Dear Antonio,

You do not know this yet, but you are about to embark on an incredible journey that will change your life forever. There will be many ups and downs, but you will overcome major obstacles along the way. At times you may feel a sense of joy, happiness, and peace. Other times you will feel upset, disappointed, and unfulfilled. You will be hated at times, and you will be loved at times. People who you thought were your friends will turn their back on you. You will experience challenges you would have never imagined you would have to endure. Along the way, you will meet new people and build meaningful and trusting relationships with them. You will be forced to grow up faster than expected. All of these highs and lows will help you become the man you are today. I want you to remember three things from this letter that will be beneficial for you in becoming the man I know you can be. The first thing is to always keep your family close. Your family will always love you unconditionally and be there for you when you need them the most. The second thing I want you to remember is gratitude. That word alone means a lot to me because as I have experienced, nothing in this life is promised tomorrow, so be thankful for your every blessing. The last thing I want you to remember is that no one is perfect; we all have flaws and make mistakes. I want you to take this everywhere you go because I know how you truly feel inside. You want to please everyone, you want to make sure people think highly of you, but in reality, some people may lack sincerity and trustworthiness. Individuals may be overly judgmental and talk badly behind your back, but as I have learned today, their thoughts and actions are far less important than how YOU feel about yourself. The journey will be tougher than anticipated but you are battle-tested and ready for any challenge that comes your way. Here is a description of what your college experience might present, breaking years into quarters like a ball game:

FIRST QUARTER

In the early weeks and months, you will want to gain an understanding of what you are up against and get a feel of your environment and the road ahead. Your entire life you have been preparing for this moment. You have made your college decision and are actually on campus waving goodbye to your mother and grandmother as they make the long, exhausting trip back to Cincinnati. You are ready to start the next chapter of your life as a student-athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the top colleges in America by any measure. No one back home ever thought you would be here. No one expected you to be here. People always ask: “Why did you not choose to play at a higher-level basketball program?” “If you go to an Ivy League school, you will never get noticed.” Ignore those questions and show them why you made this selection. We both know why, but most people wouldn’t even understand. A lot of people will pray on your downfall, but don’t let them stop you. Use all that doubt as motivation. You are finally on your own for the first time in your life. Every choice you make will be your own with real consequences, both favorable and unfavorable. You are an excited freshman who finally has the power to do whatever you want, when you want. I bet it feels weird not knowing exactly what to do now, but in time you will find yourself struggling to balance academics, sports, and extracurricular activities. The journey will be a long and painful one, but it will be beneficial for you down the road. I will advise you to meet new people and build relationships that matter. I have learned in life that who you know is sometimes of greater value than what you know. A supportive network of peers and elders can take you a long way, yet to build relationships you have to be open to meeting new people and leaving your comfort zone. I know how shy you are, sometimes painfully at times, so I want you to immerse yourself in creating some real relationships with people. Inside of these friendships, you will discover than your preconceived notions about people, and about your likes and dislikes, will be challenged and may change. For starters, you will quickly learn that there is more to life than just basketball. It took me years to figure that out, but that is why I am telling you this now. Your teammates will soon become your brothers and will always be your friends.  So with these relationships as a sturdy foundation, go out and meet new people as well. Do so without fear of failure or rejection. Stay true to yourself and your values, without being close minded and unable to expand your horizons. You will meet people down the road who will try to change you. Don’t let them; be who you are and decide for yourself how you will grow and evolve. In this first semester, you will be challenged academically. Your mother is no longer in your ear making sure you get your school work done. It’s all on you to manage your time even moreso than in high school. The classes will be more challenging and are built to test your intellect and thinking skills. You will eventually be able to deal with the rigor of the coursework; don’t make the mistakes of poor time management and refusing help and guidance from professors and advisors. You have to help yourself by asking for support. There is no shame in leaning on others in times of need.   Another lesson I want you to understand is you have to communicate with those in your life.  Be vocal. I know I’m asking you to go against your natural instincts and inclinations as a shy person, but it will make life much much easier if you simply communicate. You will learn quickly that if you don’t communicate in an academic or athletic setting, you will fall behind. Trust me, lack of communication on the court will force you to listen to hear Coach Allen sing our fight song every practice. I’m serious about that too, he literally sang our band’s fight song at every practice. Listen closely to the wisdom of your coaches, teachers, and mentors. Their words will be extremely valuable in the near future. Fast forward. You will be greatly tested on the court. You will experience heartbreak and disappointment, losing more games in your first collegiate season than you have in your whole high school career. It will only help you get better for the future. Better times are coming your way soon, so remember to follow the lessons and continue to prove the doubters wrong.

