Article by: Marlon Cook Jr., Contributor at SOUL
‘Who am I?’ At first glance the question seems so simple, but it is one that I have struggled with a lot recently. I graduated from Fordham University this May, where I had spent the past four years as a member of the football team. Even though many see this as a ‘free ride’, they may not fully understand the time and commitment that is required. With long days full of classes, workouts, meetings, practice, and study hall, it was difficult for me to find time for the hobbies and interests that I once enjoyed. Even when I put forth the effort, I was either exhausted or too distracted by other responsibilities. I started to lose pieces of myself as my life became consumed with the demands of being a Division I football player. I wasn’t even sure what was in store for me after college. I had switched my major multiple times and was still not convinced that my degree would be in something I was passionate about.
Being a black football player at a university where the black population is less than five percent came with a particular stigma. I felt like I was constantly on watch by someone waiting and expecting me to fail. This was accompanied by a feeling that I did not belong. Walking through campus I got looks from parents as if they were in shock that black man was walking on Fordham’s campus. While walking to class, I repeatedly got asked ‘Oh you must play football?!’ as if that’s the only way someone who looks like me could have possibly been admitted into the school. These are very subtle moments, but they speak volumes and reinforced the notion that I did not belong there.
Apart from feeling like outsiders in an upside down world, there was also the sense that there was an attempt to change my identity. My junior year, Fordham Athletics held an event called ‘Fordham Gents’ which is an alumni networking event for the African-American student athletes. We were all very intrigued by this opportunity but also somewhat skeptical. The event began with us being greeted by three white men. The event proceeded as one man started naming ‘the first black’ to achieve different accomplishments. Not, for example, Barack Obama the first black man to become President of the United States, but Obama, ‘the first black’. While very passive, that phrasing stripped us of our identity as men and we were left with just a color: Black. They then went on to describe what we had to do to become ‘Men of Fordham’ and ‘align with their values’. The message we heard was that we currently didn’t belong there and that we had to be changed in order to fit in.
The summer before my senior season I received the news that I would no longer be able to play because of health issues. I felt devastated, cheated and wronged. Everything I had worked so hard for, was gone in an instant at the peak of my career. With graduation nearing, I began feeling more and more pressure to find my path. In looking at career choices, I kept feeling like I was being forced to place myself in a specific box. I knew that there was so much more to me than my degree, but LinkedIn and Indeed thought otherwise.
I eventually came to the realization, though, that it is ok to not have it all figured out and I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. Every experience I’ve had, good and bad, has shaped me into the man I am today. We all have our own paths and we cannot get discouraged when ours don’t look like someone else’s. I have learned an abundance on how to thrive in an environment where I don’t fit in; where I am looked at as a stereotype and these are lessons that will stick with me forever. In all my future endeavors, I will have these experiences to look back on. Even though I’ve faced trials, I do not regret my decision to attend Fordham. I have met friends for life and the love of my life. I am gradually learning more about myself and I’m starting to envision my path. I’ve learned to not let others’ perceptions of me define how I live my life and to be me, loudly and unapologetically.