I walk into the fifth round of the national chess championship in Milwaukee and settle in front of a quiet opponent in a baseball cap and sweater. With the white pieces in front of me I open the game aggressively with a gambit, a strategy that gives up a small amount of material in the first few moves in exchange for momentum. However, within ten moves I am down a pawn while his defense looks rock solid.

The games at the national tournament can last up to four hours. Halfway through the time limit, I see a winning combination involving sacrificing two of my pieces in quick succession. Heart pounding, I try not to think about the certain loss if this doesn’t go as planned. I walk around the table to view the board from his side, come back, and deliver the first check. Pieces fly off the board. The players beside us stop playing to observe. Five moves later, my opponent set down his king.

When we left the tournament hall I found out that my opponent’s rating—a measure of playing strength—was well above mine. The game was easily the best of my young career and would give me confidence that I could hang with much more experienced players. My rating soared over the following few months.

A decade later

When I recently reflected on this decade-old game, I wondered, Where is he today? I dug up my old game notations book and did a quick search on the name and state I had scribbled down. I was blown away by what I found.

My opponent, Joe Morgan, won a state chess championship in his grade the next year. He went on to play football at a Big Ten school before transferring to a small college in Ohio. From there he became the first player from his school to be invited to the NFL Combine, but he was ultimately undrafted. Joe was eventually signed by the New Orleans Saints as a free agent in 2011. Then came an injury that put him on the reserve list.

When he finally got an opportunity in the 2012 season, Joe put up spectacular plays, including a 78-yard punt return in the preseason, an 80-yard catch-and-run from Drew Brees, and a defense-dodging touchdown against Tampa Bay.

Along the way he had plenty of doubters, including a commentator who said, “He’ll need to be pretty darn good to even sniff the practice squad with a Saints wide receiver lineup that’s as deep as it is.”

Ratings don’t matter

I often think back to that old game. If ratings were everything, chess players would simply pick up trophies in order and go home. This was probably the most important lesson I learned: ratings don’t matter. In fact, it was our team policy to not look at opponent ratings until after the game. If you’re rated lower, you might psych yourself out before the first move. If higher, you might underestimate your opponent.

Had Joe listened to the signals that formed his football “rating”—small college, undrafted, pundits, injury—he might have gone away quietly. Reading about his successes reminded me that you should always compete if you’re in range. As the new season starts up, I’ll be rooting for Joe. He unintentionally inspired me years ago, and he continues to inspire me to compete today.


Image credit: Rhonda Faye