Valedictory Exercises, May 18, 2018
University of Virginia
Thank you, Eric, for the kind introduction.
President Sullivan, esteemed faculty and staff, families and friends, and most importantly, the architects of what will be - the class of 2018.
Thank you to my parents, Howie and Diane, my wife Meg, and a handful of friends in attendance. Thank you to my two-year-old son, Whalen, who's sitting at home streaming this live, on all six of his Apple devices. You think Millennials are bad? We limit his screen time.
Eric was good enough to highlight some of my athletic achievements. Full disclosure-- I was a bit of a slow starter, to say the least. My whole football career, I wanted to carry the ball. I wanted to get the glory. I waited till seventh grade. I got my first carry. I came out of the backfield, and I tripped over a blade of grass for three-yard loss in front of all my classmates. At eight years old, I waited five long basketball games to score my first points of the season, and it was on the wrong goal …. true story. And here's the kicker: I may be the only Little League baseball player in Charlottesville history to hit a homerun and be called out for not touching home plate. Let that sink in. A grown man -- an umpire -- looked at a kid hit a home run, watched him circle the bases, missed home plate, and he had a decision to make: Is he going to enforce the rules of the game or is he going to let the 12-year-old enjoy his day? I forgive you though. I'm not naming names. That was cathartic. But if you take one thing away from this speech, it's that if you go out into the world and launch your careers as Little League umpires, and many of you will, wield that power responsibly.
I did a little reading on who's been tasked with speaking here in the past, and I noticed that last year the president of Colombia gave this talk. Interesting fact about me — and I didn't see this in my bio, Eric -- is that I was the president of my fantasy basketball league. I know President Santos has an extremely difficult job, but have you ever had to collect entry fees from 15 NFL football players with ADD? That's intimidating. When you hear the intimidating and humbling news that you'll be addressing the greatness in this room -- and I mean that -- what do you do? After you wonder if you received the invitation in error, you accept it, and then you panic. And then you Google how to write a great speech -- kind of like some of you all write papers. I'm not sure you do that anymore. I actually grew up on Cliffs Notes for the parents out there -- physical copies.
Google tells me to make eye contact and to speak clearly. One of history's great speakers, Cicero, his key tenants of public speaking underscored knowing your audience. I know that many of you in the crowd are hungover. You are. I see some of y'all sweating, and the AC’s nice. So, I'll keep it as brief as I can. But really, one of the things that was suggested was relating to the room. What jumped out at me is for the next 48 hours or so, we have one big thing in common: none of us have our degrees, and I'm not proud of that. That's right. It's awkward for me to give you all life advice without that achievement myself, and I wonder what that means. Quite literally, it means that we've experienced a lot of the same things, but you had the resolve or the time to finish. Yet you still voted me to address you, and I am humbled by that. You see, if you admire things I've done, the feeling is mutual, truly.
Ironically, one of my favorite quotes is a simple one by Emerson, and I attempt to live by it. It says, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” So, thank you for indulging the words of someone who is without what you are rightfully celebrating this weekend -- a college degree from this great university. So what does this paper mean? What does it mean to cross this threshold? What is success?
A lot of people will tell you that Sunday is a momentous day - it will be – and that this is success. That’s true in a lot of ways. You have met a goal. They'll say that after this weekend expires, Grounds will become eerily quiet, and you'll go off in the world as adults -- maybe. Keep that in mind. I believe that this weekend is a marker of completing an experience. This isn't the realization of your potential. This isn't your pinnacle. This isn't a destination. This marker may mean something different to everyone. Some of you may be the first college graduates in your family, and that is awesome. Some of you may be part of a long tradition of educational excellence, and you earned it. Whatever your story is, you should be tremendously proud. But this is just the beginning.
A lot of people from out of town are perplexed at our terminology marking progress towards ending this experience: first-year, second-years, and so on. There's something to it, though. Jefferson believed that learning continues far beyond your formal education. He's right. You're not seniors closing in on a destination. You never know, maybe the next Georgia O'Keeffe, Rita Dove, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Couric are sitting right here in these seats. If you get a chance, be Malcolm Brogdon. That works too, but you got to have a jump shot. If you look at this weekend as a destination or a crowning achievement, it becomes less likely that you'll be one of those forces in the world.
