One On One With Mr. Irrelevant

David and Kevin.jpg

I recently went one on on one with for Mr. Irrelevant, David Vobora. David was drafted by the St. Louis Rams with the final pick, 252nd overall, in the 2008 NFL Draft, and played for the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks until a catastrophic shoulder injury ended his career and precipitated the opiate addiction. David is the founder and CEO of Adaptive Training Foundation (ATF), a nonprofit gym that offers traumatically wounded, ill and injured individuals, free of cost, the training and tools to physically and mentally redefine their lives. A 5-year veteran of the NFL, David met US Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills, a quadruple amputee. David opened up his personal gym to Travis, offering his training expertise. The pair started working out together, customizing and adapting to the unique challenges posed by Travis¹ injuries. Through working with Travis and engaging the veteran community, David developed a passion for helping those with life-altering injuries find life-fulfilling adaptive performance training. It was then that David realized while there are many excellent rehabilitation programs as well as adaptive/Paralympic sports organizations, none existed to bridge the gap from basic functional rehabilitation to adapted sport. Since the program¹s inception, the organization has led over 200 athletes from across the country through their complete their 9-week class program. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Adam: What are you working on now?

David: We are working towards the first Adaptive Exercise Seminar where trainers from all over the country will learn how to train adaptive athletes using Adaptive Training Foundation's (ATF) methodology. A goal of ATF has always been to facilitate a systemic change within this and our veteran population, and we are now able to reach those 40+ million Americans living with a disability by fueling trainers everywhere with our knowledge of adaptive training.  

Adam: How did you get here when experiences failure setbacks and challenges have been most instrumental to your development success? 

David: I think the experiences of going for it, the failures of putting yourself out there, and then learning through those seemingly adverse scenarios have been instrumental in every single phase of development. Those experiences are the force multipliers for hyper-growth. One has to go to those uncomfortable areas to grow and to test one’s self. I was a skinny pencil that kid who was a quarterback in high school who received only one division one offer, University of Idaho, who made me a linebacker. After four years there is a stand out I went to being the last pick in the NFL draft. For me, it was always about working hard to overachieve. I took my moderate talent and fueled it with great training, great approaches, and emulating stellar players. I was able to maximize my potential. The NFL mountain humbles all people. That's where I surpassed those that are more talented thanks to my hard work and mental perseverance.

Adam: Can you talk about the Mr. Irrelevant experience? What were you feeling during and after the draft? What benefits came and come with being Mr. Irrelevant?

David: Mr. Irrelevant experience was awesome for me. I was slated as a mid-to-late round pick. But as the draft rolled on and on, I thought ok, maybe a free agency can be better because then I can kind of select the team with the best fit. Then the Rams head coach, Scott Linehan, called and said not to worry about being the last pick. He shared I was needed and would be a key player for the team. 

A benefit that came along was a huge media circus: a giant spotlight. I recognized quickly that that was a great platform. The first week being on the Rams I got asked to speak at an elementary school. I opened up with, “How many of you guys have ever been the last pick on the playground?” The hands shot up and I said: "Wow, I was just the last pick a week ago let me tell you why that's not going to stop me, and it shouldn't stop you either." 

Being Mr. Irrelevant was great but being able to outdo people's expectations was always an essential thing for me.

Adam: In your experience, other than natural talent, what are the defining qualities of a superstar athlete?

David: It’s the willingness to be curious, to be obsessive about your craft, and to be able to emulate somebody that has something you want. Maybe it's more innate talent, or maybe it's their work ethic. Perhaps it's their approach to watching film or doing the little things that are seemingly the intangibles that add up to push you over the top for success.

Adam: What players and coaches have you learned the most from? What did you learn from them?

David: Man, it’s such a massive list:

Learning Olympic lifting as a freshman in high school from Coach Todd Kaanapu who played at the University of Oregon. He taught me the principles of maximizing my potential in the field by working out. 

My father. He was both as a coach and somebody who taught me the discipline and the consistency that it takes to be lead.  

Coaches like Nick Holt or Dennis Erickson who I had in college who saw something in me that I don't even think I saw myself. 

My coaches in the league that drafted me along those that fostered me. 

Ken Norton Jr. of the Seahawks. He was an amazing player that I deeply admire and respect. Learning from him was such an awe-inspiring experience.

Gavin McMillan, Founder of Sports Science Labs. He’s a mentor who really sparked my interest in a different approach to training and human performance. 

Adam: Who is the best teammate you ever had and why? What are the characteristics of a great teammate?

