In 7th grade, I went out for football. We had a junior high, so it was a 7th & 8th grade team while the freshmen were separate. In August, we had two-a-day practices, mostly focused on conditioning. At the end of the day, we ran what the coaches called “aerobics,” which consisted of running a lap, taking your pulse, resting a few seconds, and then running another one for a total of six laps. We were split up, with the backs and receivers on one side of the field at the 50-yard line and the linemen opposite.
I had been selected/decided to play quarterback. I played a little bit in Little League and they wanted another one for the depth chart. So one day, we were running these aerobics and I was dead last in the backs/receivers group. One of the assistant coaches who only helped in August, Jack Cole, (he coached the girls basketball and track teams mostly) halfway through a lap, yells across the field at me, “Hey McMillion, you want to be a quarterback? Quarterbacks are leaders and you’re dead last!” I was dogging it and he knew it.
When he said that, something sparked in me. Not anger, but something bigger and better. Something fiercer and brighter. That’s the moment I think of when I think about becoming a leader. I was embarrassed at being called out and I picked up the pace. I didn’t finish first that lap, but I did every lap after that. Every lap that season and the next two years. Every conditioning drill we ran in high school. I wasn’t the most skilled athlete, but I was the best conditioned one, the most determined one, and I wore people out in practice and games. The same thing in basketball.
I was an average high school athlete at best. But I was an excellent student and that fire of leadership which burned inside of me took me to the United States Military Academy at West Point. West Point wasn’t easy for me, but I learned a great deal about leadership there and became a lifelong student of it. I pursued those personal studies through 22 years of active duty as an Army officer and I continue to do so today. It took me a while to get some of the other leadership stuff, but that moment, that lap in seventh grade football, is locked in my memory as the day I became a leader.