Years from now, you may not retain all of the subject matter. You absolutely will not remember this speech-- I'm sure of that. But you will, however, remember quite clearly your experiences and how this place made you feel. I believe the most important feeling that I experienced here is failure. Last night, I reviewed the tape. Like in football, I took to YouTube to hear what President Santos had to say last year. I was both encouraged and mortified to hear that one of his biggest themes was failures. I felt good knowing that we share that sentiment, but I assure you there is no violation of the honor code going on here. This is my speech. He even quoted Emerson, and I was like, dude, come on. Work with me here, Mr. President.
Life is made up of more failures than successes, and so are my remarks. In my experience, there's nothing more valuable than that uncomfortable, sobering feeling in your gut when you hit rock-bottom -- when you question your purpose and your direction. When I arrived at UVA in the fall of '04, a local kid finding my way, held to high standards. Even with everything at my fingertips, I struggled. I struggled in the classroom. I struggled on the field. I wasn't outwardly a failure, but I was disappointed in myself in many ways. I've never said this publicly, but I almost transferred early on in my UVA career. We all have moments where we feel failure.
Nick Foles, who delivered Philly, its long overdue first football championship, is suddenly a household name. Nick helped us score 41 points this February on the world's biggest stage, outdoing the greatest quarterback of all time. The crazy part was Nick was considered a backup. As the smoke cleared and hundreds of reporters clamored around the podium to hear the most unlikely success story in sports today talk about success, he did the unexpected. Immediately, the most impactful feeling he talked about was failure. Nick has failed many times. He's been cut, traded, and he's been written off. He almost quit football. When someone talks about failure, he said, he listens. He listens because it's authentic. It's relatable. The human condition is woven with the fabric of falling short. One of the most disarming and respectable things about a human being can be owning those failures.
Nick also touched on something that I firmly believe in: that one of the things we become most proficient at in 2018, is projecting a highlight reel through our conversations, our symbols of status, our holiday cards, and especially social media. It forces us to look at our peers and the people around us through a lens of unrealistic favorability. We constantly imagine what it'd be like to be someone else, living their perfect life. I do it, too. You realize that ultimately, it's the perception of reality around us, not just the photographs we share that are being filtered. I prefer Valencia as a filter. It brings out my eyes. You guys know what I'm talking about.
I'm afraid to fail all the time, but what you learn at UVA is that failure is an opportunity. Anything worthwhile I've ever done, I was afraid. This is where the feelings of fear and failure so naturally intertwine. I feared not fitting in, in a community of brilliant minds. One of the biggest things I bring to the table is playing a violent game. I was scared to talk to you today. You're terrifying people. Maybe it's comforting to know that the successful adult who you allowed to address you is afraid. I'm also currently afraid of what my future holds, as I prepare to transition into my next career -- whatever that is, in a year or two.
Everyone fears change. But with luck, you'll learn that, oftentimes, fear breeds your most fulfilling accomplishments. In 2014, that life's work that I referred to was in jeopardy. I had a lot of good days and individual successes throughout my years as a member of the St. Louis Rams. On this day, following two years of injuries and bad luck, I got the dreaded call. I was informed that I was going to face the thing that every football player dreads, and that's getting fired.
Getting fired absolutely sucks. But when you get fired on ESPN, it's a whole other ballgame. I went from team captain to unemployed in a year. I wondered if my career was a failure. I faced what could be my last career decision. I got a number of calls from teams that had turnkey opportunities for me, but they were low ceiling choices. I'd get paid well and look successful, but I wasn't sold. A few days later, I was strolling through an aisle in Harris Teeter, grabbing a six-pack of beer to go home and reflect on the intersection at which I stood. My phone rang. “Hi, Chris. Bill Belichick.” I can't imitate him, and I won't. Thank God I got cell service in that beer aisle. He made no guarantees. New England wasn't a perfect football fit. I'd have to carve out a role.
Should I make the safer, lower-risk bet and sign with another team? No, I took a gamble, and a year later I was a world champion. Before I was a champion, I failed, and I was afraid. You learn that the most worthwhile exercises are preceded by this very human phenomenon of fear: marriage, parenthood, career decisions, speaking your mind on issues that are important to you. I challenge you to welcome fears and fail from time to time. Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” It's comforting to think that some of my favorite fearless historical figures are often misclassified as fearless. They feared, but they mastered it. "Fear nothing" is a bad bumper sticker. It's a cut off t-shirt. That's all it is. And I, for instance, have a healthy fear of whoever's driving that car, wearing that t-shirt.
