On paper it didn’t seem promising. But that’s because life is a game and until you play it, you can never know the true outcome.
Born to two teenage parents, in basic poverty, the start for Hiawatha Street seemed destined for little more than his environment would allow, trouble, and a life without hope. But as Hiawatha would discover, it’s about how you observe all that is around you and at the same time, use what’s inside you, to bring about change.
“The crazy thing is when I look back at the kids I knew growing up, they had the same aspirations and dreams as others,” says Hiawatha. But as he also witnessed, the environment was an obstacle most of his friends could not overcome. “It was typical inner city stuff, drugs and violence,” says Hiawatha. “There were fights, I saw people get stabbed over two-dollars in a card game. The first time I ever saw a dead body I was in the third grade. Those are things that anyone in their lifetime shouldn’t see. It’s something that stays with you.”
“Where I grew up taught me to be a little bit tougher. People living in an area who don’t have financial means, don’t have correct outlets, do things out of haste, because life is not going the way they want it to go. They take elements of what the street is providing for them. Poor people stealing from poor people. It’s very counter-productive.”
Fortunately for Hiawatha his mother decided she needed to give her son a better way. By the the time he was in the fourth grade his mother moved them away from the government housing Phoenix, Arizona and into Scottsdale, still in Section 8 housing and living on food stamps, but as Hiawatha describes it, “a little bit better environment.”
Hiawatha was also strengthened by his faith. He says his grandmother was especially strong in her religious background and foundation and he spent a lot of time in the Baptist church, which helped him in his belief he could do more and was meant for more. He says he also gained influence from another family member, his uncle, Matthew Phifer, a top-rated basketball player in the state of Arizona. Matthew was only ten years older than his younger nephew and the two formed a great friendship. “Matthew was super-talented,” says Hiawatha. “But three-quarters of the way through high school he became more interested in hanging out and chasing girls, which derailed his career.”
The lessons learned enabled Matthew to “school” Hiawatha on some basic principles in life. “He told me you have a lot of talent, (in sports), don’t let it fall by the wayside,” says Hiawatha. “He told me to stay in school, stay focused. I started playing heavy into sports in fifth and sixth grades… Pop Warner football, Boys and Girls club basketball. Matthew was trying to make sure I was being productive. He would take me to games and brag on me. He was a very proud uncle. He was trying to make sure I did not make the same mistakes he did.”
With his uncle in his corner and his mother trying to make a better life for her son, things improved. Hiawatha says his dad, though away much of the time in the military, was very supportive. Hiawatha says it enabled him to navigate his own path as well, away from the same demons which conquered many of his friends and some of his family.
“Life is hard enough growing up and being in this world,” says Hiawatha. “I tried to be a kid who stayed away from trouble because I saw how difficult it made people’s lives. I stayed away from drugs and alcohol growing up, even as I got older, I didn’t get involved. There was nothing good I ever saw involving alcohol. I didn’t want to be anywhere, anytime and not have a clear head. I also saw my grandfather pass away because of alcoholism. Anything I saw as damaging I tried to stay away from. As a kid I wanted to follow the path that was good and stay away from all that was bad.”
Hiawatha says his outlet was sports. He could simply focus on that element of his life and pour his energy into it. “Sports was my equalizer,” says Hiawatha. “Everyone was competing at the same time on a level playing field. We played all over the city and I could forget about the environment I was in. I was also blessed in having great people around me. My uncle, my mom, my dad, my grandmother. Seeing bad choices people made, made me realize I don’t want to make that choice.”
Hiawatha’s positive choices got him into college at Western Illinois University and his athletic prowess, especially as a defensive back on the football field, got him an invite to a regional NFL Scouting Combine in Chicago. But right before he was to put his talent on display, he suffered a setback.
