In the summer of 1991, as I was heading into Fifth Grade in a new elementary school after a cross-town move, I found myself with a across-the-street neighbor. A man in his early 20s who was quite extraordinary, but thought of himself as just an ordinary Joe.
He happened to be the best young RB in the National Football League, and the pride and joy of the Detroit Lions – yep, that’s right – Future Hall of Famer, Barry Sanders lived within spitting distance of where I played driveway basketball every day.
Just a few weeks after moving in, I’d already seen him a couple times, and introduced myself as he would work on planting flowers in his front yard, laying down mulch and cutting and weed-whipping his grass. His house was a ranch, smaller than ours, and ours was pretty modest as well – so this was a millionaire living in a home tiny suburban home – one you’d maybe expect to find a newlywed couple just moving in together and getting on their feet.
I’d play hoops by myself every day, and shout “hey Barry” across the way, and he’d shout back – “hey Paul Hickey!” Every time. Then one day I got up the nerve to do what I’d wanted to do from the first time my dad told me we’d be moving across the street from my favorite player – go ask for his autograph!
(I was super lucky, as a kid, Barry came to some of my little league games. Here he’s pictured with my 10th grade basketball team).
So, my dad said I had 45 minutes before we had to go shopping that day – plenty of time for me to take my Pro Set football card and black sharpie marker over to his house and get a quick signature, right?
The first thing Barry said when I asked for his autographwas, “why? I’m just like you and your dad. I’m a normal guy – nothing special here.” I laughed and said, “I don’t think so,” and recited like his entire careers worth of stat lines and said – “you’re the best player in the NFL right now, come on! Of course I want your autograph.
I kid you not, this exact conversation went on for 40 minutes. “Paul, I’m really just a normal guy. I’m happy to shoot hoops with you, hang out, throw the football around, but you really don’t want my autograph. I’m just a normal guy.”
He wasn’t giving in. Seriously, he was more than willing to give me his time, but saw no value in giving me his autograph. Pretty cool lesson for a eight or nine year old kid to learn. Humility.
And let’s not mistake this for a guy trying to avoid signing a kid’s autograph. He just wanted to be my friend – and I’ll validate this in a second. But first let me tell you the rest of “the autograph story.” So, my dad comes out and says “JOEY! We’re leaving for the store in five minutes.”
I’m like dang, I still don’t have Barry’s autograph. So I finally come up with an idea. You remember those baseball photos that little league photographers took and made into baseball cards with your name, favorite color, favorite song and stuff on the back? So I had just gotten mine for that year’s team – with the sponsor – like “Rochester Dermatology” on the front or something. Anyway, I said “Barry, I’ll be right back.” I ran inside my house, got cut out a Paul Hickey baseball card out of the sheet (the others were being mailed to my aunts, uncles and grandparents later), and ran back over to Barry’s house.
“So Barry, if you’re just a normal guy, and I’m just a normal guy, then let’s make a trade. Let me sign my baseball card and give it to you, in exchange for you signing my Barry Sanders football card.”
So he did. That’s how I got Barry’s autograph, and made a childhood friend. He came to one of my little league games that year. He also came to see me play high school basketball about 6 years later, and would go out of his way to catch up with me and talk a few times after college. I learned a lot from Barry, but the main thing I learned is to be humble no matter what level of success you achieve.
What does this story have to do with business? Learning how to listen, adapt and execute is all part of business. Thanks Barry.