May 6, 2018

‘Making Things Right’: Kamar Jorden and the road to redemption

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

The plane rattled through the darkness of a late November night, making its trip back to the prairies. The passengers — players, coaches, staff — all sat silent, the sound of the engine filling the void as everyone tried to process what had happened.

Kamar Jorden looked across at the empty row next to him, then out the window into the darkness. He’d close his eyes, but sleep was out of the question before it even had a chance to try to elude him.

Eyes open or closed, Jorden and the Calgary Stampeders couldn’t shake the sick-to-the-stomach feeling that they had, or the series of events that led to them sitting on that silent plane. It was the feeling they’d spent the last year working to avoid and with just over five minutes left in the 105th Grey Cup, it seemed like they were going to do it.

He leaned back in his seat and thought about the ball popping loose. Two long bounces and one short one, dribbling into Cassius Vaughn’s waiting hands, his feet whirling like he was a cartoon character as he raced 109 yards away with it, turning an eight-point Toronto deficit into two. In quick order, the Argos added a two-point convert to tie and a Lirim Hajrullahu field goal for the win.

Kamar Jorden hauls in a pass during the 105th Grey Cup. Jorden's Stamps go on to lose 27-24 to the Argos (Photo: David Chidley/CFL.ca)

Just like that, it was over. Game. Blue and white confetti. Shirtless O-linemen celebrating in the snow. The commish presents the trophy. A days-long party begins for Toronto.

And Calgary, like it did the year before, sits on a silent plane, everyone thinking and feeling the same thing, no one saying anything.

“The whole next two days were just…they felt really, really lonely,” Jorden says.

. . . . .

If it wasn’t for Kaliym Atkins, there might not be a Kamar Jorden, receiver for the Calgary Stampeders.

Six years older than his little brother, Kaliym was a quarterback as far back as Kamar can remember. The two grew up in Darby, Penn. with their mom, Deborah Atkins. She’s a hairdresser and beautician who raised them on her own.

“Well it was like, he didn’t have no choice but to play,” Kaliym recalls. “At first he didn’t like football. But if I did something, our mom said he has to do something.”

Kaliym being a quarterback that always wanted to work on his game, Kamar became his daily target. In the early stages, football was a feet-to-the-fire experience for Kamar. A 12-year-old throwing to a six-year-old presents its own challenges, as does putting the pads on for the first time.

“I’m never going to forget the first time he put pads on. He got crushed. CRUSHED,” Kaliym says, laughing. “I felt bad. I really felt bad. He got demolished. I thought, ‘Oh God, my mom’s gonna kill me.’ But I told him he couldn’t quit, he had to keep going.”

He started to love getting the ball in games, but there was still a hurdle to clear.

“I told him, ‘Kamar, you want the ball but you don’t like to get tackled,’” Deborah Atkins said, laughing at the memory of her little boy running away from the contact. “Once you get hit, you’ll get into the game.”

“We lined it up and I hit him with everything I’ve got and I ran him over. I ran him over and that changed everything for me. That changed my whole mindset for football.”

Kamar Jorden recalls his earliest days playing football

A photo from 1995 shows Kamar Jorden wearing a Colwyn Comets uniform at age six (CFL.ca)

She was right but it took some help from Kaliym to get Kamar to realize it.

“I was scared to hit. I was scared to get hit, at first,” Kamar says.

“There was this one dude on the team…he was like the best dude on that team. I was probably six or seven years old at this point and he used to hit everybody like crazy. I’d never seen anybody my age playing like that. We were going against each other. I was so scared to hit him, I didn’t even use all my might. I fell back and he chucked me.

“My brother was practising, he happened to be running laps. So he stopped running his laps and he was like, ‘Yo, no, go again.’

“My brother at this point was 12-years old. He was a kid too. He stopped the whole practice and he was like, ‘No, he’s got to go again. My brother’s got to go again.’

“He made me. ‘You better hit him with everything you got or you’re not coming home.” Kamar laughs as he thinks back to it. “That’s how my brother was. You don’t hit him, you’re not coming home. I’m not letting you come home.

“We lined it up and I hit him with everything I’ve got and I ran him over. I ran him over and that changed everything for me. That changed my whole mindset for football.”

