Written for: Retired NFL player
Thank you for the introduction. It is both an honor, privilege and inspiration to be here today. As you heard in my introduction, I’m a former professional football player. And while my time on the field included a lot of great memories with a lot of great people — including a Super Bowl championship — football is not my entire life. It’s a part of my legacy, but it’s not the entirety of my legacy. I was a lot of things before I was fortunate enough to have my name called at the NFL Draft in 2008. Things such as College graduate. Son. Friend. And I am still all those things five years later after hanging up my cleats for the final time.
I mention those things, because my life, and your lives have a lot of similarities. Now you may be wondering, how can that be? And the answer comes down to one word: Obstacles.
Some of my biggest obstacles came before I arrived on this planet. Based on what a lot of people thought, I was supposed to be a statistic. And truthfully, I wasn’t supposed to be here at all. My mother hid her pregnancy from the family to avoid a forced abortion. And even after that, the doctors didn’t think I’d live. When my Mother went into labor, members of the family still didn’t know that she was pregnant. My mom and her parents went to the hospital not knowing what to expect. My mom at the time was in excruciating pain. With blood constantly flowing, and absolutely no prenatal care throughout the entire pregnancy, the Doctor took one simple look and said, “I’m sorry but you are having a miscarriage. You and your family should prepare for the worst. This baby will not survive.”
With his mind sure that I was stillborn, the Doctor left to retrieve the necessary tools to handle a stillborn birth. My mom, in the room alone, and afraid because her life was also in danger, birthed me right there on the examination table. When the nurse walked in, she couldn’t believe her eyes and went running to get the doctor. Mom said you could hear echoes through the halls. “The baby is here, the baby is here! After that, I was airlifted to another hospital where I became stable and strong.
I beat those odds.
I still wasn’t supposed to be here. I was still…. supposed to be a statistic. Being born to a teenage mother — 15 to be exact — is a long way from being born with a silver spoon. My mother did the best she could and filled our house with love. But growing up without a father still made me feel like something was missing. Sometimes I felt abandoned. Sometimes I felt rejected. Other times, I felt inadequate. And while I found an escape on the football field and the classroom, I, like many other young men, was one or two bad decisions or sacrifices away from a life totally different from the one I have now. I also spent a lot of time alone, due to my mother working two or three jobs at a time to keep food on the table and a roof over our head.
Believe it or not, I even quit football for a time. While many look at football as a way out, it was a luxury in my house. And with just my mom and me, when it came time to choose between football and helping keep the lights on, it was no contest. So… I quit football to get a job.
I started working at the same nursing home as my Mom so I could ride home with her when we got off at the same time. I was a kitchen aid. The state of North Carolina allows kids to get a job at the age of 15 and a half. An age that I looked forward to because I hated that my Mom worked so much. The school had recently hired a new football coach and he started pressuring me to come and play for him. He would ask me each time we passed in the halls. It even got to the point where he started showing up at the nursing home to talk me out of working. He wasn’t making much progress so he got smart and then turned to harassing my Mom.
My Mom never pressured me to work. It was always my decision. But, when Coach Floyd told her, “I can get your son into college,” that was the shift for her. She told him, “If you can convince Mario, we have a deal.” The next day after school, Coach Floyd was standing outside my class waiting to walk with me. After all the small talk, I looked up and we are at the game field. He turned to me and said, “I know you want more than this. I know you want to work and help your Mom.”
The year before was my freshman year. I played JV football. That year I broke the JV Sack record and recorded 6 sacks in my first game. I didn’t have any technique. I was just big, and I could run pretty fast. He said, “ From what I saw in you on JV, I promise that I will get you a full-scholarship to at least 1 college. With that, you can get your degree and make more money than you could ever imagine.”
THAT… was the shift for me! I made a deal with him and told him that I will cut my schedule short to practice but I will continue to work after practice and on the weekends. Throughout my entire high school career I worked in-between sports and I paid the cable bill and water bill every month.
I share those stories for two reasons. First, it’s a reminder to myself of where I’ve come from and what I’ve overcome. Even today, I can still recall the feeling of pride of earning a paycheck of my own, and the feeling of anxiety wondering if it would be enough to cover our bills. I also share that to say that if I can do it, you can too.
And when I talk about doing it, I don’t mean being like me. This is bigger than the game of football. This is the game of life. When I talk about doing it, I mean doing anything you want. This Computer Literacy Certificate is the first step in a series of steps of turning things around.
I want to leave you all with one thought: “Don’t let it define you.”
Whatever you did to get here, I understand that everyone didn’t have a Coach Floyd. Or a person in their life pressuring them to do POSITIVE things. Even with that, I was still 1 bad decision away. I woke up to guns hidden in our flower pots, watching drug deals go down with a handshake. Many of my friends have been locked up, many of them have lost their lives. And many of them have changed their ways.
Instead of positive influences, maybe some of you had people pressuring you to sell drugs, use drugs, commit robberies… whatever. Don’t let it define you. There will be people out there that want to label you. That will want you to wear your criminal records like an anchor around your neck. They will say you’re a lost cause. They will say you’re unemployable. Or that if you are employable, it will always be undesirable work. Don’t let it define you.
By going the extra mile and getting your Computer Literacy Certificate, you’re already on the road to proving those people wrong. The effort you put in says I am not defined by what got me here and I will be a better person coming out than I was coming in.
Today is a day for celebration. It is also the first step, not the finish line, in a long race. Don’t stop here. If you want to go to college, get that degree. But don’t let it define you. If you want a good job, or start your own business, get that job, start that business. Don’t let it define you. If you want to be a better son, father, partner, husband, be that. But don’t let it define you.
Just like what got you here shouldn’t define you. Don’t let a single great act define your legacy. Let a series of great acts define you.
The late Muhammad Ali once said, “Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated, can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win, when the match is even.”
The fight is on. The match is even. Today is either the start of, or the continuation of your legacy. Don’t let it be the last.