next graduation speech

Russell Wilson

NFL Football Quarterback Player
University of Wisconsin, 2016

If you know what youíre capable of, if youíre always prepared, and you keep things in perspective, then life has a way of turning no into yes.

Itís good to be back in the stadium, obviously. Chancellor Blank and the Board of Regents; faculty; parents; family members; friends; distinguished guests: thank you. Itís an honor to be here today. Bill, thank you for that introduction, really good, I didnít know all that about you but itís fun to hear. And congratulations to the Class of 2016!

I have stood in this end zone many times before, but never in a uniform quite this ridiculous. Iím just waiting for the ďjump around.Ē

I was really excited to come back to Madison on a weekend. Itís been a while since Iíve gone to Wandoís and seen you guys at Wandoís drinking your Fish Bowls. Thatís a joke Ė maybe. Weíve got some fun spots in Seattle, but nothing like Wandoís.

Of course, Iím also here to share some things Iíve learned. Things like: If youíre dating a woman thatís way out of your league, ask her to marry you. If you can throw a football 80 yards, for some reason people think thatís pretty cool. And if youíre playing New England in the Super Bowl and youíve got 26 seconds left and youíre down by four and itís second and goal on their one-yard line, try not to throw an interception.

That last one is purely hypothetical, though, of course.

But no, hereís something I really have learned: you canít do it alone. Youíve got to surround yourself with good people. Iím lucky to have some really good people with me today: my mom, my sister and my fiancťe.

And Class of 2016, youíve got some really good people with you today too: So letís give it up for parents and grandparents, family and friends, professors and mentors who have helped you make it this far. They deserve a big round of applause.

Of course, today though is about the graduates. Earlier today, I had a chance to meet just a few of the members of the class of 2016. I was truly inspired. I met Marcus Bolles. When Marcus came here the first time he failed a few classes and had to transfer out. But he didnít give up. After community college he came back to University of WisconsinĖMadison. And today heís getting that bachelorís degree.

I met Leah Olsen. Leahís 6-year-old son, Dylan, has cerebral palsy, but heís not willing to let that define him. And neither is Leah. Sheís always fought for her son, and sheís graduating today with a degree in social work so she can fight for even more families like theirs.

I met Pablo Montes. Pabloís the first in his family to go to college. There were semesters when he worked three different jobs while studying full-time. One semester he couldnít make enough to pay rent, so he was homeless, living on friendsí couches. It hasnít been easy for Pablo, and yet today heís graduating with a double major in sociology and human development.

I met Katherine Nachman. Katherine served our country as an intelligence analyst in the Marine Corps. Then she went to school and earned her undergraduate degree, and today sheís graduating with a masterís in social work.

You know, meeting with Marcus and Leah and Pablo and Katherine and hearing stories about all the people in this stadium who are already beating the odds and changing the world Ė I admit I almost felt kind of confused. I mean, I am not the most conventional choice to give a charge to the graduates. I was a college student myself just six years ago. The thought of turning 30, just being 27, still kind of scares me. And when thereís a 300-pound guy chasing me down the field, with a big G on the side of his helmet wearing green and yellow, the last thing Iím thinking about is ďHow do I use my liberal arts degree?Ē

But hereís what I realized. In a few hours, all of us will leave Camp Randall with the exact same mission: to make the most of whatever talents we were born with, whatever gifts Godís given us. Because if youíre earning a degree from UWĖMadison, the question isnít whether you have something to offer the world. You definitely have something to offer the world. The question is how and whether youíll do it.

Thatís something my dad always taught me. I remember playing T-ball as a kid. Not to brag, but I was really good T-ball player. Iím talking about really good. I crushed it at T-ball. Even though I was just 3 or 4, I remember thinking, ďI could be something special one day.Ē My dad thought I might be getting ahead of myself, so heíd set me straight. Heíd say, ďSon, potential just means you havenít done it yet.Ē

Potential just means you havenít done it yet. Already in my career, Iíve seen that lots of people have potential, but not everyone does it. And Iíve learned that the difference isnít the way people handle themselves when things go well. When you land the job you want or you go to the school you want or achieve a goal even earlier than you expected, go ahead and celebrate. Be happy, enjoy it. But remember that the moments when life tells you yes arenít the ones that define you. The moments that really matter are the moments when life tells you no.

Thatís what I want to focus on today: What do you do when life tells you no?

You may be surprised to hear this, but life has told me no lots of times in my career. In 2007, I went to college at N.C. State because I wanted to play baseball and football. Most of all, I wanted to play quarterback in the National Football League.