It also set a precedent for Kaliym and Kamar’s relationship. From those days when Kamar was in equipment that was bigger than he was, through to the present day, Kaliym would be his toughest and most honest critic.


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“He’s always the one person, when everyone’s saying you had a great game, you did this you did that, he’s that one person to say, ‘You missed this block,’ or ‘Why’d you drop that?’” Kamar says. “He’s the one that humbled me and made sure I kept improving and getting better.”

By Kamar’s estimations, he was always good, but never the best player on his teams as a kid. Still, as a senior at Penn Wood High School in 2007, he was a captain and had 36 catches for 626 yards and 10 touchdowns. He was named second-team All-State and played in a few high school all-star games. He grew up loving the Michigan Wolverines and dreamed of playing in The Big House at Michigan Stadium.

As his high school career inched forward, he started to have big dreams, but looked around and didn’t see anyone that had walked that path, that might be able to help put him on it.

“I didn’t really know anybody (from Darby) that played Div 1 football, let alone professional. It was a dream but it felt unattainable. I’d never seen anyone do it,” Kamar says.

Kaliym, who was a good high school QB, did what he could for him, but similarly, looked around and didn’t see anyone else that could help.

“It was rough coming from a community where you see all these talents. Everyone’s playing sports and really good at it and it’s like, what happened? Why didn’t anyone progress or take it ot the next level or come back and mentor a kid so someone else could progress? That wasn’t there,” he says.

The worst point of it for Kamar came when he was heading into his senior year. He tried to be proactive and Googled a few football camps. Hoping to get on the radar of some scouts and coaches, he signed up for a camp at a university his cousin had attended. His face dropped when he got there.

“I’m 17 years old and I go there and there’s a bunch of six-year-olds, eight-year-olds running around, maybe a couple, probably no more than 10 kids in high school. It’s a bunch of little kids. As soon as I get there and see them, I’m like, ‘Where in the world am I right now?’”

During a high school game in 2006, Kamar Jorden looks in a pass while playing for Penn Wood High (CFL.ca)

Bad grades his senior year compounded the situation, but his talent was undeniable. He ended up going the junior college (JUCO) route and spent two years at Hudson Valley Community College. It was a mixed feeling for Kamar and his family. He was playing college football and had a chance to improve his grades, but everyone wanted more for him.

“I know a couple people that went to JUCO,” Kaliym says. “I even went to a JUCO and was like, ‘This ain’t it. Yo bro, you can take this, this is a stepping stone. This is like a high school/university.’

“Going to JUCO you’ve got at best two years to shine. You have to prove yourself each and every day. You have to be better than the man in front of you each and every day. And from there you can get to where you want to be.”

“I just wanted to take every opportunity to improve and get better and be where I was and not think about other stuff. I feel like that’s how I was able to be successful at Hudson Valley,” Kamar says. “There are so many distractions. You’re out there at a community college. It’s people going there who are really not serious about school, it’s a lot of distractions.”

There were the distractions that every first-year college student faces on a campus and the transition of living away from home for the first time. While he worked on his grades and his game, he and a roommate, Steve Fortune, shared an apartment through that first year. The two of them roomed together in Kamar’s second year as well, cutting costs by sharing a two-bedroom apartment with three other guys.

“That’s just the way we made it work,” Kamar says. “Everybody was able to do stuff, but it wasn’t easy at all.”

“He always knew he was going to play for a D1 program, he just had to get his grades up and get the highlights,” Fortune says. “He had that ability to get to D1, he just had to get the highlights.”

“It was the first time, it made me question, ‘Do I really want to play football?’ But I always knew how good I was and how successful I could be and even despite all that it was fun. I had a great time.”

Jorden on making the adjustment with Bowling Green

He took his brother’s advice and used Hudson Valley as his stepping stone. He got the grades he needed and on the field, he got the highlights that Fortune knew he could. He set school records in his sophomore season, pulling in 60 receptions for 938 yards and three touchdowns.

With the stats and highlights, came the recruiters. There was interest from North Carolina State and Louisville, but Kamar took his first visit to the campus of Bowling Green, Ohio and fell in love.

“I loved the small towns, the small school feel,” he says. “I committed to them right off the bat. It was my only visit, but it wasn’t my only offer.”

Kamar second-guessed himself a little after committing so quickly, but back home in Darby, Kaliym knew his brother had made the right choice.

