Corner Office-Underdog Done Good

Corner Office-Underdog Done Good

Achieving dreams takes persistence, determination, and sacrifice.

My father taught me a lot of valuable lessons during my childhood and adolescence, but one that sticks with me still is to be a champion for the underdog. He felt blessed in his athletic abilities and felt badly for those not possessing these gifts, so he would spend time helping them by coaching, mentoring, or giving advice.

I was fortunate enough to inherit my father’s athletic ability and his passion for underdogs. My favorite stories are the ones about underdogs who pursued their dreams until, after a lot of hard work, they were realized.

I think the best movies are those such as The Pursuit of Happyness, Erin Brockovich, and Rudy. To me, the most interesting books are about people who broke through barriers to achieve greatness, such as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and yes, even Hillary Clinton. So, imagine my delight when I recently learned of an inspirational story right here in Minnesota. Actually, right in my own neighborhood!

 

Dream Shines Through

 

Although I like this story because it’s about my favorite sport (football), it’s a great example for business leaders, too. Business plans are essentially dreams, after all, and it takes a heck of a lot of determination, sacrifice, and focus on the end game to achieve those dreams, right?

This is the story of David Raih, the son of my neighbors, Dr. Tom and Mollie Raih. I remember David as a tall, gangly young boy playing park league football and throwing the ball around with his brother in their front yard. As a quarterback for St. Thomas Academy during his senior year of high school, David set school passing records and earned all-state honors.

From conversations with David’s father over the years, I knew that David’s brother played football for the Iowa Hawkeyes, and that David had gone on to play for the Hawkeyes as well in 1999, earning a spot on the team as a walk-on quarterback. However, his college football career as a backup quarterback was cut short during his junior year due to a shoulder injury. But football stayed in Raih’s blood, and he stayed with the team as a student assistant coach, and then helped to coach a freshman quarterback.

In the meantime, Raih’s business career was becoming more promising. He received a business degree with honors in finance, and was soon working in the medical sales field, at first in Iowa City and then in Los Angeles.

That’s the extent of what I knew about my neighbor’s kid until recently, when Raih’s dad told me, wearing a proud grin on his face, “You’re not going to believe this!”

Raih had a very promising sales career, winning national sales awards and being paid handsomely. He was living a few minutes from the beach in southern California and had a sales territory that included Cedars-Sinai Hospital, where celebrity sightings are common. How could it get any better for a young man at the beginning of his career?

Well, a burning passion was smoldering inside him. He was missing what he loved: the game of football. Raih was considering leaving his lucrative career behind to coach football. He started calling his former coaches in Iowa, asking for advice.

 

Making His Move

 

While home for Christmas last year, he told his family that his New Year’s resolution was to get back into coaching. He confessed how much he missed football. Even after graduation, he hung out at the University of Iowa football offices, watching practices and recruiting tapes, talking about football with everyone. He told his family he regretted ever leaving the coaching staff, and knew that he had to get back into football.

It wouldn’t be long before he got a chance to act on his dream—December 29, 2007, in fact. Back in Los Angeles, Raih was watching ESPN when an announcement was made that the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Bruins were hiring Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel as their head coach. Suddenly, Raih’s phone was ringing. Both his best friend and his dad had seen the announcement and thought Raih’s coaching dream was about to be realized only a few blocks away from his L.A. home, where the Bruins’ new head coach would soon be assembling his staff.

Because the Baltimore Ravens finished their season on December 30, Raih guessed that Neuheisel would be at UCLA on New Year’s Eve. He put together his résumé and letters of recommendation from the Iowa coaching staff, and went to the campus that afternoon with nothing but his résumé, a dream, and determination.

Raih didn’t know his way around the campus or even what he’d say if he ran into Neuheisel. He and a friend walked around for a while looking for the new coach. Then they saw some reporters coming out of a building and knew the coach had to be nearby.

Raih hung around the building, eventually meeting Neuheisel and telling him how he had played for Kirk Ferentz in Iowa, and that now he wanted to coach for UCLA. Raih gave Neuheisel his résumé and said he’d follow up with a call.

Persistence Pays Off

 

Three days later, Raih was back at UCLA, tracking Neuheisel down. Neuheisel promised a sit-down conversation. Raih waited for that conversation on Neuheisel’s couch for four hours. It was 8:30 p.m., and Raih was supposed to be catching a plane to Las Vegas to receive a national sales award from his medical device company.

Neuheisel finally came back to his office to find Raih, still waiting, and said, “Who are you? What’s your deal?”

Raih told his story: How he had grown up in Minnesota, walked on in Iowa to play quarterback, studied business and had spent three years in the business world. And yet, at the age of 27, he wanted to give up a well-paying job to coach football.

Neuheisel was familiar with the story. He told Raih that he had grown up in Wisconsin, walked on at UCLA to play quarterback, spent three years in law school, until he took a graduate assistant position with the Bruins, also at 27.

Despite the similarities, Neuheisel told Raih that he was “absolutely crazy” and that he should just go away for two weeks to think about it and make sure it was really what he wanted. Neuheisel didn’t think he’d ever see Raih again.

But he was wrong. Raih kept coming back and dropping off letters, and had Ferentz call Neuheisel on his behalf. Finally, Neuheisel had had enough. He told Raih there was no room left on the UCLA staff.

But Raih still didn’t give up. He told Neuheisel that he’d work without pay for a month, or three months, or six months, or however long it took, and that Neuheisel could kick him out if he wasn’t doing a good job.

It was only then that Neuheisel said he’d give Raih 10 weeks to prove his worth as his personal intern giving him every lousy job there was so that he’d quit. He told Raih to be sure his medical device company would take him back.

So there he was, a former medical device sales professional, cleaning out recycling bins, organizing playbooks and supply rooms, driving Neuheisel to speaking engagements, and helping out with UCLA’s high school coaching clinic—and getting paid nothing!

But Raih is the product of a good family with a strong work ethic and solid values, and he proved to be extremely valuable. It only took him six weeks to win over Neuheisel, who promoted him to offensive intern to assist offensive coordinator Norm Chow, where he got paid a “very, very, very nominal amount,” he says.

On September 1, when the Bruins opened their season against Tennessee, Raih was on the sidelines in the Rose Bowl, his dream of coaching realized.

Well done, David! Who’da thunk a kid from our neighborhood would someday be coaching for the UCLA Bruins? Thanks for giving us all a lesson about having the guts to pursue our dreams with determination, persistence, and sacrifice. Best of luck to you and the Bruins . . . unless, of course, you play the Gophers!

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