During his eight-year career in the NFL, Tim Lester made a name for himself leading a path for Pittsburgh Steeler great Jerome “The Bus” Bettis.
Now the man known as “The Bus Driver” is hoping to lead teenagers down the right path.
Lester, who travels the country giving motivational speeches as part of a nonprofit organization known as Sports World, spoke at Watson Chapel High School on Tuesday morning.
“What we do at Sports World is travel around the country and we talk to young people about life choices,” Lester said to the crowd. “One thing we tell young people, we are not born winners and we are not born losers, but we are born choosers.
“Basically, what that means is every day in life you have a choice. … You get up and you can make a winning choice or you can make a losing choice, but it’s your choice.”
Lester, who now lives in Atlanta, spoke about growing up in Miami the middle of seven children (six boys and a girl) and how football helped him escape “the hood.”
“I made it out of my community,” Lester said, “because I made a choice. See, I could have hung around with some of my boys who were selling drugs and doing drugs, but I chose to avoid it.
“I got a scholarship, a football scholarship to play football at Eastern Kentucky. Not because I was better than anybody else, but because I wanted better things in my life.”
Before he had a chance to attend EKU, a semi-truck driver running a red light crashed into Lester’s car leaving him in a coma that nearly derailed his dream.
“Pretty much everything I had worked for that day was taken away,” he said. “As I laid in the hospital bed, the doctor walked up to me and said, ‘Tim, I don’t think you’ll ever play football again.’ I just remember I started to cry. …
“A week later, Coach (Roy) Kidd called me, head coach of Eastern Kentucky, he said, ‘Tim, If you don’t come to school now we’re going to have to take your scholarship.’ I said, ‘Coach, man, I just came out of a coma.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but if you don’t come now, you’re going to lose it.’
“So I got up out of that bed with a headache and so much pain, and I went off to school. See, I made a winning choice, because I didn’t give up on my dream, my goals (and) my life.”
At Eastern Kentucky, Lester became one of the best tailbacks in Division I-AA (now FCS) and in school history. Lester, who was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2011, ended his EKU career with 3,640 yards and 37 touchdowns despite missing nearly his entire sophomore season with a knee injury.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, Lester was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams (now St. Louis Rams) in the 10th round of the 1992 NFL Draft.
Lester, 45, played for the Rams for three seasons before joining the Steelers in 1995. With Pittsburgh, he scored his only two career touchdowns (both rushing) in ’95 and ’96. Following the ’95 season, Lester played in his only Super Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys. He finished his career with the Cowboys, retiring in 1999 after just one season in Dallas.
During his time in Pittsburgh, Lester was introduced to the anti-inflammatory drug Toradol. Soon he was taking a shot of it before every game, and soon after he started taking ibuprofen before every practice.
After four years, Lester stopped taking the medication but soon after started feeling pain in his back and neck. He flew to California to see a doctor who told him the medication had been covering up the pain of several injuries.
“I had tore both my rotator cuffs,” Lester said. “I had tore ligaments in my wrist. I had a protruding disc in my lower back. I had fractured my ankle. I had dislocated my jaw.
“And I had suffered several, several concussions.”
The damage those concussions inflicted on Lester’s brain added up to something that has become an all-too-common occurrence in former NFL players.
“Recently, I’ve just been diagnosed with CTE,” Lester said. “… It’s called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. What it is, is when your brain cells die and they don’t come back. When you do drugs, it kills your brain cells. When you play football and get concussions and don’t treat them, it kills your brain cells.
“They recently just told me I’ve got about 10 years to live.”
Lester, who said the diagnosis came three years ago, didn’t leave the students at Watson Chapel with a cautionary tale to try and scare them straight. He left with a message of hope that even in the darkest of times you can find good things in your life.
Lester said his life turned around after he accepted Jesus into his life shortly after being arrested for driving under the influence in 1998.
“We talk about how we are not born winners, we are not losers, but we are born choosers,” he said. “… That’s the choice I make every day.
“To get up every day and follow Christ.”