“I think the day he signed with Bowling Green, North Carolina called, the Wolfpack,” Kaliym says. “I told him, ‘You’re cool, don’t worry about that. Bowling Green throws the ball, so you’re going to be in the best situation possible, from a receiver standpoint.’

“For the last four years Bowling Green had a top-five receiver every year. They throw the ball. I don’t know how he felt about it, personally but I was excited.”

His patience would be tested in his first year at Bowling Green. He red-shirted the 2009 season and watched receiver Freddie Barnes set an NCAA single-season record with 155 catches. In 2010, with Barnes trying to stick in the NFL (he ended up on the Saskatchewan Roughriders roster briefly in 2011), Kamar moved into his spot. He became a two-year starter and broke the 1,000-yard receiving mark both years.

He also got to check an item off of his football bucket list in Week 4 of the 2010 season.

“Bowling Green actually played Michigan at The Big House and that was like, at that point he was like, ‘Yo bro, I made it, I’m living my dream. I’m playing at The Big House against Michigan,’” Kaliym says. “He was super excited, super elated. To me at that point it couldn’t get no better.”

Kamar Jorden makes a one-handed grab after settling in at Bowling Green (Photo: CFL.ca)

Bowling Green would give him a lot, but it also demanded a lot. It was on that campus that Kamar started to learn what it would take to be a pro.

“Bowling Green was a life changer for me. I’d never been in Ohio, I’d never been around football that much before in my life,” he says.

“In JUCO, we had to do stuff, but Division I football you’ve got to workout in the morning, you’ve got to go to class, you’ve got to go to practice. After practice you’ve got meetings. Then you’ve got to go to training. It was like a full-time job.

“It was the first time, it made me question, ‘Do I really want to play football?’ But I always knew how good I was and how successful I could be and even despite all that it was fun. I had a great time.”

. . . . .

Deborah Atkins was finishing up a long day of work in 2012 when her phone rang. It was Kaliym. He needed her help.

“He said, ‘Mom, when you get home I want to know if we can have a party for Kamar.’ I asked for what and he said a draft party. Kamar is going to get drafted,” Deborah recalls. “I said, ‘Get out of here!’”

Kamar wasn’t exactly surprised when his named wasn’t called during the NFL draft that year, but the family would soon have reason to celebrate.

“I knew I’d get an opportunity,” Kamar says. “The Vikings picked me up maybe two minutes after the draft was over and they signed me as an undrafted free agent.

“Once you get that call and they tell you, ‘Congratulations, you’re a Minnesota Viking…’” He trails off. “Randy Moss, Cris Carter, it was dope, it was dope. The whole family was there, and I told them I played for the Vikings.”

The pro chapter of Kamar’s career had started but no one knew where it would take him, or how hard it might be.

He broke his hand in training camp and was released. About eight weeks into the season when his hand was healed, he was waiting on a call to re-join the team. Bored, he went to the gym and played some pickup basketball. He tried to dunk on someone and sprained his ankle, seeing it swell out of shape in front of him the next day, which of course, was when the Vikings called him back. He had to turn them down.

“It was so hard to see the ups and downs through Kamar’s whole career,” Deborah says.

“I tried to take the pain from him. When he came home (from Vikings camp) he got hurt and he was just so disappointed, I could see it in his face. Every time I had a break from work I’d call and say, ‘Let’s go out, things are going to get better.’ And he’d say, ‘They’re going to call me, they’re going to call me.’”

After a brief NFL stint, Kamar Jorden's next stop would be the Spokane Shock of arena football (Photo provided by Kamar Jorden)

He played a season of Arena League football with the Spokane Shock in 2013, then spent the last four weeks of the CFL season on the Stampeders’ practice roster. He had another brief look from the Vikings, but he’d spend the majority of the Stamps’ Grey Cup-winning 2014 season back on the Stamps’ practice roster, getting into just one game. He got into just two games in 2015 in Calgary.

He wasn’t playing, but for the first time in his career, he was a part of a winning team and that meant a lot to him. The Stamps have won no less than 13 games in each season that Kamar has been around the team. He knew when he got on the field that he could make a difference for them.

That started to take shape in 2016. He got eight starts and played in nine games, with 580 yards. He had five catches and 75 yards in Calgary’s Grey Cup loss to Ottawa in 2016.

