I was a place kicker on my high school football team and dreamed of one day playing football at my hometown college, Syracuse University. It was a flight of fancy, most thought, since no one from Marcellus, New York had made it to FBS-level football in decades – and certainly never as a kicker.
Still, it was my dream, my family supported me and as fate would have it, I met one of the country’s best kicking coaches who invited me to train with him. What I didn’t realize was that in training with him, I would learn as much about myself as I would about kicking a ball through the uprights.
The first time I traveled to Virginia to work one-on-one with coach Paul Woodside, I was pumped to begin what I expected to be a non-stop weekend of kicking techniques. After doing some preliminary stretches I grabbed a football and jogged over to him, ready to begin kicking. Instead, he took the ball and told me to follow him as he headed off the field, outside the perimeter fence and down a steep embankment covered in weeds and thick grass.
At the bottom of the embankment, coach Woodside showed me the task I was about to begin – swing my right leg in a full kicking motion while pushing off the ground with my left leg in what amounted to short hops up the hillside. My right foot would have to fight through the tall grass but not otherwise touch the ground to stand or rest. It was swing the right leg, push uphill with the left leg and repeat – non-stop – all the way to the top. As coach back-peddled up the hill to instruct from my eventual destination, I wondered what this had to do with being a college kicker. It would become one of the defining lessons of my life.
The first few motions were easy and my pace was quick but that soon changed as the steepness of the hillside began to work its painful purpose. Less than a third of the way up the hill, my calves were burning and my muscles screaming. My pace slowed noticeably as I forced myself to focus more intently on the task.
“Don’t you dare stop,” coach Woodside barked, “don’t you even think about not finishing this drill until you’re standing next to me up here.” I looked up and he seemed a mile away. But I kept going.
Half-way up the hill, I was struggling as sweat soaked my t-shirt, deep breaths came with each advance and my left leg wobbled under the strain.
“There are one hundred other kids right now trying to take the roster spot you want,” he said. “They’re sweating in the sun just like you, they’re hungry and they’re betting that you will quit before they do. So are you a quitter?” I didn’t even look up toward coach. My focus was all on the next movement.
“Dreaming big is a strength, not a weakness, for those with the heart to commit to the climb.”
Two-thirds of the way up the embankment, I was breathing heavily, groaning each time my left leg pushed up the hill, and swinging my right leg with less power. The temptation to put my right foot down on the ground and rest was nearly irresistible. My body was begging for a break. Yet, each time my mind was about to rationalize a brief respite for my aching legs, coach Woodside would challenge me with, “How bad do you want this dream, Novak? How much does it mean to you?”
I answered him with another repetition. I wanted it bad. It meant everything at that moment. So, time and again, I would override my brain, ignore my legs and push another step higher up that hill.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, I made it to the top and collapsed into the tall grass completely spent and exhausted but immensely proud. coach Woodside bent down and said something that has stayed with me ever since: “Big dreams should never come easy.”
A couple of years and countless hours of coaching later, I earned that roster spot as a place kicker on the Syracuse University football team.
Today, as a business owner, I constantly apply coach Woodside’s wisdom. The “hills” I climb now are not covered in grass and weeds but they are no less daunting and there is no shortage of them. You scale one and there is always another one waiting.
My struggle even to buy Chocolate Pizza Company was one of those first impossible climbs. I was 21 years old, a senior in college and hunting for capital to buy the business in an economy still stinging from a national recession. I went to bank after bank and heard the same thing – the company has a great product, you’ve written the best business plan we have reviewed in years but you are 21 years old and no one that young can run a company.
No bank would back me because of my age. The experience left me exhausted and frustrated but it also left me a choice – find another way or let my dream die. Familiar words echoed in my memory: “Big dreams should never come easy.” I found another way.
It took emptying every school fund, savings account and piggy bank I had and then negotiating with the company’s founder on a buy-out plan that was acceptable to both of us. It took weeks to finalize, but we did it. On July 10, 2010, I became the owner of Chocolate Pizza Company.
The next day, I met my first “hill” as an owner – my first payroll deadline was 2 weeks away and I didn’t have a dime to my name. But there was no panic, no collapse, only focus. I ignored the painful reality of an empty bank account and pressed forward with the only possible solution – sell a lot of chocolate in a short period of time.
I found a hand-sewn Chocolate Pizza costume tucked away in the office from some distant parade appearance and put it on. I stood in the rain outside the store and waved at passing cars – more than a few stopped to visit our store. I called local hospitals and got permission to sell our chocolate in their cafeteria at lunchtime and share a portion of the sales with the hospital’s volunteer auxiliary because I knew they always needed fundraising. People there flocked to my table and I sold out every time. I drove to area businesses where I introduced myself as the new owner of Chocolate Pizza Company and left a complimentary Chocolate Pizza. Many of them called in orders a day or two later. No sale was too small to be important.
I was relentless, day and night, weekdays and weekends, I sold, I pitched, I marketed – never wavering in my belief that we could make it work. The work didn’t scare me, losing my dream did. In the back of my mind, I heard: “How bad do you want this? How much does it mean to you?”
We made that first payroll and every payroll since then. We have taken a small-town chocolate shop and created an emerging national brand. We have been featured on Food Network, Food Network Canada, NBC’s Today Show, ABC News and more. We have taken online orders from six continents and have products sold nationwide by retail giants like Hallmark. There is a new 10,000-square-foot production facility where hundreds of thousands of pounds of chocolate are transformed each year into unique, gourmet chocolate specialties for business or personal gifts.
And new “hills” appear almost every week but I know how to deal with them – push forward, ignore the pain and don’t ever, ever quit.
“Big dreams should never come easy,” means that if you’re not working for it, sweating for it, losing sleep trying to make it work, then you aren’t reaching high enough. Thomas Paine once said, “What we attain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”
Dreaming big is a strength, not a weakness, for those with the heart to commit to the climb. It motivates you, drives you, pushes you and energizes you. Its pursuit leaves you joyously exhausted in the same way that a simple kicking drill up a grassy knoll taught a young man that there is no hill too steep to climb when your dream is on the line.