Valedictory Exercises, May 17, 2014
University of Virginia
Thank you very much. Thank you, Sarah, distinguished platform party, friends, guests and, of course, the focal point of today’s event, the members of the class of 2014. I am truly humbled to be here today to help you celebrate this remarkable time in your lives. In trying to think about what I could say to you today, it started me reminiscing.
While dating my wife, Ashley, a 1997 UVA grad, I spent a good amount of time here in Charlottesville. My wife, Ashley, is the smartest person I know and I know a lot of that has to do with her four years here at UVA. I like to tell people that she came to Virginia because she couldn’t get into Tennessee. While dating, we went to all of the local spots here in Charlottesville. We loved to go to Littlejohn's. I always ordered a Sampson when I was there. We spent a lot of time at Coupe’s for a cold beverage or two. Went to Bodo’s for breakfast a lot. Biltmore Grill for dinner. Bellair. I worked out at Mem Gym a few times. We went and visited Ashley's old apartments yesterday on 15th Street and her house on Lewis Mountain Road that she shared with her Kappa sorority sisters.
More than once I often debated with Ashley whether a UVA football player, was he a redshirt sophomore or a redshirt second-year. I was always very confused whether I was On Grounds or Off Grounds, on campus or off campus. I attended her 1997 graduation right here on this very Lawn.
One regret that I’ve always had here is I never got to throw any football passes here on this Lawn. So if you will indulge me, I’m going to fulfill that dream right now. I’m going to call three of these graduating seniors to come catch a pass. So, will David Ensey, Brendon Wynn and Laura Gaul please step right up here to the middle of this Lawn. If you are nervous, I understand. Seriously, there is no pressure here at all. If you drop it, it will not be on YouTube, I promise you. Here we go.
I hope you will notice how nice I was to those people catching those passes. People think I only yell at kids throwing passes like I did hosting “Saturday Night Live” on that United Way skit. I got a lot of letters from a number of mothers and grandmothers that were disappointed that I was throwing the passes so hard at their kids. They said they were watching Saturday Night Live with their nine-year-old and they were disappointed in me and I wrote them back, and I said, “why is your nine-year-old watching Saturday Night Live”? All of those kids in that skit were child actors and their parents were there the entire time and the director said, “Peyton, the only way this is going to work is you have to hit these kids in the head. You have to hit them in the head.” And I felt nervous doing that, but I felt better when—no lie—I heard one of the parents yelling at the director, “I want him to hit my kid in the face.”
In all seriousness, I wanted my comments today to somehow match your collective intellect and the grandeur of the occasion. While searching for connections, I discovered that UVA’s president in 1906, Edwin Alderman, was an avid football fan. Alderman advocated for the sport in part because of the character traits it teaches. He said, a boy “can’t successfully play football without self-denial, self-restraint, resoluteness, patience, loyalty to a cause and a distinct form of unselfishness.” I would add an offensive line and fast receivers.
Football is my profession, my workplace, a field with very clear boundaries and very strict rules and almost zero margin for error, but the choices in front of each of you are only as restrictive as you allow them to be. Before you walk across that stage tomorrow, close your eyes for just a minute and imagine that you are facing the San Andreas Fault Line. As you reach out for your diploma, envision standing on one side of a ridge that literally runs north and south for more than 800 miles. Once you leap to the other side, nothing will be quite the same. If you are at all timid and the anticipated leap is a frightening prospect, then your instinct for self-preservation may freeze you in one place, but if you’ve really listened to and digested the lessons of your professors over the last few years, I promise you that the exhilaration of what's on the other side will far outweigh the risks.
What are you leaping towards? If you haven't already accepted an offer, finding a job or a career will undoubtedly be your target and if your parents are on you, it better be soon. If you already have a position, then the challenge will be to learn how to stand out and fit in at the same time. Either way, you’ll land in a better place if you're honest with yourself. Do a self-check of your aspirations. Challenge your motivations and refuse to wallow. Don't wallow in your lack of thrilling choices or once you’re there while your new colleagues don't appreciate the remarkable insight you have to offer. You will be a rookie again, a freshman, a first-year, if you will.