“I’ve seen a lot of receivers, but there’s not too many receivers on this planet that I feel can do what he can do when the ball is in the air,” Kamar’s trainer, Jeffrey Johnson, said of him. The two have worked together and become close friends over the last six years.

“I’m not saying after the catch. I’m saying when the ball is in the air, he’s really good. That’s where he excels.”

He was on his way to showing people that in 2017. Through the first five games of the season, he was the Stamps’ leading receiver and was fourth in receiving in the league (468 yards). His four touchdowns were tops in the league. Then he hurt his knee and ended up missing 10 weeks of action.

He got back for the Stamps’ final four regular-season games and had 243 yards and two touchdowns. He was huge in the Western Final, turning six catches into 111 yards in a win over arch-rival Edmonton. He’d top that in the Grey Cup, catching six passes for 117 yards and a first-quarter touchdown, but it’s the ball and the touchdown that got away that left the lasting memory in Ottawa.

. . . . .

Johnson, Kamar’s trainer, has a uniquely gut-wrenching story about the play that swung last year’s game.

His son, D’Angelo, adores Kamar. He watched the Grey Cup last year wearing Kamar’s jersey. When it was over, he turned away from the TV, looked at his father and was already crying.

“Oh my God, that’s how we felt,” Johnson says. “My son cried for me.”

 

Kaliym had gone to a neighbourhood bar, Miller’s Ale House, in Springfield, Penn. He managed to get every TV in the place turned to ESPN 2 for the game.

“I was like, ‘My brother’s playing right now, so can we just put the Grey Cup on?’ So the whole bar had it on. I don’t know if they knew what they were watching,” he laughs, “but we watched the whole thing.”

For the second year in a row, Deborah saw the Grey Cup game in person as a guest of her son. She was in the stands at TD Place in Ottawa.

“I could close my eyes and see it. I can see Kamar fighting for that ball, fighting to get that touchdown, because that’s what he does,” she says.

No one has ingested the play and its fallout better than Jorden. Through his day of media interviews at Mark’s CFL Week, the fumble comes up repeatedly. He never flinches, never outwardly shows that he’s tired of talking about it.

“When I caught the ball I got hit immediately, so I was already maybe five yards back. My whole mindset with that play was get those yards back,” he says.

“When I made the move — and I watched that film at least 100 times. Nobody’s watched that play more than I have — I made the stiff arm to get in and I actually covered the ball up with two hands. I wasn’t trying to score. I was just trying to get a couple of yards to put us in a positive position instead of losing yards.”

He put his hand out to brace his fall and the ball pops loose. He points to his teammate, DaVaris Daniels, to recover it, but it’s already been picked up by Vaughn.

“Once he picked it up and started running, oh no, no. You can’t even imagine that type of play would happen in the Grey Cup. It was crazy. It was a lonely feeling walking back to that sideline.”

Deborah sat in the cold, snowy stands, struggling to believe what she was seeing.

“Even when the fumble came, I thought someone was going to tackle him, he’s not going to make it, there’s going to be a call that goes back,” she says. “And when that didn’t happen I just sat down and looked around. There was a young guy across from me. He said, ‘It’s not over.’ He didn’t know who I was. They still had a chance.”

Down three after Hajrullahu’s field goal, Calgary had a shot to go for the tie or the win. Bo Levi Mitchell went back to Jorden for a 37-yard gain with 41 seconds left, then found Marquay McDaniel to get them to Toronto’s 25-yard line. On second and four, Mitchell went for broke with 20 seconds left, threw to the end zone and was intercepted by Matt Black.

A lot happened in those final five minutes of play, but everyone’s minds stayed on the fumble and the touchdown that washed away the eight-point Calgary lead.

“I’ve read everything. I’ve watched everything. I didn’t want to hide from it. I wanted to face it head on. I just felt like that’s a weak thing to do, to kind of just fall back in the shadows.”

Kamar Jorden on facing criticism after the Grey Cup

For a mom that had the phone numbers of each of Kamar’s college roommates and the phone numbers of their mothers, just in case she ever needed to call them, it was painful to watch her son look so alone on the field.

“I just wanted to shield and protect him from everything. I didn’t care, whoever, whatever. That’s my baby, I’ll never let them do my baby like that. I just wanted to shield him,” Deborah says.

