By Steve Coulter
When opportunity knocks, you better be ready to answer the door and welcome it in.
That’s the message former NFL wide receiver JJ Birden wants to share with readers in his first book, “When Opportunity Knocks, 8 Sure Fire Ways to Take Advantage,” coming out this fall.
“Many people today have opportunities but don’t know how to take advantage,” said Birden, who played from 1988 to 1996 with the Browns, Cowboys, Chiefs and Falcons.
“We all have opportunities in life, but do we seize all of them? Do we maximize them?” he asked, rhetorically. “The key is that you have to work like every moment is that opportunity and be prepared for it.”
Birden made a career out of being prepared to seize the moment.
In one of the sections of his book, titled “Being Ready For Your Opportunity,” Birden discusses his second season with the Chiefs in 1991 when he was a fifth string receiver fighting for a roster spot.
“It was my fourth year in the league, second in Kansas City,” he recalled. “I was going up against players who were drafted and sitting on the bench every game because I was a little guy playing in a big man’s game.
“Instead of complaining and becoming a problem, I went to practice and practiced like it was a game,” he added. “My thought was that the coaches will see me eventually and have no choice to play me.”
Sure enough that preparation paid off for the 5’9” receiver in the last game of the season against the Los Angeles Raiders, when Birden was put in and went off to the tune of 188 yards and two touchdowns.
“My career sort of took off after that,” he said. “It wouldn’t have been possible if I wasn’t ready, even in the last game of the season.
Two years seasons later, the Chiefs had welcomed in future Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Marcus Allen via free agency – moves that helped push the team to an 11-5 record, their best in 22 seasons, and a spot in the AFC Championship.
For Birden, playing next to former Super Bowl champions and MVPs was the most rewarding part of his nine-year playing career that included 244 receptions, 3,441 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns.
“I’m in the huddle playing with these guys – it was an exciting moment,” he recalled. “Not everybody can say they caught a pass from Joe Montana.
“We were on fire that year; we came within one game of the Super Bowl,” he added.
Big family dinner
Nowadays, what excites Birden most isn’t the possibility of playing for a Super Bowl – it’s the possibility of rounding up everyone in his family for a big dinner at his home in Scotsdale, Arizona.
It’s a lot easier than it sounds.
Birden, with his wife, Raina, have raised eight children – LaJourdain Jr, Justin, LaShawna, Dante, Brandon, Aaliyah, Camille, and Alishia; three of which are biological and five are nieces and nephews.
“Favorite post-career moment? It would have to be any family dinner where everyone is present,” he said. “We have a big family dinner around this garden table and the conversations are going left to right and right to left – you’ve got to cherish those because you know they’re not going to last.”
JJ and Raina took guardianship of the five nieces and nephews six years ago – a decision that he says “gets me going in the morning.”
“I’m always giving advice to my kids, like choose your associations wisely,” he said. “One of my favorites is, ‘those who don’t study history are bound to repeat it.’ They must have heard that a thousand times now.”
Life after football
Birden understands the challenge of raising a family and running a business in the modern world.
After his NFL career ended, Birden invested in several medical and fitness companies in Kansas City and Atlanta, but found that he had spread himself too thin to be actively involved in the day to day operations of all the businesses.
“My mindset was always thinking of life after football,” he admits. “I didn’t think I would play nine years; may two years – that’s it.
“I was always making contacts,” he added. “But I realized about three years after retirement that I had to be more involved in order to be successful – you have a lot more to gain if you’re always there.”
Recognizing his mistakes, Birden sold his business in Kansas City, revamped his approach and started operating several businesses in the health and wellness industry.
In 2007, JJ and Raina took over as top executives of Team X 88 International, an independent distribution company that sells nutritional products.
“My wife and I are into living a healthy lifestyle and we like to meet with people to see how we can improve their lives,” he said. “If you want to be fit and health, it starts with nutrition.”
He hopes his book can relate to people dealing with opportunities in business, wellness, family, faith, athletics, and personal development.
“Everybody faces challenges, whether it’s with your family or in your career,” he said.
Fast as the wind blows
Always being a step ahead of the competition has helped Birden, who was a standout, All-American track star at the University of Oregon and a special team’s specialist in the NFL before becoming a legitimate receiver.
However, even Olympic-type speed – Birden was destined to compete at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea before suffering a knee injury on his third day in training camp with the Browns – doesn’t mean you can out run all of life’s challenges.
Overcoming that injury, and others he suffered during his playing days, is just another part of his story of defying odds and expectations.
“I’m 49 and I’ve never stopped working out; always been an athlete,” said Birden, who works out four or five days a week, despite knee and shoulder surgeries. “I still feel aches and pains; there’s some wearing and tearing.”
The warmer climate of Arizona helps him feel physically better than his native Oregon.
He still roots for the Ducks though, even if he’s surrounded by Wildcat (University of Arizona) and Sun Devil (Arizona State) fans.
“There’s no real rivalry,” he admits. “I’m a Duck at heart though and I’m proud that I was able to play there as a walk on.”
Laying the foundation for flying Ducks
Like his journey in the NFL, Birden had to show coaches with his relentless effort at practice that he could make an impact in games.
Coming out of high school as a tiny wide receiver, he didn’t receive a single scholarship to play football.
“Oregon was the only school that gave me that opportunity and I had to walk on as a sophomore because they didn’t let freshman walk on,” he explained. “I was really there to run track and train for the Olympics…
“My only real motivation for football was that everyone kept saying I was too small.”
His Oregon teams went 1-9, 5-6 and 5-6 – far from the dominance the school has attained recently in the Pac 12.
“I’d like to think we were the foundation of what you see today,” Birden said. “The season after I had graduated, we went 8-5 and made the first bowl game in years…
“It’s exciting to see how the school evolved,” he added
Right now, Birden is preparing to release his book this fall.
Before he does though, he’s making some revisions.
“They’ve asked me to go deeper and share some more stories about playing in the NFL,” he said. “The book has some behind the scenes stuff which people always want – they want that player’s perspective and find it interesting and beneficial.
“Hopefully I can show them that and sprinkle in some stories from throughout my life,” he added.
Depth has never been a problem for the speedy Birden, whether it came in the former of burning defensive backs on the gridiron and keeping a daily journal during his playing days.
“My teammates never knew about that,” he said of the journal. “It’s not something you want to be too vocal about in the locker room.”
Thinking back to his playing days, from the early injury with the Browns to catching passes from Montana, Birden begins to formulize plans for a follow up book.
“I’m going to call it Never, Never Quit,” he laughs. “My long story about the NFL, overcoming obstacle after obstacle – it’s definitely worth sharing.”
To learn more about JJ go to his site.