Sixth time is the charm: Effort pays off

Growing up, Leo Cardenas had one thing that was a constant in his life. It was always a part of him and something that he developed a passion for. That passion was for the game of football. Like most kids, Cardenas fell in love with the sport and dreamed of one day playing football on a big stage in front of his friends and family.

Never quit — Leo Cardenas knew what he wanted — to play football for Liberty. After six tries, he finally got it. Photo credit: Ruth Bibby

Cardenas, a junior from Westwood, NJ, first dreamed of playing college football when he was in the sixth grade. He understood that his goal was lofty, to say the least, but still thought it was attainable.

During his sophomore year of high school, Cardenas told one of the assistant football coaches at his school that he dreamed of being a division one college football player. The coach proceeded to gather the entire team around him and said that the only way Cardenas would ever play college football was if he was playing video games.

Cardenas came to Liberty University in the fall of 2008 and immediately began working toward his goal of joining the football team. He had already begun lifting and running over the summer to get into shape and was preparing for his first attempt at walk on tryouts.

Going into his first tryout Cardenas was not sure what to expect or what drills he would have to run. He tried out for fullback and linebacker in the hopes of being able to fit whatever needs the team had. The Monday following the tryout he received an email notifying him that he did not make the team.

“I thought I had performed ok during the tryouts and wasn’t too discouraged when I learned the results, I thought I had a better shot of making it in the spring,” Cardenas said.

The spring tryout did not yield any better results for Cardenas, as once again he received the email saying it just wasn’t his time. Cardenas put a majority of his focus on football during his freshman and sophomore years at Liberty.

“Basically, everyday I would pray about it and ask God why I was not on the team yet but I knew he had his reasons,” Cardenas said.

By the time tryouts rolled around this spring, Cardenas had already tried out five times and had the drill down pat. He knew the drills he would be asked to run, he knew how long the practice would take and he knew the coaches who made the decision on whether or not he made the team. The one thing he was beginning to wonder about was if he still wanted to go through the rigors of tryouts without knowing for sure if he would make it.

He struggled about even going through the tryout a sixth time and what might happen if he once again was turned aside. Cardenas waited until the last possible time to turn in his paperwork and nearly missed the deadline to sign up. Up until the night before tryouts, he was still unsure if this was really what he wanted to do.

“I felt that after three years maybe it was a clear sign that God didn’t want me to do it anymore,” Cardenas said. “Maybe it wasn’t my life plan.”

The night before tryouts were scheduled to take place, Cardenas talked with Dave Colonna, his SLD, who encouraged him to give it one more shot. Colonna told Cardenas that he had nothing to lose and to give it one last effort.

“I always tried to tell him that football was not the most important thing in this world,” Colonna said. “God had a plan for him and even though we had no idea what it was, I just kept telling him that there is a reason for God wanting him to wait.”

With the support of his friends and family, Cardenas put aside his doubts and fears and decided to give it one more shot. This time, something was different. That nagging thought in his head about how he was performing and the worry that he wouldn’t be good enough were not there. Perhaps, for the first time in all of his tryouts, Cardenas was finally able to do the one thing that he loved, play football.

“I wasn’t really nervous at all since I didn’t really expect to even be there,” Cardenas said. “About halfway through the tryout I was already thinking what’s for lunch because I was just so relaxed.”

Following the tryout, Cardenas knew that he had done everything in his power to achieve his goal. He had accepted the fact that it might not be what was planned for his life and that maybe something better would come from all of this. That still did not change the desire that he had to be a member of the Liberty football team.

After only getting about one hour of sleep the night before, Cardenas was ready to know once and for all what his fate would be. His friends were all confident that this was finally his year and he was worried that he would once again have to tell them it wasn’t. Cardenas tossed and turned in his sleep all night trying to find some peace before checking his email on Monday morning.

“I asked God ‘is this really the time I’m gonna make it?’ It’s up to you God, a lot of people are telling me I’m going to make it and if I don’t its going to be a lot worse than the other times,” Cardenas said.

The next morning, Cardenas came back to his room after class and anxiously logged on to his email to see the news. After all the hard work, all the prayers and all the time spent wondering whether it would ever happen, Cardenas finally had some closure. To his surprise when he opened up the email it was unlike any of the previous five he had received from the football operations center. This time it finally had the news he wanted to see and congratulated him on becoming a member of the football team.

“It was probably one of the biggest shocks I’ve ever had in my life,” Cardenas said.

He instantly broke down into tears of joy as he realized that his dream that he had work so hard to achieve had actually become a reality. This was not a joke and it was not a daydream, it was actually happening. Cardenas immediately called his father to share the news with his family.

“My dad screamed on the phone when I told him and just prayed and said he thanks God so much that his son was finally able to fulfill one of his dreams,” Cardenas said.

Things did not completely sink in for Cardenas until he walked into the Williams Football Operations Center and began meeting with academic advisors and training and equipment staffs preparing him for joining the team.

“The first time walking in to the locker room and I saw my name on the locker was when I realized I’m finally here, it’s official,” Cardenas said.

After coming to grips with the fact that he might never make the team and that his dream would never come true, Cardenas was finally standing in front of a locker with his name and number on it.

Last month Cardenas completed his first spring practice as a member of the Liberty Flames Football team as a fullback. Cardenas had finally landed exactly where he wanted to be from the moment he stepped foot on the Liberty campus.

“Being on the field every night and being able to go back to my dorm and feel like I’m a division one football player and nobody can tell me anymore that I’m not, it’s an amazing feeling,” Cardenas said.

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