Fear is, in fact, a part of our genetic makeup. Animals are born with an innate healthy sense of fear, developed over eons in order to stay alive. Fear dictates much of their day and rightfully so. Human beings have healthy fears as well. We'd all be wisely afraid to run out in front of the horses at Foxfield. I don't know if any of you all have tried it. It's a bad idea. Good thing we have fears like those. But somewhere along the way, the important thing is that people have succumbed to fears ingrained in us by societal pressures. This achievement has afforded you a certain standing. It's given you a kind of safety net. I hope that you'll consider testing it out from time to time, not out of complacency or laziness, but because you take bold chances.
Life's most fulfilling journeys begin with this basic evolutionary and sometimes socially constructed feeling. We all know that this place can humble you. The world isn't much different, but you got a head start because of what you experienced here. I hope you realize that just as you aren't wholly responsible for the temporary feeling of failure, you aren't the sole owner of your successes either. Many of the people who altered your course for the better or gave you a little bit of extra encouragement are by your side this weekend. Tell them you love them, and you appreciate them. Not just when the weekend ends. For all the successes in this room, we often fail that course.
I think about my college head coach, Al Groh, who's empowered me at every turn in the road. He didn't always tell me what I wanted to hear, but it was often what I needed to hear. Before this past season, I needed a little nudge of encouragement. I was burnt out. I was thinking about quitting. More than 10 years after we parted ways, as coach and player here on Grounds, there he was sitting in my kitchen for two hours, telling me why I should follow through and give it one more year. His advice altered my course. A simple nudge gave me one of the best years of my life. These are the type of people you meet here at a special place like this. Thank you, Al Groh.
Eric talked about our Pledge 10 stuff -- our educational equity campaign. A lot of people praised it, but even when things are going well, you second guess yourself. You wonder if you're making a difference. I'll never forget one interaction that made me feel validation and motivation. I was walking downtown, and I ran into a guy -- an honest working man with a platform much smaller than mine. He thanked me for what I did, and I said, “Listen, it's my pleasure.” One thing he told me absolutely blew me away. He told me that he had followed suit by donating a month of his hard-earned salary to charity. In the end, I may have inspired him, but he turned right around and encouraged me. Pledge 10 was a success, but interactions like that made it fulfilling and made me want to do more.
Years ago in the prime of my career, from the outside looking in, I was living the dream -- a pro-athlete making money to play a game. But I felt largely empty. I wanted to be more complete, more balanced. While many people dream of playing in the NFL, I was jealous of people that travel the world finding fulfillment. I daydreamed about having the freedom to wander. As Eric mentioned, I went to Tanzania. I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro for fun, selfishly. I came for a personal challenge, but I left with fulfillment in the form of service. Our Waterboys Initiative was born. That mountain that drew me unselfishly has become our magnet for people trying to help others. Every year, we bring retired players and wounded armed service veterans to the top of that mountain to raise money for clean water. It's one of the single most fulfilling teams I'm on each year.
This university encouraged me to be a complete human being -- not just what I do for a living. There's a difference. Just this week, as I struggled putting the finishing touches on my remarks, my wife, Meg, crossed a million things off our to-do list. She's buzzing around the house, and I'm sitting there, hunched over my laptop, all nervous. She gave me just the encouragement that I needed to get by. She smiled and said, “You've been working very hard on your speech.” I said, “Thank You.” Then she said, “This .. expletive .. better be good.” Thank you, Meg. I'm proud to say that I found true love here at UVA, and we all need love and encouragement on good and bad days. And then there's going to be days where it really doesn't fall under either category. We live in a society that's so binary. It's either win or loss. Most days of our lives fall somewhere in the middle. Over the years, I've heard people repeatedly tell other people, “Approach every day like it's your last.” In football, the cliché is, “Play every play like it's your last.” But the problem is no one knows what that directive feels like, until it's too late.
I prefer the idea of approaching every day like it's your first. As vividly as I remember any day I spend on Grounds, I remember my first -- sitting in my parent's kitchen the night before logging into my UVA email for the first time. It was magical. I felt like I opened a portal into a new dimension of uncharted territory and endless possibility. I could do anything that day, and I was willing to do it. On days like these, we make a lot of promises to ourselves, but they fade quickly. You know exactly what I'm talking about — when you start something and then you get into the dog days. Take a mental picture of those good days. When you need to, remind yourself of that willingness to do whatever it takes. Remind yourself how you approach that day with childlike enthusiasm.
