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The NFL can be ruthless. Joe Terry was a 22-year-old Seattle Seahawks linebacker in 1987 when he got the word: “Coach wants to see you; bring your playbook.”
“We all knew what that meant—you’re getting cut,” Terry says, candidly recalling that life-changing moment. He implored then-head-coach Chuck Knox to tell him what he needed to do to get it back. Knox’s brutally honest reply: “Terry, you’re one hell of a linebacker, but you’re not good enough to be in the NFL.”
Those words stuck, Terry explains, as he retells the story just days before his Kona debut. An incredible student of the game since childhood, and a great college football player who was passionate and dedicated, Terry worked harder than most–on and off the field–just to compete at an NFL level. After getting the devastating ax only three games into his pro career, Terry thought, “from now on, I’m going to be in control.”
Fast-forward to 2003. The 39-year-old’s football career is well behind him and he’s living in Northern California (his current place of residence), when his sister-in-law informs the family she’s doing a local sprint tri. He’s intrigued and decides to race too. “I was pretty fit, I worked out,” he remembers. “I had no idea what I was doing, but how hard could it be, right? I showed up in Speedos with a mountain bike.”
His swim technique was poor at best, his off-road bike had nubby tires, but he crossed the finish line. “I started bawling my eyes out,” Terry remembers. Like that day in Knox’s office, it was another unforgettable, emotionally charged moment. This time, though, Terry’s question was, “Where do I sign up?”
Hooked, he did a few more sprints, graduated to Olympic distance, hired a swim coach, kept tweaking his training, competed in a few 70.3s, then in 2010 he and a buddy signed up for Ironman Arizona.
Again, the former NFL linebacker-turned-triathlete cried his eyes out when he crossed the finish. “[Triathlon] takes you to limits and places I’ve never felt before. It literally takes you to the depths of hell and back. It encapsulates your life in an approximate 11-hour period,” Terry explains. “You can’t cram for it, you can’t fake it. You have to put in the work to perform at your best.”
Maybe the perfect sport for the man who admits he doesn’t possess rare elite-level athletic talent, tri has given Terry a life balance that’s often even more elusive than born skill. He loves the process of training and progression. He embraces the moment but knows that around any corner there’s a difficult challenge or opportunity—the unforeseen something that is triathlon … and life.
“When everything is going your way, be humble, be grateful,” Terry says of his thought process. “When it’s not, know it will pass.”
This 2018 Kona championship is special for Terry, whose day job is heading a tech startup. His wife Katie qualified for the race (he was given a slot through the Ironman Executive Challenge), and this year’s event marks the first time the couple will compete in a full-distance Ironman together. Additionally, the pair’s two adult daughters will be on-island, cheering their parents on.
“We are just so excited to be here,” Katie says as I snap pics of the couple outside King Kam. “The athletes here are so inspiring.”
Even though this is Joe’s 10th full Ironman and he’s in incredible race shape (down 45 pounds from his linebacker days), he has no illusions or unrealistic expectations. He’s done the hard work, he’s surrounded by his most important people, his mind seems Zen—there’s balance.
“I’m not here to win anything—I’m just here to race well,” the now 52-year-old says. “I’m going to be in control.”