NO.

A hot tear rolled down my cheek as I worked to straighten my twisted frown and fake a shred of composure. I had told myself I wasn’t going to cry.

I saw a wince dance across Coach Miles’ face as his eyes began to redden, as well. I stared into the watering gaze of a man who saw glimpses of his own daughter in my eyes. A man who recognized there was going to be no easy way to deliver any verdict.

It had been 18 months since the day I felt a stirring in my heart to begin an uphill, unexpected journey.  I wanted my life to matter. Not just in the big-picture, but on a day-to-day basis. I was tired of living comfortably and making safe decisions. I wanted to risk it all. I wanted to have an impact. I wanted to live boldly. In asking God how He planned for me to do so, I received an unexpected answer.

Football.

There’s hardly a sports tv network, radio station, or social media site that hasn’t covered bits and pieces of my story since the day a few reporters caught me training with the football team at the indoor facility. We had worked so hard to keep my endeavor under wraps. For months and months I had trained–in conjunction with training and competing through my senior soccer season at LSU–with the permission and encouragement of the LSU Football coaches, the guidance of the players, and the care of the trainers. But 6 months into my preparation the cat was out of the bag, and the fire-storm commenced.

With the media attention came the interest. With the interest came the divided opinion. With the divided opinion came every sports-lover’s overwhelming and adamant input into my motives, my ability, my strengths, my weaknesses, my intentions, my faith, my past, my present, my future, and the fact that I had a sports bra strapped to my chest rather than a jock strap between my thighs. In conjunction with the LSU Athletic Administration crew, we worked to hyper-selectively pick through hundreds and hundreds of media requests to handle the necessary evil of addressing the endeavor publicly. We agreed on a handful of outlets and I gave a few interviews, then got back to work. From that point forward, media stations aired, re-aired and shared my story and the nation began to pick apart, evaluate, and dig deeper into all they were convinced they knew about “Mo Isom: the girl trying to play football at LSU”.  All the while, Mo Isom, the girl trying to play football at LSU, was simply doing just that. Warmly accepted and gradually respected by the 100+ young men who suit up on Saturday nights.  Practicing and perfecting a newly-learned kicking form. Studying the game and studying the quirks of the specialist position.  I think the hype of the college football culture in our country often blinds people to the reality that we are just a bunch of kids–navigating our way through college classes, fumbling through the highs and lows of relationships, and ultimately playing the sports we love for the schools we’re awfully proud to represent. I fit right in with my gridiron brothers–there was nothing unique or outrageous that divided us. We were all athletes working our hardest to push ourselves beyond the limit of “normal”. My pursuit of a football career was no different.

The AC hummed as Coach Miles slowly crafted his words. There was a mutual understanding that hung thick in the room. A mutual respect. He knew all I had been through–it was an unspoken reality that demanded respect, for the commitment alone. He knew of my personal journey–the suicide of my father, the horrific car accident–he knew of my recovery, of my unflinching commitment to live life unchained by my adversities. He knew all that I had voluntarily, physically endured for 18 months–the 3-a-days, the strict nutritional regimen, the weight-training program, the injuries, the rehabilitation, the countless hours on my own. He knew that I had navigated the obstacles of being a woman in a man’s environment–that there had never been issue, never been controversy, and that the team respected me and accepted me. He knew that I had handled the media carefully, that I had garnered support from thousands, as well as faced scrutiny and degradation by uninformed, yet overly-confident, outsiders. He knew all of those things. And I knew that he had a difficult decision to make. I knew he had given me a fair opportunity–an open door and open access to his facilities, his coaches, his equipment, and his program.  I knew he had faced scrutiny as well and, likely, a little distraction in the process. I knew that he had a unique situation on his hands and that he had never complained, asked me to leave, or discouraged my goal.  He had always encouraged me, always supported me, and always granted me the opportunity to give my dream my best shot.