David: The best teammate I ever had, and I’ve had so many great teammates, is Danny Amendola. He is one of my best friends who's still in a lead player in the league. His craft, his capability to out-tough anybody was profound especially with his size and stature in the league. I have the highest respect for him, his approach, and everything he's achieved. 

One quality Danny has that I value in a great teammate is grit. Anybody can show up when it's convenient. It’s those who show up against all odds that I consider the greatest teammates.

Adam: What are the best lessons you have learned through your career in sports that are applicable to those of us who will never earn a living playing pro ball?

David: Failure is a necessary step to success. You are not losing you are learning.

Adam: Who are the greatest leaders you have played with and what do you believe are the defining qualities of a great leader?

David: Chris Long. Not just for who he is on the field but now of the amazing impact he's had as a human being. He a total person; not just as a football player.

I think the great leaders are really all about those who look somebody in the eye and call out a part of them that others don't see at that moment. I call it “dealing hope”. It’s a gift to be treated like a whole person who is capable of living up to an expectation.

Adam: What are the best lessons you have learned through your career in sports that are applicable to those of us who will never earn a living playing pro ball?

I think a big lesson learned through a career in sports is understanding one’s worth can't be totally tied up in sports or in a singular craft. You know for me, my injury propelled me into an identity crisis that led me to cope in negative patterns. I didn't know who I was about football as I was transitioning out of the league. That was a scary time.

A benefit, as I look back at some of the scars that I endured is that they were all for my benefit. One of the key principles I think I've learned through sports and is to not put a traditional lens in how measures success vs. failure. My injury which lead to an early departure from the NFL also lead to the most profound and significant work I’ve ever done: the work with the foundation and serving people with physical disabilities. My experience in the gym became a conduit to the exercise and disabled community to provide hope and to empower these people to know that life isn’t about what you can't do. It’s about what you can do. It’s about not focusing on what some see as limitations but about transcending them and defying impossible on a daily basis. 

Adam: What is the most surprising thing about life in professional sports? What is something that would shock fans?

David: It's a job: six days a week. It is an absolute grind. Twelve to 15 hours a day, treatment, film, practice, weights, repeat. It’s great to be with your teammates; you develop one crazy bond. Sundays are as glorious as anything. Most can only imagine the feeling of a stadium or a cathedral erupting when you make a play. It's pretty profound.

You know the things I remember most in the league are not necessarily my first sack or first reception or any of these big highlights. It's typically that stuff with my guys in training camp, the jokes, the laughs, the time on the bench, the conversation that was had on the field during your time out. Those little things would stick out to me. Shocking the fans? Honestly, the fans have such a unique insight into the league now and in watching things like Ballers and watching shows like Hard Knocks. The pro arena is pretty well documented. At the end of the day, the grind it's the job.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

David: I'd have to say, that what you seek is in you. Today, most are hasty to go and find the next solution: the silver bullet. One of my mentors said to me once you're not a human doer you're a human being.

I think that's such a smart delineation that often gets overlooked. We need to look inside and realize that there's nothing outside of us that's going to bring us anything unless the inside is in alignment.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

David: I love surfing. Just being in the water is amazing for me. It just feeds my soul. I love skateboarding, skiing, and climbing mountains. I just climbed Kilimanjaro in March with eight combat vets and eight NFL guys in support of Chris Long’s 

Adam: What’s one thing everyone should do to pay it forward?

David: Everyone should identify out a scar that they've endured and then figure out a way to help somebody enduring a similar pain. You can’t take the pain from them, but you can share your scar to help stop a common poisonous cycle of seeking acceptance and burying the experience. For me, a guy who was abused as a kid, I share my story. I speak corporately and travel the world to share keynote speeches.

I would encourage people to pay something forward. They should use the very thing that was once meant to harm them as the force multiplier for the betterment of community and humanity.

Adam: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

David: I think for me sport, competition, and exercise have always been a way to use physical exertion as an emotional purge. They allow me to ground myself to quiet my thinking mind. I'm somebody that feels a ton of emotion. As soon as I started to become more present and stopped worrying about thinking forward or always looking back, I was able to root myself. This allowed me to better appreciate and navigate through the many things that were right in front of me. I can have gratitude and appreciation rather than an expectation that led to resentment. I can relax and simply breathe.

I highly encourage anybody to go and to learn about how they respond to life when they’re able to carve space for themselves in their world. That's the greatest advice that I can give from my own experiences. Creating space has led to so much peace and so much positivity that comes from such a genuine place.

It’s important to note that it isn’t solely about living in the “now”, but also being able to decide what is in your control to act upon. 

Adam Mendler