“Two weeks before Chicago, I hurt my ankle on the basketball court,” says Hiawatha. “We were just shooting free-throws and my buddy missed a shot, so I leisurely jumped up to grab the ball and landed on my buddy’s foot and hurt my ankle. I went to the NFL Combine, and I could run, but I could not change direction, which is what you need to be able to do as a defensive back. I didn’t make the cut. Then I heard one of my coaches was touting me to another coach of an Arena Football team in St. Louis. I got invited down and competed with about 150 other guys in the workout. I made it to the final round, then I waited for the call. One week went by, then two weeks, no call. The Arena football season was starting up, but two games into the preseason I got a call from my coach who said the team wanted to take another look at me. I made the cut and signed my first pro-contract in 1996. I had a great season, went to the playoffs but my team got knocked out by this guy playing for Iowa, named Kurt Warner.”
Hiawatha continued to excel in his football career, and at one point thought he might have a shot with the Saints and the 49’ers in the NFL, but the opportunity never materialized. He ended up playing seven years in the Arena Football League, even suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in 2001, but he staged a comeback against an injury that ends many a football player’s career, and in 2002 he was back on the field in a player-coach role with the Quad City Steamwheelers.
During this time, Hiawatha also continued his education, earning his Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Sports Management. Though he served as a football coach for one year, Hiawatha said he wasn’t interested in the “coaching carousel”, meaning the instability of a college football coaching career, so he went looking for other opportunities.
He eventually worked his way up at the Enterprise Rent-A-Car company, moving to Orlando, Florida in the process. But Hiawatha says eventually the demands and long hours of the work were not conducive to being there for his family. Hiawatha had married in 2009 and with two small children in the mix by 2014, he says he needed a change, so he resigned.
He took some time off to spend with his family and in February of 2014 Hiawatha found USHEALTH Advisors and an opportunity which fit him perfectly, because he was always making choices to get him to the top of his game.
“I made a “hit list” of all the top people to talk to, Mara Dorne, Liz Byrne, Erica Gill, Jason Greif, Marcos Figueroa, all those I wanted to learn from. I wrote my first policy on April 2nd and made $1,400 my first week in the field, off of only two policies. I said that’s pretty good, let’s see how this goes. I told Liz I want to be the ultimate student and work my butt off. Here I am, three years later, doing pretty well.”
Promoted to a Field Sales Leader, but without a big team, last year Liz asked Hiawatha what his goals were for 2016. He told her it was to have a team that produced $3 million in issued policies. “She looked at me a little strange and said, ‘you don’t have much of a team to make that happen.’ “I said, we’ll make it work. Through a lot of hard work and trial and error, we finished the year with $3.4 million in issued business. I got help from a lot of other people around the country like Rochelle Brown, David Zalka, Mike Gibson, one of the beautiful things about this company is everyone is trying to help everyone else to put their best foot forward.”
“I sit down with my agents and and go over their goals. When they come back and say they can’t do it, I can pull out their goals and say, ‘hey this is what you told me you wanted.’ “You’ve got to push through, make the effort and make it happen. With the path I’ve traveled it’s very hard for people to give me their excuses. I joke with my agents I don’t care about your feelings, I don’t care about your excuses, I don’t care if you are tired, I just want to know what are you going to do to be successful. I tell them, you will, or you won’t. Now as a father as well, I can pass along these core values of discipline and hard work.” (Not only his hard work, but his work ethic, just today he coached his son’s Hot Shot basketball team to a championship victory.)
Hiawatha says he is forever introspective with his life and what he has endured and accomplished. “People are just people,” he says. “There are going to be good people and bad people, life is a long journey. It’s going to to go along the way of whatever choices you make. Growing up in a tough environment, but turning to sports and the church, taught me discipline and hard work. When I would say to my dad, ‘that’s not fair,’ he would say the only thing that’s fair is what you work for and what you earn. I look at my situation on paper and I could have easily been a statistic. It doesn’t matter where you grew up, but it does matter that you make the right choices. No matter where you are in life, as long as you keep making good decisions, it’s all going to work out. It’s not a skill thing, it’s a will thing.”
Until next time, thanks for taking the time.