SECOND QUARTER

In the second quarter your collegiate experience is becoming more routine and comfortable. You have survived your opponents’ initial punches and scoring runs, but there is still a lot of game left and a lot to learn.  At this point, you are expecting the pace and pressure to calm down and fall neatly into place. What if I told you things don’t get easier. Instead, everything you have a passion for will be taken from you. What if I told you that you were mistakenly of the belief that your own university contributed to this situation? Would you believe me? Considering how young you are and how much you love the school, your answer would be no. You will go through one of the toughest challenges of your life that push you to your limits and make you stronger. You will be dropped from the University of Pennsylvania for academic shortcomings, and you will be required to wait a whole year before re-enrolling as a student in good standing. With this penalty, you will come to a point where you feel helpless and you have nowhere to go. It is going to feel as if life is passing you by and you are lost. When these feelings of dispair set in, you must reach out to your family; do not shy away from them. You will need them at this point like you have never needed them before. They are always willing to help you and are a phone call away. Do not hide or feel ashamed.  Don’t make the mistake of turning your back on the ons that love you, get evicted from your apartment, and lose friends in the process. Don’t make life harder by pointing fingers at everyone who you thought were responsible for your predicament. There is a saying: “when you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back to you.” Look in the mirror. YOU should have never put yourself in that situation. That being said, learn from your mistakes and move on. It’s a hard and long road ahead, but keep your head up and keep moving forward. During your period away from Penn, you will have to change. You will have to step away from binge watching Netflix series for hours upon hours.  You will need to get out of the house and back on your feet. With the help of Coach Donahue, you will be introduced to a man that will help you get your life back on track. That man is Kenny Holdsman, the CEO of Philadelphia Youth Basketball, or PYB. You will soon secure two reliable and purposeful job. One with PYB and another at Temple University Hospital, a job that your high school athletic director Mr. Greg Dennis will connect you to. With the help of these two individuals, your coaches, your academic advisors, and your family, I was able to start my arduous journey toward making a comeback to school. Your time with PYB will be special. You will be able to connect with different kids throughout Philadelphia, instilling lessons about the game you love, while also helping them become better students in the classroom. You will show them that if they are exposed are to strong leaders like you were, they will be able to accomplish anything in life. During that time it will be hard for you to be happy considering your circumstances, but when you see the joy and excitement on the faces of these kids, it will always brighten up your day. That alone will provide you with a peace of mind, meaning and purpose, and a distraction from your situation. Along with PYB, your time at the hospital will be  a unique and unforgettable experience. You are twenty years old, and will see things that a young man is not supposed to see. It will certainly be a new and humbling experience. Whether it is the ER, CT Scan, MRI, delivery room, dialysis and even the morgue, you will be moving patients throughout the hospital. During these somewhat dark moments in the corridors of a major urban hospital, you will meet different people everyday, each with a unique story and perspective on life. These people will change your outlook on life helped guide you to find perspective during your difficult situation. You will be able to realize that your situation is minor in comparison to the struggles of many of the patients at the hospital. While working both jobs, your day will consist of working at PYB from 8am-5pm and working through the night at the hospital from 11pm-7am. Doing this will allow you to create a strong work ethic, not just for yourself, but for everyone that you will engaged with. After a year, you, this work ethic will carry over to your first semester back in school and will allow you to get back on track academically. It will also fortified you to confront the difficulties of returning to the Penn basketball team as part of the class of student-athletes who enrolled a year after you did. To make matters worse, due to your redshirt you will have to watch the second half of the season on the bench. Before you become angry, let me tell you that it is not the worst thing in the world. While you are on the bench, you are able to learn from a different perspective and you can use that to your advantage by helping out your teammates. It is only for a short period of time, so relax and take it all in. Your time is coming very soon. Things are finally looking up for you more than it has in a long time. Make sure you take advantage of all opportunities that are coming your way.

