Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Finding your purpose: My journey back to the classroom

           “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.” My brother Anthony shared this quote with me after he saw the movie “The Equalizer.” This quote can originally be credited to the legendary Mark Twain. I think it is a great quote, and to take it a step further I would like to add, once you find your purpose, what are you going to do to chase your dreams and live out your purpose?
            Some people think I was crazy to leave the Spurs. I was 24 years old, succeeding as an employee for one of the top organizations in sports, and had a strong reputation in the company. But I knew what I was doing wasn’t my passion. I knew God had a different plan for me, and that I needed to pursue the passion He had placed on my heart to find my purpose.
            Finding your purpose is a process. For me that process started from my first memories, although I didn’t necessarily know it at the time.  My first role models were my parents, and my older brother Benny. My mom was a physical education teacher (don’t call it a gym teacher, she will correct you), and my dad was a social studies teacher in the Copiague School District. Hauppauge is my hometown, but Copiague is my second home. My parents grew up in Copiague, and they dedicated their lives to making it a better place. My mom shaped the lives of Copiague’s youth for over 30 years, and impacted so many lives that it is impossible to count. After a successful career as a shortstop at Washington and Lee, and a Headmaster at Christchurch in Virginia, my dad returned to Copiague and spent time teaching social studies, and serving as head of the history department, before eventually rising to assistant principal. My dad also coached the Copiague varsity football, wrestling, and baseball teams, and he was successful doing it. The football team still hasn’t recovered since he left, and the baseball team reached unprecedented heights under his watch. But the most important thing I learned from watching my parents was the relationships they built with their students, and their players. My parents supported these students as if they were their own children, and had a genuine love for them. They held them accountable when they acted up, but they were also the first ones to give them praise and be there to congratulate them when they succeeded. They refused to let the sometimes broken neighborhoods, and homes these kids were raised in, define who these students became.
            I didn’t want to be a teacher though. I wanted to blaze my own path. I loved playing sports growing up. My brothers and I would go all year round; baseball in the spring and summer, football in the fall, and wrestling in the winter. Benny was our first hero, and we watched him in football and wrestling through his high school and college career. I knew I wanted to be a college athlete from that point on. Football was my best sport, and after a successful senior year I ended up at Robert Morris University. I wanted to test myself at the highest level, and RMU gave me a chance to do that. I figured I would give it my best shot to make it to the NFL, and if that didn’t work out, I would take advantage of RMU’s Sport Management program and go into scouting, and eventually become a general manager in baseball or football. But when you’re 18 you don’t really have as much figured out as you think you do. I found out pretty quickly that I didn’t have what it took to make it to the NFL, and during my freshman year I had the chance to meet RMU alum, and Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert, and former New York Giants General Manager Ernie Accorssi at the Robert Morris Sport Management Conference and I learned I didn’t want to be a General Manager either. The NFL is a business. I learned from talking to Ernie and reading his book, the hard truth of how difficult it is to sit there and tell a man who has worked all his life to achieve a dream of playing in the NFL, that we don’t have room on the roster for him, or that he needs to take a paycut so we can sign somebody else. Evaluating talent sounds great, cutting players, and firing coaches, not so much.
            While I was figuring out that I didn’t want to be a GM, I made a connection that would change my life forever. In my first semester at RMU I had a professor named Dr. Artemisia Apostolopoulou, who changed my life. I got a 34 on Dr. A’s first quiz, and I felt terrible about it. I started to question whether I was cut out for college. I knew I needed to do something differently, so I went to her office hours. I told Dr. A that I thought her quiz was too hard, so she asked me how much I had prepared for it. I told her not much, but I thought I could get by like that. Dr. A was disappointed in my effort, but she offered me some study tips, and challenged me to do better. Most importantly she showed a belief in me, that I didn’t necessarily have in myself at the time. She so genuinely believed in my ability to succeed, that I had no choice but to perform. I owed that to her, and I owed that to myself.
            I made it through my first year at RMU with a 3.7 GPA, and although I wasn’t getting the time on the field that I wanted, my identity was less tied up in who I was as a football player, and more tied up in who I was as a student-athlete, and a brother, and a son. Life was good. That summer I started hearing rumors about some of my teammates leaving.  I found out they weren’t leaving by choice though, they were struggling, and had nobody to lean on in the face of adversity. One of my teammates got arrested and kicked out of school, one had failed multiple drug tests and was suspended from playing football, and decided to leave school, and a third was ruled ineligible for failing to earn enough credits before the start of our sophomore year. Just like that three of my teammates were gone. Now you might be sitting there thinking “they did this to themselves” or “they had their chance.” But these were my teammates, these were my brothers, and I couldn’t just sit by idly and watch them struggle. We were in this struggle together. I did everything I could to help my teammates, from holding study groups, helping them complete assignments, and letting them borrow my laptop, to taking them home for a day so they could see their families. I was just one person though, and I could only do so much as their teammate and friend. I had taken it upon myself to seek out a mentor like Dr. A, but who did the student-athletes that didn’t take that initiative have in their corner when things went wrong?