Speaking of acting your age, in about 48 hours, a lot of people will tell you that you're a grown-up, an adult. In the dictionary, “adult” is defined as, “A person who has fully grown or developed.” That has to be one of the most dangerous definitions or concepts in the dictionary or outside the dictionary, for that matter. What a complacent, stagnant, dangerous world it would be: if everyone ceased evolving -- pushing their limits and changing for the better, if people stop relentlessly asking why and more importantly, why not -- just like kids do. I'm proud to say that I'm not an adult by that definition, and I never will be.
For that reason, I have a very unorthodox wish for you. I hope that you never reach your destination. Now follow me on this. As individuals, we're not much different than this very university. Just as you should never feel comfortable arriving at a destination, neither should this great institution. Over the past two centuries, this place has evolved because of people like you. It is a living organism made up of individuals who have asked why and why not and risen to various challenges. It wasn't until the '50s that an African-American student had to file a lawsuit in order to join this academic experience. Women weren't admitted here until the '70s. The world is no different. Even now, our great nation -- we sometimes struggle to live up to our ideals. We have people who will justify telling who can love who and can't, but they'll sit there and do mental gymnastics to defend hate. Whether it's this esteemed university or America, if you love something, look at it critically and improve it, tend to it. That's school pride, and that's patriotism.
Progress is not self-sustaining. Complacency is widespread. Hatred is rampant. What descended upon our community this past August shows loud and clear that we haven't progressed as far as we think. It's a reminder that in times like these, we need people that will rise to the challenge and stand in the storm that's raging between right and wrong, not sitting back and saying, “He's got it. She's got it.” We need more people saying, “I got it.” And there are plenty of you in the crowd. In football, we call that inaction “waiting for someone else to make a play.” Don't do it. Accept the challenge here and in the communities that you will soon call home.
Dr. King said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” This world we live in -- for all its beauty -- is a work in progress, and it needs your action. There are no finished products, no destinations, and no such thing as adulthood. But there are markers of accomplishment -- success and ultimately, experience. I wish you at least a handful of momentous validations throughout your life. Just don't forget to chase fulfillment with those accomplishments. Something society deems measurably successful, we know can be hollow. So what's the point? What's the point of this threshold? What's the point of any validation?
If you're really lucky, you get 100 years on this planet, and the clocks already ticking. How do you live a successful life? I really don't know, because I'm not done learning. But I believe, from being around people that Rohan reference, which are called servant leaders. I believe that life is a success if it's defined less by these markers and validations than it is defined by how you make people feel for having known you. I've been lucky to meet people who made me feel. I think they're successful.
I used to be envious of musicians and artists. I wish I could sing like Chris Stapleton or paint like Magri. But somewhere along the way, I realized that your occupation or your standing in society doesn't preclude you from making people feel. Every day, every interaction, every time the world gives you a good break, you have an opportunity to reach out, encourage, and empower. You may be a speck on a rock, hurling around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour. I had to Google that. It may make you question the gravity of your good deeds. The truth is that no opportunity to impose your will for good is too small.
Sunday, you'll receive your well-deserved, hard-earned piece of paper that signifies this experience, but you don't need it. You are your degree. You are the wonderful collection of experiences. You are Charlottesville – this community, this university, your peers, your professors, your doubters, your support system. You are where you came from, who you met along the way, and how they made you feel. You are an energy composed of the sum of your parts, your experiences. What an experience this has been. In a way, you're nearly 200 years of the energy gathered right here at the University of Virginia. And in turn, this university is composed of your energy today and going forward. Two centuries of triumphs and failures, love and heartache, collaborations, trial and error, and even days that were unremarkable on the surface. All that energy is not in vain. It's here in this room now. It's palpable. It's as real as your degree.
So go spread that energy, go spread that experience. Make people feel so empowered, so hopeful, so worthy, and so good for having known you and seeing your resilience and failure, your humility and success, that they too can be a force in the world. Pass it on, and the branches of this tree will expand and improve the world with the DNA of the University of Virginia in it. This place made me feel failure, fear, success, and humility. It made me feel challenged, and it made me feel fulfilled. How did it make you feel? And what are you going to do with it?
Congratulations, Class of 2018. Wahoowa!