THIRD QUARTER

The third quarter determines the outcome of most games, depending on who takes advantage of the mistakes of the opposing team throughout the quarter. Over the past year and a half this return to action has been the moment you have been waiting for. You lost much of what you love, but that did not stop you from making it back here. You overcame a lot of adversity and now you are back where you belong. Your junior year will be a special, both academically and athletically. Remember the many lessons you have learned and embrace them. Acclimating back to the team and on the court will be the easy part. Fitting in on campus though would be the next step in my recovery. Although you have already finished a semester, your social life will be non-existent. Your teammates will go out while you will hang back by yourself. You will be  referred to as a “ghost” because you will rarely be seen around campus. Little do your teammates know, you do not want to be seen. You will take alternate routes to get home and to the gym, so you could see as little familiar faces as possible.You think that if you have as little interaction as possible, then your name would never come up, and people won’t talk behind your back.  However, you will realize that in reality almost everyone misses you. Soon, when you see familiar faces, they will embrace you and say things like “OMG, I haven’t seen you in forever” “How have you been?” “I’m so glad you are finally back.” Those little things will help you accept being a part of the student body again. With your academics and social life going well, the only way this journey back becomes complete is if my and my team’s basketball season is a success. Up until this point in your one and half seasons of playing college basketball at Penn, you have only been a part of 14 winning games. With hard work and team chemistry, you and your team will achieve that number of wins in 21 games in the 2017-18 season. Pre-game predictions will have you with mild success, but your wins this season will continue to pile up. Your freshman year you lost 20 games and now to be hitting that marker on the winning side of the ledger is remarkable. By the end of the season the team will have rack up 22 wins in a season and a share of the regular season Ivy title. At the beginning of the year the team set a goal to win the Ivy League tournament and now you will have a chance to do that. One moment you are suspended from school for a year and the next moment you are cutting down the net and heading into the NCAA tournament. You will avenge a previous loss to Yale in the semifinal and defeat the heavily favored Harvard to claim a spot in history and the big dance, the NCAA Tournament. Playing in the NCAA tournament will truly be a dream come true. In the big dance, you will face off against the number 1 seed and eventual regional champion Kansas Jayhawks. Although you will lose a hard fought game, there will be more on your mind than just basketball. The emotions that will follow will be unbelievable and will force you to thank the people who stayed in your corner through your toughest times. If it was not for everything that happened the year before: the suspension, having everything taken away, to making new connections with people that will help better you in life, your family always sticking by your side, you would not be in the drastically improved situation you are in now. You could have easily ran to another institution and played right away. You could have simply forgotten about Penn and everything this prestigious institution stands for. It would have been easy for you to continue to harbor hate in your heart for everything that transpired. Instead, you remembered what you came to Penn for. You came to get an Ivy League education. You came to be a role model for your little brothers and sister. You wanted to make sure that they can look up to you and say “he did this so I have to do better than him”. Listen to your mom’s words always: “confront adversity face to face”. If you had left, you would have been running away.

FOURTH QUARTER

In the fourth quarter of a basketball game, anything is possible. The result likely comes down to who wants it more and who has learned from their mistakes in the past. Although this last quarter of your college career has yet to unfold, this is the part where I want you to take in all the hard earned lessons and use it to become the man I know you are. You will need to use everything you have learned so far in order to get the most out of this final year. The funny thing about this story is that you have yet to reach your full potential. I want you to challenge yourself mentally and physically.  I promise you will not be disappointed. You should expect more from yourself after everything you have been through. Regardless of the results always be proud of your work. You have grown leaps and bounds from your freshman year and you are a much improved person that brings a lot to the table. Give them all that you have, and this experience will be immensely satisfying for you and the people that have had your back. Make an impact on someone’s life if you get the chance to. Leave a first and lasting impression for people to remember you by. The more you put in to life the more you get out. All of your life you have let people tell your story. It’s time for you to speak up and control your own narrative. Write your own future, your own path, and your own legacy!

Love,

Your older self

Render Antonio Woods II

Written by: Antonio Woods, Rising Senior at The University of Pennsylvania

  • 3-year PYB Collegiate Summer Camp Series Coach