The loneliness was just starting. The Stamps’ locker room was mostly silent, while the staff tried to pack things up to get this shell shocked group of men on the plane and out of Ottawa as quickly as possible. As players got to their stalls, one by one, they’d see their phones and the endless string of notifications on their screen. Jorden’s would be busier than anyone else’s.

Twitter Canada confirmed to CFL.ca that Jorden was one of the top trending players during the Grey Cup. His fumble was the second-most tweeted moment of the game, behind the Argos winning at the final whistle. His average daily mentions jumped by more than 2,200 per cent during the game.

“I’ve read everything. I’ve watched everything,” Jorden says. “I didn’t want to hide from it. I wanted to face it head on. I just felt like that’s a weak thing to do, to kind of just fall back in the shadows.

“I’m not saying it didn’t cross my mind. I felt like the man thing to do was to be able to face it head on and kind of just take what happened, you know what I mean? Look yourself in the mirror. It happened, you did it, deal with it and then get over it. I felt like that was the best way for me to get over it, was to kind of read everything, read what everybody’s saying and stuff like that, see how everyone felt about it, whatever.

“Some people when they make plays like that, they’ll never watch that film. I’ll tell you I’ve watched that play so many times. I know exactly what happened. I know exactly where everybody was on the field. I know everything about it. I know what I did wrong. But I don’t regret anything that I did at the same time, either. I felt like it’s just it was…I don’t want to say a lucky play, but it kind of was. It was just a crazy play.”

 

While the outside world tried to climb its way in through Jorden’s phone, one of his teammates voiced his frustration.

“It’s a stupid play,” McDaniel, the veteran leader of the receivers corps said. “You can talk all you want about doing this, doing that, but it’s a dumb play. Stupid football lost this game and offensively we left our defence out to dry.”

While some players left without talking to media, Jorden stepped in and answered the hardest questions of the night. He owned his mistake, even days later back in Calgary agreeing with McDaniel, that it was stupid football.

A victim of the salary cap crunch, McDaniel was released by the Stamps in early February. Jorden signed a new deal with the team on Dec. 15.

The way Jorden handled the situation earned him respect from fans, media and players across the league.

“When a situation like that happens and someone fumbles…I threw three pick-sixes last year and that’s the longest walk on the field back to your own sideline, because you feel like you let everybody down,” says Esks QB Mike Reilly, who tweeted support to Jorden after the game.

“At the end of the day your teammates have to have your back. I sat there and watched the interviews in the locker room and I could just see….to his credit he stood there and he took the questions and he answered them. You could physically see the feeling on his face that I’ve felt so many times when I make a bad mistake on the field and I know how terrible it is.

“I looked at it and was like, ‘Man, that dude is feeling the lowest of the low right now.’ As a professional football player I felt it was something I needed to do to reach out to him and say hey man, stuff happens. None of us have played a perfect game. Games are not won and lost by the individual. It’s the collective. I felt it was important to say something to him and I hope it helped him through it.”

Kamar Jorden runs with the football after making a catch in the Grey Cup (Photo: Alex D'Addese/CFL.ca)

Almost four months after the Grey Cup at Mark’s CFL Week, Jorden seemed to have plenty of in-house support from his teammates.

“You want to talk about Kamar Jorden?” Alex Singleton, the Stamps’ star linebacker says to me at CFL Week in Winnipeg.

“If you want to talk about the catch he had in the Western Final, yeah, that was awesome. He played really well. That touchdown he had at the Grey Cup was really good too.”

Singleton was rolling through a carousel of media that day and many of them wanted to talk about the same thing. They wanted to talk about the Grey Cup. They wanted to talk about Jorden and the fumble. They wanted to talk about what went wrong and how the Stampeders, the most dominant regular-season team in the CFL through four of the last five seasons, can put two consecutive failed Grey Cup appearances behind them.

Singleton immediately went to bat for his teammate.

“In the fifth grade everyone probably failed a math test or a spelling test and if everyone just walked around with this thing stapled to their forehead, everyone would be like, ‘That’s really dumb that you care about that grade you got on that test,’” he says.

“It’s not that big of a deal. It’s one of those things, you let it go. It could have been anybody. We don’t care as a team. I think a lot guys in the heat of the moment we were upset, but everyone likes KJ. He’s a great dude, no one takes it to heart.”

