When Trust Is ShatteredIt was 1974. Nixon would resign, the Oakland A’s would win the World Series, and I would turn 10 years old that September. But the first important transformation of that year—at least in my world—happened during early spring. My family lived in a split-level home on Blueberry Lane in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, about an hour from Boston. I’d spent the morning biking through the neighborhood with my friends before heading inside for a snack and some television. That time of year, the air still had a bite to it, and I felt my cheeks begin to thaw once I stepped inside. “Honey,” my mother called from the kitchen, “why don’t you meet us in the family room?” It was the farthest room from the rest of the house—a typical 70s den, with wood paneling on the walls; thick, shaggy carpeting to match; and a big, boxy TV with tinfoil wrapped around the antenna. I took my place on a beanbag chair, and my parents settled themselves across from me on the couch. They looked at each other for a bit and then turned their focus to me. “Well,” my mother said, “we just wanted you to know that you’re adopted, and we love you very much.” They nodded at each other, as if to say, our work is done here—as if it were a basic fact they needed to share. That was it. I was dismissed, and they got up as if nothing had happened. But for me, it was like a bomb went off.
Loss of BelongingMy life as I knew it was blown to pieces, but my nine-year-old brain failed to give voice to the thoughts that came flooding in. So, we all just went on with our day. To my parents, it may have been as simple as their delivery suggested. They loved me; I was their son. That was it. (If you’re wondering why they didn’t explain more, it’s because adoption was taboo during those times, and no one had the right words or knew the best way to talk about it. My parents were brave and loving in telling me at all—even if it was hard to hear.) But it wasn’t that simple to me. Not long after my parents delivered the news, I found myself walking down Blueberry Lane alone, turning the concept of adoption over and over in my mind. Who puts a kid up for adoption? How could you give up on someone so easily? What made my biological parents give me up? What’s wrong with me? What did I do wrong? I was sure I’d done something to cause it. At that moment, with the rug pulled out from under me, I lost my footing. I feared I didn’t belong—that I wasn’t really part of the family I’d always known—and I worried that if someone gave me up once, it could happen again. I promised myself I’d do everything I could to be perfect so that my parents wouldn’t have a reason to let me go. With my trust in my most intimate relationships shattered, I had to figure out how to rebuild my sense of belonging in the world.
Rebuilding Trust and BelongingLuckily, I had school sports to turn to. A few weeks later, still reeling from the discovery of my adoption, I was sitting in that same bean bag chair in the family room. This time, it was dark outside—the first time Dad let me stay up past 8 PM. It was the Atlanta Braves’ home opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They were playing for a packed house of more than 53,000 people, while millions of others watched from family rooms just like mine. All of us knew that Hank Aaron, a right fielder and one of the best baseball players of all time, could make history that night and break Babe Ruth’s home-run record. Some were thrilled at the opportunity to witness such a historic moment. Others didn’t want a Black man breaking a white man’s record. Even as a kid, I picked up on the tension. In the second inning, Aaron stepped up to bat. I was impressed—in awe, really—by the grace and dignity he showed in the face of so much pressure. There was just something about him. Al Dowling, a veteran lefty, was pitching for the Dodgers. He walked Aaron, and the crowd booed loudly. During the fourth inning, Aaron came up to bat again, with the Dodgers leading 3–1, Darrell Evans on first base, and no outs. The first pitch went right into the dirt—a ball. The next was a fastball, and Aaron hit it with a satisfying crack! It flew 400 feet over the left-field wall for a home run. At precisely 9:07 PM—more than an hour past my bedtime—he had broken Babe Ruth’s all-time record of 714 home runs, logging number 715. The crowd went wild, and so did my dad and I, clapping for Hank at home. Right then, something clicked for me: I could prove my worth through sports. I was going to become a professional athlete. As misguided as that thought is to me now, that night, it gave me hope—and a path to build my self-confidence and show my family I was worth keeping. I loved sports, just like my dad. That’s how I could make him proud. That’s how I could belong. And that’s what I set out to do. I dreamed about hitting a home run in a big game, lights from the field glinting off the ball as it soared over the fence. I pictured striking out a player to win the World Series, the crowd erupting in chants of my name. Those dreams extended to other sports too—banking a big free throw or last-second shot on the basketball court, or catching a winning touchdown in a full stadium. And suddenly, between my newly discovered identity as an adopted son and my aspirations of being a professional athlete, my paradigm of what it meant to be part of a family shifted as well.
