“James, keep your room straight!”

“Clean up the kitchen.”

“Do it again, and do it right!”

My mom was strict. She barked out orders like a drill sergeant in an attempt to keep her three sons in line. She took the tough approach…there would be no deadbeat sons in her home. We were to be responsible men who made a difference in this world, good fathers who treated their wives with respect. She was determined that none of us would turn out to be like our father.

Looking back now, I understand that she was trying to protect us. My mother had firsthand experience with evil in this world. She also saw it played out every day at the hospital and sheriff’s office where she worked. I get it now. But at the time, I didn’t understand her tough love. All I knew was Mama was always yelling at me.

To a young child, it was confusing. Nothing I did ever seemed to satisfy her. Nothing was ever good enough. I lived in a constant state of fear of failure as she pushed me to be the best of the best. My best always seemed to come up short.

High school was like a coming of age for me. I was determined not to fail at any level—academically, athletically, or on the job. I sought to do everything with excellence. I was determined not to be a woulda-coulda-shoulda story.

Desperate to get out from under my mama’s authority, I sought after every chance to get a college scholarship. I was certain college would be my ticket to success. I went to the coach at my high school. “Coach,” I said, “I can’t be a deadbeat in my mom’s home. Help me find something that I can excel in, something that will cause colleges to take notice of me.”

I put irons in every fire—football, weight lifting, track, and wrestling. I also carried a full-time job. Whatever it took to set me apart, I did it. I made it to the state finals in wrestling, and I became a state champion in weight lifting. But my football abilities caught the eye of college coaches.

I was a big guy with a knack for falling on people at the right time. Big schools, small schools, schools from every direction…they started calling me. Florida State University and the University of Miami offered me positions on their teams. In the end, I chose a position at Albany State in Georgia. I hoped that at a smaller school, I’d receive more playing time that would, in turn, open doors for me to play in the NFL. Albany State’s location also put much desired distance between Mama and me.

When people go through tough times as youngsters, they often create fantasy worlds where they can hide from all the pain in their lives. Some people use clothes, cars, jewelry, and fancy hairdos to create an image that makes them feel good about themselves and lets them look good in the eyes of others. Others use substances to numb their pain. In college, I created my own façade to mask my pain—my sense of failure—through achievements, performance, and people pleasing. In the world I created for myself, I became the big man on campus. They called me Hollywood.

Everybody loved Hollywood—the coaches, the teachers, and the students—and that was fine by me. All I ever wanted in life was to be liked and accepted; but in my quest for acceptance, I became trapped in a cycle of performance. I had so many things on the table that I got distracted. I became so busy reaching for the applause of people that I got lost myself.

My fantasy world came tumbling down one day at football practice. I remember it like it was yesterday. The team was preparing for the homecoming game. I was on the line. The ball was hiked to the quarterback, but it came loose. Doing my job, I jumped on the ball…but then the whole team jumped on me! And just like that, my NFL dreams were gone. The ligaments in my leg were torn.

With a bum leg and shattered dreams, one might think I would have reached out for God, but I didn’t. No; I got up out of that hospital bed and jumped right back on the performance cycle, working harder than ever to please people and be a success. As I did, I moved further and further from the man God had designed me to be and the man Mama had raised me to be.