“It was one of the biggest games of his life and to the eyes of everyone on the outside, he lost the game and that’s tough,” says Stamps receiver DaVaris Daniels, who rooms with Jorden on the road.

“That’s probably the toughest thing anyone will ever have to deal with and he took it on. That’s respectable for me. To hear that coming out of his mouth right after the game and not blink, he just took it to heart and it is what it is. He’s going to bounce back, we’ll all bounce back and he’ll be better for it.”

DaVaris Daniels, Kamar Jorden and Marken Michel are pictured during a shoot at Mark's CFL Week (Photo: Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

The stage wasn’t quite as big for Alouettes’ running back Tyrell Sutton, but he’ll never forget how he closed out his high school career. Playing at Archbishop Hoban High in Akron, Ohio, he fumbled the ball in the final seconds of the game.

“I chased the guy down and tried to get a touchback in the end zone, but it didn’t matter. They said touchdown and it was game over. You just have to put it behind you somehow. Let it serve as motivation and then there’s nothing you can about it.

“Mistakes happen. You just don’t want to make those kind of mistakes at that point in the game.”

Through the drama of the game and the hysterics that social media can enable, Winnipeg Blue Bombers receiver Darvin Adams says it’s easy to forget something.

“We’re human,” he says.

“I’ll say why (people) forget it, because we’re a professional team. We’re expected (to be perfect). But at the same time we are human, and humans make mistakes all the time. It happens. That’s life.”

Adams’ new teammate, Adarius Bowman, admits he’s battled himself at points in his career, in terms of hanging on to catches. The 32-year-old says his heart went out to Jorden in the Grey Cup and that he’ll be watching him this season.

“Certain moments are harder to flush than others. I had years where I let (mistakes) linger more than others, but after that year was over, it was all up here,” he says, pointing at his temple. “It was me telling myself, ‘You dropped one, you dropped two.’ The third, before the play was even called, you’re running and you’re like, ‘Man, I think I’m about to drop this.’ You do that, you know?

“In this business everyone wants to be perfect, the best, undefeated, victorious, the different words we use. But at the end of the day we’re human, so it ain’t what you did. It’s what are you going to do to correct it?“

If you ask Johnson, the trainer, Jorden has spent the last five-plus months making corrections.

“If I can put it into words, I’m trying to find a word that I can tell you to describe the intensity of his workouts and how much more focused he is now,” he says. “He’s definitely coming back with…we’ve had no letdowns.”

He’s been lifting weights twice a day, on a field four days a week for 3.5 hours per trip. Johnson has had a quarterback that’s looking to get into the CFL working with them, throwing to Jorden. He’s been doing one-handed catches for hours at a time.

“He’s just locked in and he took it hard. He may not say it, but by me knowing him, what (the fumble) did was, he feels like he owes everyone something, which he doesn’t. He doesn’t owe anybody a thing, in my opinion,” Johnson says.

“But he just feels like he owes them something. Sometimes we’ve gone three or four weeks without an off day. The only thing he may do is not go to the gym twice.

“He doesn’t want to let you know. Of course he feels bad. Of course he wishes that (he’d held onto the ball). But he wants to let you know on the other hand that he’s going to give everything he’s got to come back and make things right.”

Training camps open on May 20 and Jorden goes into this season as the league’s most intriguing story. How does one of the most talented young receivers in the league bounce back from a costly mistake in the championship game? In a way, he’s a microcosm of his team, which has slipped on that stage two years running now and needs to find a way to correct it. How did he so gracefully handle that horrible, unwanted spotlight in late November, then that long, silent, lonely flight back to Calgary?

“It’s just his journey,” his brother Kaliym says simply.

“I think it was like last year, he was top-four in every category as a receiver. Every category, and he gets hurt. That’s like his Kryptonite,” he laughs in disbelief. If you could ever hear someone shaking their head over a phone call, this would be the moment.

“What makes it even better is he just comes back and works harder and harder and harder.

“He don’t get it easy in my family. We talk about people, we laugh we joke, the good with the bad. Nothing’s going to come easy. You’re going to take it or you’re going to lie and cry. Nothing comes easy. Mom doesn’t let you walk away that easy. If you do something good or bad you’ve got to own up to whatever you did. Own it. You messed up, own it! That’s all you can do.”