Fast forward to 2008, my first eligible year on the football team, and Iím fighting against four other guys for the starting job. In training camp thereís a red jersey they put on quarterbacks. Nah, not this guy. No one gives me that jersey. Iím doing everything, catching punts, catching routs, getting hit. I know I can play quarterback, I just need a chance.

About two weeks before our first game my coach calls me into his office, and tells me Iím not getting that chance. Excuse my country voice but he says, ďSon, Iím switching your position. Iím moving you to safety.Ē Heís not asking me. Heís telling me.

I could have just gone along with it. Maybe I should have just gone along with it. But for whatever reason, I wasnít ready to take no for an answer. I prayed about it. I talked to my mom. I talked to my brother. I would have talked to my dad about it but he was on his death bed at the time. And after a few days I just came to this peace.

Now, this is the part of the speech where Iím supposed to tell you to believe in yourself. But those days of praying and all that, those werenít about believing in myself. They were about knowing myself. Let me put it this way: if I loved singing. Iím Michael Jacksonís Tito, Iím Janet Jacksonís long-lost unknown brother. My moon walk?! Cuts the rug. Dancing Machine? Smooth Criminal? THIS GUY.

But no matter how badly I wanted to be a pop star, it would not matter how much self-confidence I had, or how many hours I spent at the studio. Trust me on this. I cannot sing. So the question I asked when life told me no was, ďWhat am I capable of? Am I capable of doing what I want to do?Ē I really had to think about it. And when it came to playing quarterback, the answer was yes. I knew I could throw a football and move really well. I knew I had the focus and the ability to succeed. I just needed the chance.

Once I knew what I was capable of, I didnít feel afraid to let everyone else know, too. So a few days after our first meeting, I walk back into my coachís office, chest big, feeling good. Iím 18, 19 years old at the time. And I say, ďCoach, Iím going to be your starting quarterback. Iím going to be first team freshman All American. Iím going to be first team All ACC. Iím going to play in the National Football League. Iím going to win multiple Super Bowls and Iím going to be in the Hall of Fame.Ē He looked at me like I was crazy. But three days later, he named me his starting quarterback.

So hereís my first charge to the graduates: When life tells you no, ask yourself honestly, ďWhat am I capable of?Ē And once you know the answer, donít be afraid to let everyone else know it too.

Another time life told me no was during my junior year, when I was playing baseball. My freshman and sophomore year at N.C. State I had about 450 to 500 at-bats. Now itís the first few weeks of my junior season, draft eligible year, and Iím barely playing and honestly, I donít know why. And this one weekend we played U.C. Irvine, both teams are top 5 in the country. And I donít play at all, the whole weekend. Nothing. Iím not going to lie Ė I was more than frustrated. But my dad always used to tell me. ďBe ready. Always be ready.Ē

So I decide, Iím not going to complain. Instead, every time our defense comes in and weíre up to bat, I put my helmet on. I put my gloves on, Nomar Garciaparra style. I get my bat in my hand. I stand there waiting: first inning, second inning, third inning, all the way to the tenth. We get to the bottom of the tenth or eleventh, and thereís two guys on base, with one out. Iím just sitting there with my helmet on, looking like a dork. A guy pops up. Two outs.

Then then I hear it. ďWilson, youíre up.Ē So I go to the plate. And this guyís pitching is nasty, Iím talking heís throwing 125 mph if thatís possibleÖI mean, FUEGO! Heís legit.

The first pitch is a slider, and what do I do with itÖ swing and miss. Next pitch, a slider again, strike two, I shouldnít have swung. Iím one strike away from losing the game. But then he throws me a fastball. And what do I do with it? Wham. Hit it over the fence.

Now, everyone in the stands that day saw the game-winning home run. But they probably didnít notice the guy who spent all those innings on the edge of the dugout, with a helmet on his head and a bat in his hand. But if I hadnít stayed prepared like that, for 10 or 11 innings, that home run Ė that never would have happened.

So thatís my second charge to the graduates: When life tells you no, stay ready. Always be ready.

Now, so far Iíve told you about two times when, for whatever reason, I was able to turn things around. But sometimes life tells you no and thereís nothing you can do about that. Iíve spoken a lot already about my dad. My mom and my dad were the biggest influences in my life. No one supported my athletic career more than he did. I got drafted to play baseball on June 8, 2010. And the next night, my dad passed away.

