Two Retired Football Players Tackle Fly Fishing In A 10 Day Journey Through The West

The adrenaline pumping through you as you brace for impact; the strenuous performance with unwavering expectation; the heightened emotions running rampant in your mind as your every movement is monitored under a microscope awaiting the fate of celebratory applause or the soul crushing dismay of a disappointed audience; this is football at a high level. 

We pour our blood, sweat, and tears into a game that accepts nothing less than perfection, despite the physical toll, the mental exhaustion, and the sacrifice it takes to execute what’s expected of us. For years we give ourselves to this sport, this game, that defines who we are as men, only for it to be stripped away, leaving us forever tampered by an experience that nothing on earth will ever replicate. All that we are left with is an insatiable need for the same level of competition, prosperity, camaraderie, physicality, and esteem, we are no longer privy to. As that limelight wanes and the once adoring spectators slowly disappear, what was once a deafening harmony of enthusiastic cheers, is now a taunting whisper of a memory reminding us that any amount of success or accomplishment will always seem miniscule in comparison, at least in the eyes of past admirers. 

Almost two years have passed since we last stepped on the field, and the transition to normalcy has been plagued with unfathomable growing pains. Our identities have been questioned, friends have been lost, relationships with family members have changed, our purpose feels uncertain, and the battle between who we are and who we once were wages on. However, as time continues, the line separating our past and present selves has begun to blur, because the truth is, every version of ourselves is one in the same, an accumulation of one’s soul. The pursuit to find the very edges of human performance lives on in our blood; the difference is simply the path we must take to find it. 

For centuries, our predecessors journeyed the west on a quest to transcend an unfulfilling existence they were otherwise doomed to. We are determined to simulate an ounce of that experience in order to rediscover the pieces of ourselves we lost when we hung up our cleats. What better way to connect with the deepest parts of ourselves than to confront a sport vastly different from football; a sport whose opponents must harness inconceivable synchronicities in order to participate in a perfectly fluid dance between the river, the fish, and the individual: fly fishing. 

Cameron Smith

For eighteen years, football dictated how I lived my life; it decided what I ate, who I hung out with, when I worked out, what I did everyday. It determined my status, the perception other’s had of me, the direction my life was going, and who I was as a person. Most of those years were filled with my fondest memories, my dearest friends, and experiences I will forever be grateful for. Things took an unfortunate turn though, when I finally accomplished the one goal I had been working towards, playing in the NFL; it was no longer just a game, and the pressure took a toll on me. I needed a creative outlet, a way to relax and distract my mind. So, while I was going through my first training camp with the Vikings, I purchased my first camera. 

Immediately, my passion for photography started eating away at my passion for football, which had already been battling with my passion for duck hunting for several years. Once I combined the artistry of photography with the adventurous thrills of hunting, football started feeling less like a game I loved to play and more like a chore that was taking away from my opportunity to create and spend time outdoors.

At the beginning of my second year of football, life as I knew it was turned on its head when I found out I needed open-heart surgery. As the result of a positive COVID test and NFL protocols that followed, I was put through extensive health screenings. These tests led to the discovery of a genetic heart condition, a bicuspid-aortic valve that caused my heart to grow 3X the normal size: a condition that would have resulted in heart failure and ended my life had it not been caught in time. 

Fortunately, I received the best care and treatment and was given the opportunity to continue my football career. I didn’t let this second chance go to waste; I gave it everything I had to get my body back in shape after surgery. However, during my recovery, I was also spending more and more time hunting and taking photos than ever before.

Fast forward to just under a year post surgery, I was back on the field playing the first preseason game against the Broncos. Throughout all the training leading up, I had been having random spurts of anxiety and feeling unstable in my body, but I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel yet. I pushed myself to my limits in that game, but it abruptly came to an end when my head bashed into the ground with force equivalent to a car crash. It resulted in a concussion and I was sent home in the second quarter. 

I lied in bed that night with my mind racing a mile a minute as I weighed my thoughts. On the one hand, I didn’t want to give up a career I had been given a second chance at, a career that I had worked so hard for to begin with. On the other hand, I had been putting my body on the line for a game that was, in the end, just a game. My perspective had shifted tremendously after my surgery, and I no longer valued the prestige, the money, or the novelty of playing in the NFL. Instead, my priorities were spending time with my friends and family, pursuing my love of hunting photography, my health and well-being, and the freedom to truly make my own choices without the stress of the game hanging over my head. In other words “YOLO”, and life is just too damn short to be exhausting every ounce of your being for something you do not love. 

I retired two days after that game; that was nearly two years ago. The transformation between then and now has been an amalgamation of identity crises, career changes, cross country moves, and countless rash decisions in effort to figure out who I am outside of football. I went as far as selling all of my belongings including all of my athletic wear, my high end, designer clothes and shoes; I stopped going to the gym; I convinced myself photography wasn’t a career and got my real estate license instead, just to realize I was wasting my time on something else that I hated; I withdrew from my friends and family; I spent a lot of time by myself; I traveled the country in a sprinter van; I forgot who I was. Through all of this I struggled with an immense amount of anxiety, depression, and a complete lack of purpose or direction. 

As with all storms, the clouds have since subsided and life has begun to fall into place. I am slowly realizing that many of my personal characteristics that I attributed to football are so ingrained in my soul that they didn’t just disappear when I said goodbye to the game. I am back to working out consistently and eating healthy, I have settled down in  a new city that I finally feel at home in, I have regretfully repurchased many items I believed I needed to cleanse myself of, and I have discovered that the components that led to my success as a football player are the same qualities that will lead to my success as a photographer. 

Harrison Creed

I was born and raised in Ulysses: a little town in southwest Kansas, where I spent most of my youth hunting and fishing. However, once middle school rolled around and I was introduced to the sports world, my focus shifted and sports became my priority over all else. Throughout high school, I divvied my time between football and baseball, but dedicated my college years to playing football at Kansas State University, where I graduated with a degree in Agriculture Business. 

My journey as a photographer all started in my final semester of school; I was done with football and my classes were all online, in response to the pandemic, so I needed something to do to stay busy. I decided to really dive into photography. I’m a big believer that “if you don’t bet on yourself, no one else will,” so I immediately began reaching out to as many outfitters as I possibly could, to get my foot in the door and work on building my portfolio. Throughout that final spring semester, I ended up shooting for an outfitter in West Texas and also did some shoots in Missouri and South Dakota during snow goose season. It was a lot to juggle on top of my school work, but by the time I graduated, I was absolutely obsessed with content creation and knew I needed to pursue it as my full time career. From the very beginning, my mission as a photographer has been to “tell a story that’s never been told.” Because of photography, I have an abundance of opportunities to travel the world, capture the experiences of unique individuals from all walks of life, and tell stories that would otherwise never be told.

This October, Cam and Harrison will embark on a 10-day road trip across five states through mountain west with one mission in mind: share the journey of the Anglers’ Dream.

Follow Cam and Harrison through the @_theomnicollective. Follow Cam @_killacam and Harrison @harrison.creed to see their journey. 

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