Undefeated

I grew up in Texas, playing football. Then I joined the Army and became an Airborne Ranger. I was sure I was unbreakable. Ranger school is the world’s most stressful school, and I survived. After military service, I jumped headfirst into the culinary world. I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. I then traveled all around America, perfecting my craft and moving out of state once a year for 10 years in a row. Once I settled down in Durham, North Carolina, I started Durham Catering, then Only Burger, and then Rise Biscuits and Donuts. I was on a roll, and I felt I could accomplish anything I wanted.

Sharing his culinary skills at the Rio Grande Valley Birding & Nature Festival.

With the success of Rise, I was approached about franchising my concept. It was a big challenge, but something I wanted to try. Why not? I thought. I had accomplished everything else I had attempted. At first, it was great. I was making a lot of money, and it was exciting growing my concept. Then the cracks began to show—not only in my restaurant concept, but in me.

It wasn’t long before I had my first nervous breakdown. I decided to go to rehab to treat my long-standing addiction and hopefully come out better than before. Rehab was great for me. I returned home, but I soon moved out to travel for work for the next six months. Then came another nervous breakdown. I couldn’t control my company, and I couldn’t control myself. I needed help, and I was finally ready to take medication prescribed by a professional.

When I sat down with my new psychologist on December 17, 2018, he asked me some questions. He followed them up by asking what I wanted to accomplish from my visit with him. I told him I wanted a pill to make me feel better. He said, “Tom, you don’t need a pill. You need a hobby.”

Because I had access to excellent health insurance, I was able to get myself in a place where I was ready and able to take his advice.

Photographing a limpkin at Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area, Orange County, Florida.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the most critical piece of advice I would ever receive. My doctor asked me if there was a hobby I was interested in, and I told him for some reason I had been thinking about bird watching. He then asked if I felt I could slow down enough to watch birds.

That was all the challenge I needed to dive headfirst into the world of birds.

I followed that meeting up by researching everything I could about bird watching. I watched hours of YouTube videos on the subject and quickly realized it was now called birding. I bought binoculars, scopes, and gear. I traded in my sports car for a truck. I joined three bird clubs and signed up for a birding trip in the Outer Banks. Then a friend suggested I read The Big Year, the true story of three guys on a quest to count more species of birds than anyone else in one calendar year. I watched the movie version that night and realized there was a competitive angle to birding. What? Birding can be competitive? I’m in! The Big Year starts every January 1st and finishes up December 31st. I thought, I might not win, but I bet I could set the rookie record if there was one.

I was out at the crack of dawn New Year’s Day and almost every day that first month. And one day, while birding, I realized I wasn’t caught up in my troubles. I was at one with nature chasing birds, and I broke down crying, but this time tears of joy. I just kept saying, “Thank you, God, thank you.” Birding gave me the ability to start balancing my life a bit. That balance made it so I could start doing some real work on myself and find some happiness that I had been missing. I knew birds had saved me, and I made a promise to tell the world for the rest of my life as loud as I could about the therapeutic values of birding.

Birding the border, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Brownsville, Texas.

So here I am a year later, and I have traveled to over 15 states for birding. I started a podcast as a channel to share my experiences and to share some tools I use to get through life—touching on birding and martial arts—with my friend Hardee Merrit. It’s called Tools for Tools, with Ninja and the Birdman. I started a bird club in my hometown, the D-Town Bird Club. I’m currently working on a social media site for birders that will be a platform to connect birders with each other, allowing birders to share their birding stories and providing the information needed to get started birding. It’s called Your Birding Story.

Turns out, there is not an official rookie birding record, but out of a little over 1,000 bird species in North America, I ended up seeing 355 in 2019. As we like to say in Texas, not too bad. The best thing that came from this year is that I now know going through a rough patch of life doesn’t have to go on forever. Even though I might not win every battle, and I still have problems to deal with, I will always consider myself undefeated.

Space Coast birding with the women of BWD and Redstart Birding, Titusville, Florida.

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