            The NCAA is a broken system. As the NCAA and its member schools profit off of their athletes, what are they doing to help these athletes graduate and find success once they do? I wanted to be somebody that could help these student-athletes achieves their goals on and off the field, and ultimately become the men and women they are capable of. Now the question was, how to do it. It turns out at schools that have a larger athletic budget than RMU, they offer academic services, and in some cases counseling services, specifically for student-athletes. I think this is really important because the student-athlete experience is very different from that of the general student population, and their schedules don’t always allow them to take advantage of traditional tutoring or counseling services. Along the way Benny showed me a feature they did on Showtime: 60 Minutes Sports, on a man named Greg Harden, who works with the student-athletes at the University of Michigan. Greg helps student-athletes by providing counseling, and offering tough love when needed. I’ve watched that clip at least 20 times, and he is an inspiration for me today.
            RMU’s Sport Management department has a tremendous amount of alums in the sports business world. People like Dr. Dave Synowka, Dr. A, Harry Leckemby, Steve Swetoha, Lisa Quinn, Bill Sutton, Rob Mattina, Russ and Katy Yurk, and Murray Cohn have helped to build it into one of the top sports business programs in the country. The sports business world is where my connections were, so I decided to make the most of the opportunity. I earned an internship with Spurs Sports and Entertainment for the summer before my senior year, and turned that into a full time job offer.
            I loved everything about the Spurs. The organization treated us right. The Spurs call their employees and their customers the Spurs Family, and they really were my family. They took care of us. I developed a strong relationship with my hiring manager Frank Torres, and he helped me adjust to life in a new city. I made some friendships with both my coworkers, and my clients, that I know will last a lifetime.  I had the chance to be a part of an NBA championship winning organization, and meet some of the best players in the world. I have no regrets about the two years I spent there. But I knew that producing revenue for a professional sports franchise wasn’t my passion. I was good at it, and it was fun, but I knew I needed to live out my purpose.
            I applied to be a graduate assistant at Tulane University in February, through a posting I found on NCAA Job Board. I had no connection to Tulane, and I had never even been to New Orleans, but the position was for a graduate assistant role in the Academic Services Center for Student-Athletes, and they had a respected social work program, so it seemed like a perfect fit.  After an on campus interview, and a brief tour of New Orleans, I returned to San Antonio to wait and find out my fate. I felt like I was cheating on the Spurs during that time, but at the same time I feel like they understood. When I got the news that they were offering me the job, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. I was somewhat shocked, excited beyond belief, and sad to leave at the same time. On May 31st I packed up a U-haul and my car, and made the drive to New Orleans.
            It’s hard to believe I already made it through one semester here. I got involved right away. I helped out with our athlete essentials 101, and 201 classes this summer, helped develop new programming for the student-athletes, served as an educational assistant for some of our freshmen student-athletes, monitored our Academic Excellence Program which functions as an objective based study hall for our freshmen football players, and took seven of my own classes. I met some really awesome people, and integrated myself into my new home city along the way. It’s a grind, and I’m often running low on sleep, but I wouldn’t change anything. I feel so blessed to be where I am, and I thank God every day for leading me here. I’m so thankful for all of the people in my life that have helped to shape me into the man I am today, and hopefully I can help these student-athletes I have the privilege of working with realize their potential. I believe all of us have greatness inside of us, what are you doing to share your greatness with the rest of the world?


  1. Awesome testimony, Danny; I enjoyed reading it. I pray God's continued blessings & favor in all of your future, God-ordained endeavors as you walk in the amazing purpose & destiny that He has specically & specially designed, just for you! So glad the Lord crossed our "paths of life". With love, hugs, & prayers to you, my friend!☝❤

  2. Awesome testimony, Danny; I enjoyed reading it. I pray God's continued blessings & favor in all of your future, God-ordained endeavors as you walk in the amazing purpose & destiny that He has specically & specially designed, just for you! So glad the Lord crossed our "paths of life". With love, hugs, & prayers to you, my friend!☝❤

  3. Beautiful testimony to family, faith and hard work. All of Gods blessings are wished for you and your family.

    1. Didn't know it would come up as unknown...My name is Linda Lunt an old friend of the family.