One day in 1998 my mother brought me into the master bathroom, sat me on the sink, and addressed me with tears in her eyes. My stepfather had passed away in a motorcycle accident and she had to tell her 7-year-old son that the only father he had ever known wasn’t coming back. My biological father was not in my life, and now it was just my mother and me in Buffalo, New York. The winters were brutal, our neighborhood was rough, and it wasn’t a great place to raise a child with two parents, let alone one.
Shortly after my stepfather passed, we moved to Dallas, Texas. The education was better, the city was clean and safe, and the opportunities were endless. One factor still loomed over my quaint family: I was a boy without a father. Often I was told that I was now the man of the house, but what did that really mean?
Home is the first school that young children attend, our parents are our first teachers. As paradoxical as it may seem, my mother taught me how to be a good man.
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One of her first lessons was that of integrity and accountability. I remember her telling me to be a man of my word, and that my word was my bond. If I told her I was going to do all my homework before I played video games, she trusted me to do so. Working two jobs, and going to school as a young mother, she didn’t have time to always check on me. Integrity, accountability, and trust were huge in our household.
My mother was also the example of ambition, hard work, and certainty. No man worked harder than my mother. She often worked two or three jobs to put food on the table. Also, while I was still in grade school my mother started and completed a masters degree in criminal justice. She never held her tongue, she was second to no man, she was the breadwinner of our family. My mother was also confident in her abilities to raise a strong, independent black man.
At the same time, she was the protector of our home. She made time to interact and vet all my friends. Before I joined the middle school football team, my mother made sure to take time away from work to see what type of men would be molding her young boy. My mother kept respectful boundaries while also being very involved with my personal life and relationships. Not only was she fulfilling the traditional role of a father figure, she was making sure that all potential father figures in my life were up to snuff. My favorite coaches, from grade school to the professional level, were often the same coaches that my mother trusted to be role models.
Leadership is often viewed as a quality essentially taught to young men. Women who take leadership roles are stigmatized for being “bossy” or “emotional.” In reality, my mother exemplified all the characteristics of a strong leader. One of my mother’s many gifts was the ability to inspire others. With her criminal justice education and maternal instincts, my mother became a juvenile probation officer. Mom was not only raising me, but trying to help better the lives of young people all around. Oftentimes, when she was off the clock, she and I would look for potential jobs for the kids on her case load, and she would practice speeches on me that would inspire them to pursue different courses of life. She led by example. My mother lived everything she preached.
Being raised by a queen also helped me to avoid some toxic traps that other young men fall into. I wasn’t praised for being overly aggressive anywhere but the football field. Being kind to all and respectful to women were also big lessons I had the advantage of learning from a woman. “Boys will be boys” didn’t fly in our house. I was taught humility instead of being allowed to have self-serving and egotistical habits. My mother also cultivated my writing and my pursuit of my more creative talents.
Now I’m 27 and have a five-year NFL career, playing one of the most “masculine” sports in the world. I am also the author of a book of poetry, Prison or Passion, portraying my life journey. I was raised to embrace all things that I love, and in allowing me to be whole, my mother allowed me to be the king I was meant to be. I was drafted in 2015 to the Dallas Cowboys and am the first active NFL player to have his own poetry book. In addition, I’m finishing up a fiction novel and a TV series, and I’m writing articles for some of my favorite literary journals. I would say my mother did an exemplary job raising a strong, independent black man.
Ryan K. Russell is an NFL player, published writer, poetry editor of Barren Magazine, and world traveler. When he isn’t tackling opponents on the field, he uses his writing to attack heavy topics like mental health, depression, abandonment, loss, and other issues he has dealt with in his personal life.