For as long as I can remember, I have worked my whole life to turn a dream into a reality. When I was a sophomore in high school, I put a poster above my bed that read in big bold letters “I will play in the NFL.” You’ve probably seen the classic story in a movie or read it in your favorite NFL player’s bio. Sacrificing endless weekends while friends were out partying to drive 2 hours and train with the best competition. I began to see the dream unfold by starting on the offensive line for UNC as a freshman and being named a Freshman All-American. Walking into the Georgia Dome to hundreds of thousands of deafening fans at twenty-years-old was exhilarating.
But how many of those stories end with one moment sending their world into a tailspin and ending a dream in its tracks?
My name is Tommy Hatton. I am a senior here at the University of North Carolina. Since I was a little boy, I dreamed of playing on Sundays. Coming out of high school I was an Under Armor All-American and was ranked the number two center in the country. I came to Carolina where I started as a redshirt Freshman. But on August 3rd, 2017, my life drastically changed in ways I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
In our first padded practice of my sophomore season, I received a routine hit to the head that left me in a concussion state for close to five months. This was truly the hardest time of my life. Physically, I was fighting to control my constant migraines and vertigo. Mentally, I had to decide about my future in football. It was the game that I had defined myself by, the game that I had given my all to for so long. In December of 2017, after meeting with some of the best neurologists in the nation, I decided that I would never strap up my pads again and my life as a football player would be over.
It was the hardest decision I ever had to make. Every day was a struggle to be in a room with lights on, and there I was making the biggest decision of my life. But every day and every moment after, there was only one question I could ask myself: what’s next?
As my symptoms started to subside I had to challenge myself, so I picked up books. I made a promise to myself I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself. I was going to get better.
I started reading a great deal about the stock market, cryptocurrency, and upcoming financial technology. I’ve always been the kind of person that when I am interested in a subject, I obsess over learning more about it. Around the same time, I also started networking with professionals who were involved in these industries and quickly discovered that I had a real passion for technology.
One of my buddies at home had a similar interest and had done fairly well during the cryptocurrency craze in 2017. He came to me with an idea to start a company called Cryptoknight. Cryptoknight was a way for average people to invest in proof-of-work cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Monero, etc. But, instead of investing in physical coins themselves, they would be investing in a successful cryptocurrency mining operation. At this time, the mining operation was returning a bolstering 102% return annually. This was my first introduction to entrepreneurship.
While Cryptoknight did not materialize as I hoped, partially because of the downfall of cryptocurrencies and a couple of other personal issues, I learned a lot about what it takes to be an entrepreneur. In athletics, I always tried to steer away from the status quo. I worked out differently than most people, focusing on my craft as an offensive lineman instead of lifting massive amounts of weight. I also loved the idea of taking risks. I would rather pursue a path where there was not much visibility than do the same thing every single day. I’ve found that these two principles are pretty important for starting fresh.
There was no bedroom wall poster this time, but in April 2018, I decided that I would pursue a career as an entrepreneur.
In April 2018, I was introduced to two fellow Tar Heels, Sasha Seymore and Andrew Powell, who were headed to Stanford to pursue their MBAs. They had an idea to create a digitized playbook learning application. The application would use micro-learning techniques to help athletes learn the information needed to be successful in their sports in a more interactive and efficient manner. I joined their team that month and it was the best decision I have ever made to this day. That summer, we worked off an open-source education technology platform where we beta-tested the idea with a few collegiate football and basketball programs. We received unbelievable feedback from the teams we worked with and decided to pursue building our own platform.
We launched our application nationally in January 2019 at the prestigious Under Armor All-American game in Orlando, Florida. It was an incredible experience and we were invited back to work with the game in 2020. Since January of 2019, Learn to Win has made more than a million dollars in revenue and recently found a new niche within the military. This summer, we landed a defense contract with the US Airforce and we are excited for the abundance of opportunities within the military sphere.
While my time at Carolina has been a lot different than I initially expected, I would not trade it for the world.
Sometimes life throws you a curveball at the most unexpected time and you’re left with two choices: either give up or continue to fight. It’s scary when you’re stripped of your identity. For me, that was football.
But let me tell you, athletics teaches you a lot more than being good at your sport.
It teaches you how to be goal-oriented, how to work well with others, and how to be a great teammate. While I still have a long way to go to cultivate a successful business career, the lessons that I learned playing football have led me to the position that I’m in today. Don’t be scared of change. Inevitably, an athletic career is going to come to an end at some point and you are going to have a great deal of your life left to live.
And never forget that you aren’t just an athlete.
It’s easy to not truly understand this because, as a collegiate athlete, you don’t have much time to discover much more outside your bubble. But trust me, you’re well prepared to tackle the game of life.
- Tommy Hatton