4 years since being medically disqualified, AJ Long reflects on self-doubt from football

first_imgWhen AJ Long decided to coach football, he told himself one thing: never lie to your players.Long didn’t want to be like the coaches who had led him astray. The coaches who’d recruited him to play as a mobile quarterback, only to change to a west coast system. The coaches who told him he wasn’t good enough to play the position he’d been recruited for at Syracuse.Returning to the game as a signal caller was always his long-term plan, just not this early. Coaching at Whitehall High School (Pennsylvania) and Diamond Athletics is his way of keeping his passion alive, showing kids that the most important part of the game is having fun – something he lost throughout much of his time at Syracuse and Wagner.“If they do a great job, I’m gonna tell them they did a great job. If they did a bad job, I’m gonna tell them they did a bad job,” Long said. “I’m focused on being honest with these kids for the sake of these kids’ health, because this stuff impacts what you think, feel and do off the field.”Five years ago, Long became the first true-freshman quarterback to win his first career start at Syracuse. He threw for 171 yards and ran for a score in an October 2014 win over Wake Forest and started five games for the Orange that season after Terrel Hunt’s injury.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textA year later, on Oct. 13, 2015, Long was barred from playing at SU. After suffering his third concussion in less than two years, Dr. James Tucker, a former Syracuse team physician, “disqualified him from further participation in football and any other contact sport at Syracuse,” per a 2015 press release from SU Athletics.Daily Orange File PhotoWhen Long stepped out of Manley Field House on that cold October 2015 day after he was disqualified, his mind wouldn’t stop racing. He paced back to his apartment, 843 Small Road Apt. 3, climbed up the stairs and crawled into bed.As Long lay there and blankly stared at his wall, cemented with posters of some of his idols — Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Robert Griffin III, Kellen Moore and Drew Brees — tears slowly dripped down his cheek.“This isn’t how it ends,” Long thought. “This can’t be the end.”• • •Visits to a neurologist at Penn Medicine in late 2015 gave him hope. Eventually, after being cleared, Long decided he wanted to continue his athletic career at another school.“When he actually sat down and thought about it, he didn’t feel done,” Long’s father Ace said. “We didn’t feel like football was over for him. We didn’t feel as though he was unsafe.”Long knew he wanted to keep playing, but he couldn’t continue at his dream school, so he looked elsewhere. He transferred to Wagner, but after a change in coaches and a back injury caused by over-lifting, he moved again to Division II West Chester. After leaving Syracuse, Long experienced anxiety, depression and self-doubt, which first started in high school and ballooned after his disqualification.Long never felt like Wagner was a perfect fit when visiting, but it was a clean slate. Wagner was one of the few FBS schools to express interest and offered Long a quick path back to the field.Custavious Patterson, Wagner’s offensive coordinator at the time, was Long’s guidance. Long sensed that Patterson cared about him, and he appreciated Long’s authenticity. Still, Patterson was unsure about Long’s health. Patterson asked Ace to drive to Staten Island to dispel his concerns.“His father told me about how he was healthy and how the concussions were a thing of the past,” Patterson said. “As bad as I wanted the kid to play for us, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t being selfish and that I wasn’t going to have a future vegetable on my hands.”The quarterback and coach spoke together up to three times a day. Almost immediately, Long revealed his troubles to Patterson — that Tim Lester, former SU offensive coordinator and current Western Michigan head coach, labeled him as “not good enough to play quarterback.” Western Michigan made Lester unavailable to comment for this story.Patterson didn’t see him as weak or fragile, he said. Even if he had never experienced these fears, Patterson tried to place himself into Long’s mind.  At Wagner, Lester wouldn’t be there to doubt him again.“Why does this happen to me?” Long would often ask.“That type of stuff doesn’t happen everywhere,” Patterson said. “Here’s how you can cope with this.”It started with a deep breath. Every time he started to feel anxious or question his worth, Patterson told Long to sit up straight, inhale and exhale.Patterson then assigned readings. The two covered Urban Meyer’s “Above the Line: Lessons in Leadership and Life from a Championship Program” and Tom Coughlin’s “Earn the Right to Win.”As spring approached, Long was making progress. He had become good friends with Sterling Lowry, now a former Wagner safety and Syracuse native, and settled into the “Wagner brotherhood,” Lowry said.But one day, Long and Patterson were sitting in his office discussing blitz packages when Wagner head coach Jason Houghtaling walked in.“Hey, we’re going to demote you because we want to change up what we want to do,’” Patterson remembered Houghtaling telling him.“I was alright with it because I had seen it coming in the cards,” Patterson said.Karleigh Merritt-Henry | Digital Design EditorBut Long didn’t react the same way. Wagner’s new West Coast philosophy was not supportive of his skillset. As a mobile quarterback who uses his legs and arm to hurt a defense, Patterson’s offense fit him better.In the coming weeks, Long received little to no attention from new Wagner offensive coordinator and current Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scarangello. Scarangello didn’t see Long as the prototypical pocket passer to fit his system, Patterson and Long said.Long had been excluded at Syracuse by Lester, and now, the same was unfolding at Wagner. Those same thoughts of “Why me?” and “Hasn’t enough bad stuff already happened to me?” returned to haunt him.“And when I caught myself really doing that, I didn’t like the person that I was because that’s never the person I’ve been,” Long said.• • •Long looked for a distraction, something to take him away from his playing career. That previous Christmas, Angela Reiss, Long’s mother, gave him his first camera.In August practices, Long snapped pictures of anything he found interesting, usually odd-shaped buildings in Manhattan and pictures of his friends. When the season began, Long still had yet to receive clearance to play following a back injury. So during games, he started snapping pictures of his teammates, the dance team and cheerleaders.It provided an outlet for him — a way to enjoy life outside of sport, a way to forget about the past. He started to believe that he had a greater purpose off the field.“It made me realize that there are other things in life I was good at,” Long said. “It wasn’t just football.”Those past experiences that manifested his anxiety don’t cross his mind as much anymore. After two seasons at West Chester — he threw for 23 touchdowns and won a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) title in his senior year — Long is content with how his playing career concluded.Courtesy of AJ LongEven after the disqualification, Long considered staying at Syracuse and taking a position as a graduate assistant. While sitting on the bench at Wagner, he crafted his plan to coach kids his way. Now, Long’s where he thought he’d be after his career ended. He just got there quicker than he had hoped.Long’s tumultuous path has made him more aware of his weaknesses. He’d known of his anxiety since before college, but his experiences have showed him how to cope with it.For the moment, he finally has it figured out.“It’s been this constant battle but the one thing I will say is I’ve realized that whatever happens, happens,” Long said. “I won’t make kids feel what I felt: inferior, afraid or unable to speak their mind.” Comments Facebook Twitter Google+ Published on August 27, 2019 at 11:07 pm Contact Adam: adhillma@syr.edu | @_adamhillmanlast_img

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