A New Kind of FamilyBaseball diamonds, basketball courts, football fields, and locker rooms began to feel more like home than the split-level on Blueberry Lane. My teammates seemed closer to me than my adoptive family did. And instead of focusing on winning my dad’s approval, I sought it from my coaches, whom I wanted to please more than anyone else. My sports teams became the family I “lost” when I learned I was adopted. And it wasn’t just the sense of camaraderie I found in sports and on those teams; I also saw values and meaning that resonated with me in the professional athletes I looked up to. I was moved by these athletes, not just by their game, but also by the way they stood up for themselves and others, making a difference in the world and pushing against the status quo. Figures like Billie Jean King, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente became icons to me—parent-figures I could always look to—and provided inspiration when I needed it most. Eventually, my passion for sports—and the sense of home, shared values, and aspiration that I found on various teams—became the foundation for belonging in my world and the motivation to be the best version of myself in all areas of life.
Lessons in Life and LeadershipSince 1974—that pivotal childhood moment where I learned that relationships and trust can be infinitely fragile—I’ve rebuilt my foundation many times over. I’ve changed schools as a teenager, I’ve left one leadership position to take on another, and I’ve moved from state to state chasing dreams with my wife and kids. Each of these transitions required me—or afforded me the opportunity—to work hard to maintain the relationships I needed most, and build new ones in my new environments. And each time, sports remained at the center of my relationship-building process. Sports have always been my gateway to belonging. I’m passionate about them and, luckily, I also happen to be pretty good at them. That combination of passion and talent gives me confidence to use sports as a means of connecting, even with total strangers, in any realm of life. But sports aren’t the only way. They’re just my way. Creating personal trust communities is about discovering who you are, where you belong, who you want to invest and build with, and how to believe in yourself through the ups and downs. Discovering our belonging—what we’re passionate about, what we love to do, and who we can share that with—is the first step in creating meaningful relationships in all stages of life. Once we find belonging, we can begin to build meaningful and growth-oriented relationships with the people around us, grounded in shared values and mutual respect. And finally, once we’ve established belonging and built relationships, we must learn to believe—in ourselves and our belonging—so that we can lean into those communities, with vulnerability and trust, and be the best version of ourselves.
Rebuilding Trust with My ParentsAnd in case you’ve been wondering: Yes, my relationship with my parents grew from that moment forward. They were caring, loving, encouraging and supportive parents, and while my dad has since passed, my mom is still that way today. She would always say “you may not have grown inside me, but you always grew in my heart.” Eventually, I was able to understand that my adoption didn’t inherently mean I was unwanted or unworthy. It took some time, and while the beginning of that process was painful, it also helped me learn to find—or, truthfully, to create—belonging outside of those “given” relationships through my own means. That process of losing my footing, creating my own belonging, and then eventually repairing my relationships with my adoptive parents laid the groundwork for me to repeat that process throughout my life and, ultimately, unleash my own capacity for greatness. *** Mastering this process of belonging, building, and believing can be a long, complicated learning curve. And, to be honest, I don’t know that anyone ever “masters” it—I certainly haven’t! But I have spent decades practicing it. I’m now turning it into a replicable, teachable process and coaching leaders and executives like myself through the steps to help them establish the personal trust communities they need in their own lives. If this sounds like something you want or need at the stage of life you’re in, whether it’s to be a better spouse and parent, or to have the support you need to launch the next stage of your career, or because you’re not sure you have a personal trust community and want to work on building one, I’d be happy to talk about how I can help you, wherever you’re at.
If you’d like to learn more, you can reach out to me here.