Lessons in Process from an NFL Tight End
Lessons in Process from an NFL Tight End
The following is adapted from Silver Spoon: The Imperfect Guide to Success.
Julius Thomas enjoyed a successful career in the NFL before retiring in 2018. He and I were teammates when we both played for the Denver Broncos. He was a master of focusing on the processes that lead to success, not the outcomes.
Dr. Rick Perea, a sports psychologist who worked with the Broncos, uses the analogy of selling real estate to explain the difference between process and outcome. If a real estate agent has to sell twenty homes a month, that’s their desired outcome. But if they obsess over that quota, they’ll likely make themselves anxious and limit their success.
What should they do instead? Focus on all the little things that will bring about those twenty sales—communication skills, open houses, email marketing. The agent who focuses on the things they can control will likely secure the twenty sales they need, without generating anxiety.
In the NFL, focusing on process rather than outcome can be the difference between crashing out in the divisional round and winning a Super Bowl. Here are some lessons I learned about process from Julius.
Julius hails from Stockton, California, a tough city in the Central Valley of California. He started out as a basketball player, a six-foot-four power forward. Despite an injury that nearly ended his playing days when he was sixteen, Julius earned a basketball scholarship to Portland State in the Big Sky Conference and graduated in four years.
At that point, he could have left college and played basketball professionally in Europe. To the people following his career, that would have seemed like a good outcome. But Julius followed his own voice. He was motivated by his own curiosity, his own desire. That desire told him to stay in Portland for a fifth year and try out for the football team.
Julius has always been someone who walks his own path. And when he’s on that path, he doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the noise that might otherwise distract him. “I struggled with every facet of the game except desire,” he once told me. “If there’s one thing that I would attribute my success to, it would be desire.”
Despite having little experience as a football player, he’d always wanted to try football, but the opportunity had never materialized. His basketball coach in college declined his request to play football. He found a novel way to solve that problem. When his basketball eligibility ran out, he showed up in the football coach’s office offering to play.
“Well, we aren’t in the habit of turning away six-four receivers,” the coach said. “Suit up.” Initially, Julius struggled. He couldn’t block. He didn’t understand the plays or the jargon. Every day that spring, he was the third- or fourth-string tight end. He could have allowed his perceived lack of success bother him. Instead, he kept showing up for practice, giving it everything he had and learning as much as he could.
Then one day toward the end of practice, one of the coaches said, “Let’s see if we can get this guy to catch a pass. Maybe he can do that. He sure as hell can’t block.” So, they called a five-yard drag route, one of the easiest plays in football. Julius came off the line, turned to collect the pass, and took off running. Past the linebackers. Past the secondary. He didn’t stop until he reached the end zone.
The next day, the same thing. More of the coaches started watching. They threw him some more balls, and he ran by everybody. Another house call. Then another. Julius couldn’t block or understand the plays, but he could catch the ball and was difficult to tackle. It turned out that success was waiting for him in an unexpected place.
If he’d become discouraged by his earlier struggles and stopped showing up to practice, Julius would never have caught the coach’s eye. He would never have gotten the chance to demonstrate what he could do. He would never have played in the NFL. Instead, he trusted the process and got his break in an unexpected way.
How Julius Thomas Became an NFL Tight End
Julius did have goals. He set out to try college football and, when he found his niche, he exhibited ironclad self-belief. That spring, he called his brother. “I’m going to be in the NFL next year,” he told him. “Dude, you just started playing three weeks ago,” his brother replied. “All I need is a tryout,” Julius said. “I just wanted to tell you the plan.”
Julius worked on his mindset so that he would be prepared for every possible eventuality. He told himself to play without fear. He told himself that no one believed in him the way he believed in himself. He learned what it meant to be a football player.
In his one year of college football, he was an all-conference tight end, averaging 17.5 yards per catch—a phenomenal number for a tight end. He got invited to a post-season all-star game. He prepared for it like it was the Super Bowl, studying the playbook and rehearsing for his interviews with the professional scouts attending the game.
From there, he was invited to the NFL Combine. He knew he wasn’t going to blow anyone away with his bench press, so he focused on performing well in his interviews with coaches. Eighteen months after his last basketball game, Julius suited up as a Denver Bronco. He started in a Monday Night Football game against the Oakland Raiders, the team he followed as a kid in Stockton.
Julius Thomas is a talented athlete. What sets him apart, however, is that he’s willing to set ambitious—some would say outrageous—goals and do what it takes to achieve them. He focuses on the small steps he can take every day to move toward his objectives. That’s what it means to concentrate on process, instead of outcomes.
After the NFL
How do you think Julius Thomas’s NFL career went? He enjoyed seven great seasons and then decided he’d had enough. Did he follow a typical post-career path? Not at all. He went to work on his PhD in psychology and is now studying to be a performance psychologist.
Does anyone doubt that he will succeed in this new pursuit? I sure don’t. The Julius Thomas that I know will prepare for each exam the way he prepared for every step of his NFL career. By focusing on what he can control and trusting the process.
How about you? What thoughts consume your waking hours? Do you agonize over outcomes that you can’t control, or do you stick to your sphere of influence and follow a process that will take you where you want to go?
For more advice on process, you can find Silver Spoon: The Imperfect Guide to Success on Amazon.
Bennie Fowler is a six-year veteran of the NFL. He began his career as an undrafted free agent signed by the Broncos in 2014. He spent four years with the Broncos and was a member of the Super Bowl 50 championship team in 2016. Bennie played college football at Michigan State University, where he was a member of the 2014 Rose Bowl championship team. Bennie holds the annual Bennie Fowler youth football camp in Detroit, Michigan, is an in-demand speaker trained through the NFL Speakers Bureau, and lives in Denver during the offseason.