• adamzielonka

On Peyton Manning, Fred VanVleet and knowing my worth

There’s an old tale about Peyton Manning, and though I think every football fan knows it by now, I’ll summarize it here.

Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian had to decide between drafting Manning and Ryan Leaf first overall in 1998. The choice was less obvious than it sounds today. We have the benefit of hindsight in knowing that Leaf would end up a colossal bust and Manning would be one of the greatest of all time.

According to Polian, at the end of a meeting days before the draft, Manning told him, “Listen, I just want to leave you with this one thought: If you draft me, I promise we will win a championship. And if you don’t, I promise I will come back and kick your ass.”

Bold. A bit funny. Peyton-esque. And obviously, Polian and the Colts made the right selection.

I’ve been mulling over whether to write a blog post with that as a springboard, however cliched the story may have become. I was leaning toward skipping the idea. Then, over the weekend, I read about Fred VanVleet.

VanVleet was a crucial figure on the Wichita State men’s hoops team that went undefeated in the 2013-14 regular season. He was named an All-American and stayed through his senior year to continue leading the upstart Shockers. But when the 2016 NBA draft came around, all 60 picks came and went without the commissioner announcing his name.

In fact, two teams did call to say they wanted to pick him in the second round — just to stash him in the Development League for two years, where players at the time were paid a rate lower than some states’ minimum wage. VanVleet declined and signed with the Toronto Raptors after the draft, with no guarantee he’d make an impact there.

“My story don’t end here,” VanVleet told the family and friends who’d gathered at his draft party. At the end of the night, he tweeted, “Bet on yourself.”

VanVleet’s story resurfaced this weekend because he signed a four-year, $85 million deal with Toronto, the largest for an undrafted player in NBA history. He’s earned every dime. He became an important contributor for the Raptors, then worked his way into a starting role and helped them win the 2019 NBA championship.

Both these stories exude athletic self-assuredness, but the key difference is how much more VanVleet had to lose. Manning wasn’t going to fall further in the draft than No. 2 overall. Even if that anecdote is still getting twisted into clickbait headlines in 2020, the fact is it wasn’t dangerous for someone with Manning’s pedigree to tell a prospective employer he’d “kick their ass” if they didn’t hire him.

VanVleet clearly did the bolder thing when he turned down not one but two chances to be drafted. The $20,000 D-League salary looked puny, but it would’ve been the safe route compared to a possible salary of $0 and the failure to achieve your dream.

VanVleet knew what he was worth. He bet on himself and it paid off. But it was still a bet — a gamble.

I’m writing this because I bet on myself this year, too. I chose to leave my last job in August and pursue something that will be better for me long-term. There are several details that I’ll keep private for now, but in short, I needed new surroundings.

The state of the world (COVID-19, the economy, the sports landscape and news industry) ensured it would be a challenging wait. But the job openings are out there — believe me, I’ve applied — and my efforts thus far have been stonewalled. For positions I know I’m qualified for, I’m not getting so much as a call back. It’s becoming clear that I won’t be able to start a new job till sometime in 2021.

It’s important I note that there are great people in my corner. I’ve been working freelance assignments for the Associated Press and the Washington City Paper thanks in large part to my connections with Stephen Whyno and Kelyn Soong, two of the kindest people I’ll ever meet in this business. I also have a small collection of close friends I’ve been able to confide in, for which I’m grateful.

This would have been much tougher to endure without these folks’ help. But I’ve had bad days, even bad weeks since August, filled with moments where I wasn’t necessarily doubting my decision but certainly wallowing in the frustration.

That’s why I’m getting this all out of my system right now.

I don’t have tons of swagger. Tooting my own horn has never been one of my strong suits. But I’m running out of ways to write my cover letters. Running out of words to express why I’m a natural fit for the opening at your newspaper, or how my work ethic knows no bounds.

That’s why I found some comfort in Manning’s and VanVleet’s stories, especially VanVleet’s. I’m not shy to say it now. I bet on myself this year, and the right organization is going to take notice.

And to the companies who have passed me over for full-time jobs: Please take my word that I’m not usually this impolite, but I don’t know a better way to say this.

I’m going to prove how wrong you were.

I will come back and kick your ass.

(Photo via Creative Commons)

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