We knew it was coming. My dad had diabetes and he was really sick. But Iíll never forget it. Iím standing with my mom in the hallway. And the doctors come and they say, ďDo you want to go back in his room?Ē We say, ďNo, weíll stay out here for another 15 minutes or so.Ē So we keep standing there, just talking, and suddenly we have this feeling of God coming between us, and we both think: You know what, we need to go back into the room. Before I walk through the door I can see the EKG moving just fine [beep, beep, beep]. I take one step in the door and I say, ďDad, Iím here.Ē [Beep]. The line goes flat.

I miss my dad every single day. People have asked me, if I had five more minutes with him, what would I say to him? But I wouldnít say anything at all. I would just hug him. Thatís what I would do.

Because thatís the kind of relationship my dad and I had. He gave me so much. And maybe most of all, he gave me the gift of perspective. Losing him was hard.

But thinking about him now, I donít feel sad. I feel blessed. I feel blessed for all the days we got together. I feel blessed because I know heís in a better place. And I feel blessed knowing that if he were here today, the thing heíd most be proud of isnít a Super Bowl ring or a new contract or a big speech at Camp Randall. Heíd be proud of our family: of what a strong person my mom is and my brother and how well heís doing and the amazing, amazing young woman my sisterís become. Thatís what heíd be proud of.

So thatís my third charge to the graduates, and maybe, maybe itís the hardest of all: When life tells you no, find a way to keep things in perspective. That doesnít make the painful moments any less painful. But it does mean you donít have to live forever in the pain. You donít have to live forever in that ďno.Ē

Because if you know what youíre capable of, if youíre always prepared, and you keep things in perspective, then life has a way of turning no into yes.

Thatís what brought me to University of Wisconsin. The summer before my senior year of college, Iím playing minor league baseball. I call my football coach at N.C. State and say, ďHey Coach, Iíd like to come back for my senior year.Ē

And he told me I wasnít coming back. He said: ďListen son, youíre never going to play in the National Football League. Youíre too small. Thereís no chance. You got no shot, give it up.Ē

I said, ďSo youíre telling me if I come back to N.C. State, I wonít see the field?Ē He said, ďNo, son, you wonít see the field.Ē

Now, this was everything I had worked for. And now it was completely gone. If I wanted to follow my dream, I had to leave N.C. State. I had no idea if I would get a second chance somewhere else.

Well, the news that I was transferring went out around four oíclock in the afternoon. I wasnít sure what would happen. Then, at 4:15, I got a call from the Auburn Tigers. And then I got another call, and another and another. Most of these coaches had never met me, but it turned out that theyíd heard about the way Iíd handled myself, not just on the field but off of it as well. During the good times and the bad ones, too.

In the end, what had started out as the biggest no of my career became the biggest yes of my career. Because I didnít get many second chances but this second chance was from the University of Wisconsin. From the moment I saw this campus, I knew this was the place I wanted to be. From my coaches, to my teammates, to the guys in the equipment room and to of course the fans Ė everyone I met was so incredibly welcoming. And even though I only spent about a year here, I got to see how the Wisconsin Idea isnít just a motto. Itís a commitment to work hard and surround yourself with good people, to never stop improving and to make the world just a little bit better every day.

We often think about big heroes in life Ė people like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Ben Franklin. We think about their biggest accomplishments. What we donít always think about, though, is the moments that made them who they were. When no one was looking, but they made themselves just a little better anyway. When they came up short but didnít quit. And starting out in life, began to close the divide between who they were and who they might become.

I think about this young guy from West Orange, New Jersey. He became deaf at an early ageÖ Scarlet fever got the best of him. However, that Ďnoí did not stop him from creating the light bulb. That manís name: Thomas Edison.

See, Thomas Edison once said, ĎI have not failed, Iíve just found 10,000 ways that wonít work.í He was just that much closer to making the right one. Iím thinking a lot about those moments right now and I bet many of you are too. Because if youíre here today itís a sign that youíve achieved so much already Ė and that you can have the potential to achieve so much more.

Now if my dad were with us, this is the point where heíd remind us that potential just means we havenít done it yet. And heíd be right. But if we do what we need to when life tells us no Ė if we know what weíre capable of, if we stay prepared no matter what, if we keep our sense of perspective even when times are tough Ė then I know that together weíre going to do amazing things with our potential and achieve our greatest dreams.

So ďOn Wisconsin!Ē I would say good luck, but I donít believe in good luck. Go make it happen. This is my story. Now itís time to write your own.

Congratulations to the Class of 2016! Iím out.

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Posted on: 12/17/16


 

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