He had also always been honest with me. That final day, sitting in his office, was no exception.  It was not easy news to hear, as I’m sure it was not easy news to deliver. After 18 months of effort, nobody wants to hear a “no”. But a “no” was the final verdict. And I had to hold my head high, though my brow quivered and my face grew hot and speckled.

As thoughts and emotions swirled through my mind, I worked to process all that I was feeling. Coach Miles continued to talk, and while I was trying desperately to listen and process his words, I found myself zoomed out of my circumstance and overwhelmed by the weight of  the “no.”

No. Though I could strike 53 yard field goals, there were other guys already on the roster who could do the same.

No. Though I was consistent, accurate, and conditioned, there was not room or need for another specialist that particular season.

No. Though I had worked for a year and a half, extended my college education into the Graduate program, and perfectly structured my course load moving forward, I would not be competing for another fall.

No. Though the nation was on edge waiting to hear the result–though I wanted to prove all those who believed in me right, and disprove all those who had doubted and degraded me–the story was at its end.

No.  Though I believed that God had specifically called me to pursue this goal–the final verdict was NO.

No.

In the weeks that followed, I found myself confused, agitated, anxious, and depressed. All I had invested in for a year and a half was stripped away. All I had been driven by and motivated towards was an illusion. Not only was I not on the team, I was no longer a student-athlete. My eligibility was done. My college career was over. I questioned what more I could have done, I replayed every step and every kick from my tryout. All that I had planned for in the year to come was lost. I questioned Coach Miles, I questioned the motives of the decision, I questioned whether I had ever really had a chance at all. I questioned the system. I had seen how things truly worked from the inside, and I questioned the process. I grieved over the loss of my dream. I grieved over my failure.  I grieved over the “no”.

Time and time again I was drawn back to the same exasperated and frustrated question. “God, I believed that You specifically called me to this chapter of life. Was I mistaken all along? Was I just waisting my time? Am I the fool? Were those who doubted me right? If You called me to take on this challenge, and You saw how diligently and passionately I worked towards it in Your name–always giving You the glory–wasn’t it in Your will for me to ultimately make the team?”

And for the second time in a month, I was hit with the most rattling, course-altering answer…”NO.”

The resounding “no” that was now echoing in my heart gradually pushed out the doubt, anger, and resentment that had been brooding.  This “no” was humbling, precise, and revelatory.  It drew me to a realization of reality that I suppose I was intended to learn, all along. “No” is not a word of dismissal, it is a word of direction.

I was called to listen to God’s leading, take on the challenge He presented me, and passionately pursue the goal He set, in Christ’s name.  I was never assured of the result. Would I have been as willing to take on as crazy, vulnerable, and challenging a feat had I known there was a closed door at the end of it all? No. Yet God had reason for every step of my journey. Was it up to me to worry about whether those who had doubted me were arrogantly walking around with the false presumption that they had been right all along and knew all the details of the situation? No. Their hearts and their humility were in God’s hands. Was I a fool for having tried and having believed in myself? No. I was strengthened, nourished, and matured through the process. Was I a failure for having received a “no”? No. The success was not in the outcome, but in the steps of faith it took to complete the journey.

It is time for us to begin listening to God’s call in our lives and responding. His direction is going to look different in every single one of our journeys. We often have this narrow-minded and presumptuous misunderstanding that God can’t use us on a day-to-day basis unless He is using us in an extreme way. But God yearns to use us daily–in every form, fashion, and function.  Do not box God into the ways you think He can and can’t use you.  He works across a spectrum, so far beyond our understanding, to align each of our steps with perfect purpose.  His call in your life is going to be something tailored to exactly who you are–through your strengths, your talents, and your design. Allow Him to stir your heart and guide your steps.

It is not up to you to fully grasp the outcome before you ever commit to the challenge. It is not up to you to worry or stress about the elements of the process you cannot control. It is simply up to you to move forward and to trust in God’s provision and direction–knowing along the way you are bound to hit big and small “NO’s.” But that “No” is not a word of dismissal, it is a word of direction.

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