Aaron’s college experience was the stuff of music videos. He woke up one day alone and rudderless, haunted by a question that turned his life around.
Los Angeles is where you go when you want to be somebody. New York is where you go when you are somebody. And Miami is where you go when you want to be someone else. It’s a sunny place for shady people. I have no love lost for the Magic City — it compromised me.
I was a good kid. Growing up, we went to Mass every Sunday morning, my brothers and I attended parochial schools, and my grandfather was a deacon at our parish. My high school sweetheart kept me grounded — we never touched alcohol or drugs, and we kept our relationship PG. Living clean allowed me to focus on other things, such as athletics and academics.
Then, the week before the start of my freshman year of college, we broke up. Suddenly, I was a single young man about to be thrown into the maelstrom of depravity that is the city of Miami.
Being an athlete — specifically a football player — at the University of Miami allowed me certain privileges that are otherwise unavailable to the broader student population. I realized I was entirely out of my element the first time I went to LIV nightclub at the Fontainebleau Hotel in South Beach.
At LIV, a 6-liter bottle of Armand de Brignac “Ace of Spades” champagne cost the same amount as a semester of tuition. I witnessed a fellow student purchase two bottles. All I remember thinking was that every liter of champagne that came out of a bottle was worth three credit hours. It took me four months to complete 18 credit hours; it took only four hours to complete the consumption of both bottles.
I saw more money being wasted on those bottles of champagne than I had ever seen in a checking account. It was then that I started to conflate net worth with self-worth.
My collegiate experience reads like a hall of fame induction of illicit activity. My priorities were nights out and football. I saw my self-worth reflected in the price tag on my clothes, how many girls I was texting, and the amount of alcohol and drugs I could consume on any given weekend.
Through the eyes of a 21-year-old, my time in Miami looked like a “successful” college experience. But my soul was in a state of immense despair. At the end of my junior year, I had a $3,000 Gucci suit, one-of-a-kind python leather Christian Louboutin slip-ons, and a $2,800 Burberry trench coat — but no one I could trust to be my friend.
How did I get to this point?
Looking back, I can see that I worked tirelessly to make the football team at the University of Miami, but that was my only goal: to make the team. I had no goals to become the starter, or have my name on a marquee, or play in the NFL. Once I had secured a roster position, my list of personal goals was blank. Without purpose — without something to work toward — I felt empty, and began trying to fill that void with my newfound vices.
I remember quite vividly the moment when I decided to start walking another path.
It was the spring of my senior year. I was sharing dinner with a friend and as we conversed, she asked me, “Do you think your future spouse would be proud of who you are?” I affirmed that she was someone worth being proud of, then we laughed together and moved on in the conversation. But the question haunted me.
I laid awake that night wondering if my future spouse would be proud of who I was, the things I was doing, and the things I had done. I felt this visceral pain emanating from the shame of who I’d become; long gone was the happy-go-lucky son of two fantastic parents. In his place was a superficial, materialistic Miamian who lacked serious moral direction.
So, I made some subtle yet significant changes in my life. I pursued faith because that’s where I had found meaning and purpose earlier in my life. I sought out spiritual mentorship from one of my religious studies professors, and began to volunteer my time at a parish and with people in the Special Olympics.
I ultimately found that I needed to dissolve relationships that were poisonous to my well-being and refocus my emotional investment into relationships that would support these positive changes in my life. Through my time at the parish and with Special Olympians, I came to realize how spiritually fulfilling it could be to share my time and energy in mentorship, teaching, and coaching.
Despite the regrets I have about my collegiate experience, that shame and heartache led me to something deeper. It’s not as simple as believing everything happens for a reason, but if someone were to offer me a do-over at the risk of losing all that I have today, I think I would politely decline.
I have seen and experienced the material luxuries that this world has on offer, and I know first-hand that the possession of these things is not enough to lead a fulfilling life. Now that I’m removed from my life in Miami, married to a wonderful wife, and surrounded by friends who are seeking something deeper in life, I can see clearly what gives my life meaning: the experience of loving and being loved. I have found my identity in my ability to utilize the gifts bestowed upon me by God for the good of others.
I do not believe that I have unlocked the secret of enlightenment, nor do I try to feign perfection. But my aim is to build my life around God — and for me, that means following Jesus Christ. I know my foundation is firm. And I know where I am going.