JJ Birden and Kanas City Chiefs

Joe Montana & JJ Birden, 1994

“Sometimes you have to borrow the belief of others in you until you believe in yourself.”

Its days later after sharing a conversation with friend, former NFL receiver, business leader, motivational speaker, author and family man, JJ Birden, and the discussion is still burning within my head and heart. I’ve known JJ for well over a decade and we dug deep into his story, his passion, as well as, his purpose. I chose to interview JJ because he has always epitomized the meaning of WORK like an Athlete, not simply for what he did in NFL stadiums, but mostly for what he has accomplished and stood for since his retirement from football.

Some of you know that my executive coaching and keynote program, WORK like an Athlete, means approaching your personal and professional life like a champion does his or her sport. I speak about it and coach the principles to elevate business leaders and increase collaboration and the performance of their teams. As a business professional and mountain athlete myself, I’m always intrigued and inspired by those with grit, perseverance, and share the same passion for positively impacting others through their actions, not just their words. JJ Birden is definitely that type of guy.

“EVERY day I have to prove myself”

When JJ entered the NFL, he was five ten and 157 pounds, not exactly built like the prototypical wide receiver. He was always considered small and admittedly, it put a chip on his shoulder that motivated him and essentially cultivated his work ethic for life.

His size was always a question mark and to make his challenge of playing in an NFL game even greater, he suffered a devastating injury to his ACL during his rookie year with the Cleveland Browns. After spending the entire season on their injured reserve list, he was the last wide receiver cut at the end of the following seasons training camp. Instead of giving up on his dream, he recovered after extensive rehab and came back even faster than before. However, despite his drive and determination, he continued to get rejected by team after team. It was when he was literally down to his last $250 in the bank, that Kansas City Chiefs Head Coach, Marty Schottenheimer, called during the third week of the season and asked him to join the team against the Seahawks.

“Coach handed me $200 from his wallet and asked, will this get you through the weekend?” It was a well appreciated gesture that JJ will never forget.

Since the game was in Seattle, JJ’s entire family traveled from Oregon to watch the game not knowing if he would play or not and sure enough, he caught his first touchdown pass!

“Catching my first touchdown pass of my career was a moment that I will never forget, especially after all of the setbacks, the struggle, the tears, the rejections and the grind that it took to actually make it onto that field. It finally made sense of it all. And my family was there to make it even more special.”

“My passion is to be the best at anything I do and my purpose is to maximize the potential of others.”

JJ says he has always competed with others, but mostly with himself. That includes being the best husband, father, receiver, entrepreneur, etc. that HE can be. He genuinely wants to grow others, walk his talk, set the pace, and be a positive example of the work that it takes to get there. His daily question to himself is, “How many people can I help today?”

Even after football, JJ is still consistently in the gym training for the game of life and taking care of his own health and fitness, which he feels is vital to his business performance. As a motivational speaker his message inspires others to be their best mentally, physically and financially.

I was curious as to what JJ thought are the essentials to being a successful athlete and business professional. He immediately responded with the following:

1. MINDSET. We must mentally envision success and terminate any doubt.

2. PLAN. You must develop a plan for success; a strategy you can trust. It’s a journey to get where you want to go and you must use a roadmap. You also need to know when to adjust your strategy or call an “audible”.

3. HARD WORK. It comes down to discipline. It takes heart to grind through it. Do what you have to do, when you have to do it, when no one is watching!

4. CONQUER OBSTACLES. Big goals are NEVER easy to accomplish. Challenges, failures and overcoming fear only makes you stronger.

5. STAY HUNGRY. Don’t get too comfortable. Always be learning and hustle like a rookie.

“What can I learn and how can I get better so when I get the opportunity to play, I’m ready?”

JJ and I shared a lot of laughs throughout our conversation because we live by so many of the same personal and professional mantras. By no means, do I even comprehend what it takes to play in the NFL, but JJ admits that there are many similarities between the highest level of football and the world of business.

“There are a lot of commonalities… it takes similar effort and commitment. You have to realize that setbacks are part of the process and that sometimes when the answer is “no”, you get back up, dig deeper within yourself and it just makes you better.”

“The enemy of success is disorganization.”

After sharing my own daily rituals to “win the day” with JJ, he admitted that he was obsessed with organization. In fact, just like his playing days as a pro athlete (practice, training, meal periods, etc), he commits to a schedule with the goal of controlling his day vs. it controlling him. He also evaluates his daily performance with an objective question.

“At the end of each day I ask myself, would I re-hire myself or fire myself?”

I know JJ played on some great teams (including with the legendary, Joe Montana), so I asked, “What makes a great teammate?”

“Great teammates perform their job consistently nad put the needs and goals of the team first. You need to recognize your role and commit to do your part wholeheartedly because we won’t get to where we need to go if you don’t. The question we should always ask ourselves is how can I make the team better?”

I also asked JJ if he had any other advice he had for aspiring leaders or even those that are at the top of their game.

“Yes, embrace humility. Ask for help. Find a coach or a mentor. There’s ALWAYS something to learn.”

At the end of our interview, I couldn’t help but ask JJ one final question, “What ever happened to that first touchdown game ball?”

“I gave that ball to my Uncle Sonny. When I was young man he told me that I had the gift to play in the NFL. At the time, it just seemed like a far away dream. So after that game in Seattle, I asked him, how did YOU know?”

Uncle Sonny answered:

“Sometimes you have to borrow others belief in you until YOU believe in yourself.”

For more information on JJ, please log on to his website jjbirden.com and check out his best selling book, “When Opportunity Knocks”.