near his home in Los Angeles, but each attempt fell short. Stuck, somehow; a full breath just out of reach. He’d return home and continue to practice breathing by pacing up and down his four flights of stairs. But he’d still end up gulping for air, frustrated and confused. And more than a little scared. Not being able to do something so fundamental, so simple, was jarring. How am I ever going to get back to being the player I was? he’d think. It was March. He had just had surgery for deep venous thrombosis, also known as a blood clot, in his right arm, prematurely ending his third season for the Lakers. The two-hour procedure included removing part of his rib, which in turn, affected his lungs. His breathing. Doctors had him use a machine that prompted him to suck in air, and a corresponding tube would shoot up and down, telling him how much pressure he could produce. “First week, I’m coming up short. Real short,” Ingram says. “I kept building up, building up.” It took about a month to capture his normal cadence.
Some nights, Roberto Aguayo would just stare at the wall in his home and cry. Think to himself: What is happening? Stare at his foot: Why aren’t you doing what you’ve always done? Stare at himself in the mirror: Why can’t you do this? The pressure weighed on him. Consumed him. Pressure of missing another kick. Of being drafted in the second round out of Florida State in 2016 after Tampa Bay traded up for him in a stunning move. Of letting everyone down. He was angry. Angry at the fans who called him a “bust” and a “headcase.” Angry at the reporters who’d ask him over and over why he was failing. Angry because the painful reality was that they were all right. He was being paid to do a job that he could not do. He was not delivering. He was not living up to expectations.
James “Boobie” Williams is sitting on a plush black chair in the Green Bay Packers’ players lounge. His hands are clasped, his mind busy. The undrafted running back out of Washington State just worked out for an hour, hoping to impress Green Bay’s staff into signing him. A member of the staff tells him make yourself at home while they deliberate—but how can he make himself at home when he does not have a home, a meaning, a team? When all of this could end tomorrow? End in an hour? So he sits and waits, sits and waits, here on this afternoon in Green Bay in late July, staring at the five flat-screen TVs surrounding him. The Pop-A-Shot machine in the corner. The pool table in the middle. All of it feels like some strange fantasy: being in the room but not quite being in the room. “I don’t know how it’s going to go,” Williams says. His mind wanders. Re-plays every drill in his head, hoping it will be enough. Fearing that it will not.
Davante Adams finally takes a breath, cozying into a chair in his kitchen. There are guests to call, boxes to unpack, furniture to re-arrange here in his new home in Danville, California. But his mind quiets as a woman comes over and drapes a towel around his shoulders. Ebonie Hegwood, a longtime family friend, begins braiding his hair. Twisting, tightening, patting, prodding, she works each section with the precision of a surgeon and the warmth of a mother.
Helmets, arms and shoulders hinder his vision, but Aaron Donald bulldozes his way through double-team after double-team. It’s the first half of a Week 4 game against the Minnesota Vikings. Donald has yet to sack anyone in this game, or this season. He isn’t worried, though. By the fourth quarter, the All-Pro defensive tackle of the Los Angeles Rams has had enough. He eyes QB Kirk Cousins and prepares to strike. NFL quarterbacks fear getting sacked by Donald in the same way ordinary people fear getting older: They know it will happen, and they know they can’t do much about it.
Kayvon Thibodeaux couldn’t help that he sprouted to 6’2″ by age 13. He couldn’t help that he charged through kids in his Pop Warner All-Star Game that year like they were hollow figurines. An ambulance was called when one boy couldn’t get back up. “He didn’t mean to hurt anyone. He was just strong,” says his mother, Shawnta Loice. “They couldn’t stop him.” Until referees did. They were so concerned for the other team’s safety that they pulled Thibodeaux out and didn’t allow him to re-enter the game.