I learned a valuable lesson when I was a freshman at Tennessee that I applied to my first year on the job in the NFL. It was the first time I ran into the huddle as a quarterback at Tennessee. We were playing at UCLA in the Rose Bowl, 95,000 people in the stands. ABC broadcasting the game on national television, Keith Jackson and Bob Griese. Tennessee was ranked ninth in the country. UCLA was unranked. It was expected to be a blowout. I was third team on the depth chart, not expecting to play the entire game, much less the entire season. On the seventh play of the game, our starting quarterback tears his knee and he is out for the year. Our backup quarterback was a guy named Todd Helton who went on to have an 18-year Major League Baseball career. Let’s just say, Todd was kind of thinking about that baseball signing bonus he was about to get. He wasn’t real crazy about going into the game. So we're getting beat 21-0 and my coach turns to me and he says, “Peyton, you’re going in.” And, boy, I didn’t think I was nervous. I looked down and all the hair on my arms is just sticking up.
So I’m jogging into that into the huddle and I remembered something my dad had told me. He said, “son, if you ever get into the huddle with the starters at any point in the season—it may be in the fourth quarter of a blow out, it may be just in practice, it doesn’t matter, you be the leader and you take control of that huddle. That’s your job as the quarterback. You’re just 18 years old. Most of these seniors are 21, 22. It doesn’t matter. Be the leader and take control of that huddle.”
So I remember old dad’s advice and I get into the huddle and I said, “all right, guys, I know I’m just a freshman, but I can take us down the field right now, get us a touchdown and get us back in this game. Let’s go.” Big left tackle, a guy named Jason Layman, about 6'5", 330 pounds, grabs me by the shoulder and says, “hey, freshman, shut the blank up and call the blanking play.” And I said, “yes, sir.” That was really great advice from my dad. I really appreciated that.
Some people who never made the leap across that fault themselves will tell you that today is the divide between childhood and adulthood, between fantasy and the real world. They’ll tell you it's time to get serious because the real world is a cruel place, one in which you need to play by adult rules. Well, I disagree. If the real world isn’t kind to newcomers, then it’s because the people in it have chosen to be unkind. You and your future co-workers have the ability to change that. More than half of the world's population is under 30 years old. There are so many of you earning a diploma from the universities of Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, Michigan, UCLA and others, that the sheer number of you creates a gigantic opportunity to change the workplace as we know it. Shake it up. Be the ones to throw open the shutters and let a little fresh air in and while you're at it, make the workplace a more civil place to be.
You have the power to influence change in so many ways that have never existed before. Make kindness a priority, not a blurred line. There are some people who will criticize your generation’s altruism as childlike fantasy, yet you’re the generation that can put ethics and values back in vogue again. You’re the generation that can challenge leaders in business, government and other professions to make decisions based not solely on the bottom line but also on what’s good for your community and others halfway around the globe.
I challenge you—show the world by your actions that you understand where the real sustainable value is. I’ll paraphrase your Founder, Thomas Jefferson who said, “if you want to know who you are, don't ask, act. Action,” he said, “will delineate and define you." Titans of industry and government understand that the world looks and works different for you than it does for them and they know that you’re not shy about making those differences public. They may not be sure how to best align your world with theirs, but they know that they need to incorporate your ideas into their decision-making.
Studies indicate that the public has lost trust in authority, driving people to turn to their peers for recommendations on where and how they should spend their money and time, even for something as simple as buying a football ticket to a game or something as major as buying a home. In some ways, you’ve actually become more influential with the masses than those who are in charge. The people who are in charge certainly don't have all of the answers, so don't let expertise silence you. Work to find new solutions to old problems. Think outside the parameters that restrict other people's thoughts. Just because you're a novice on the job, just because you haven’t faced the same challenges, just because you haven’t climbed the same cliffs doesn’t mean that you can't contribute to solutions in very significant ways. When you are chided for your naïveté, and you will be, remind your critics that an amateur built the ark, experts built the Titanic.
And when you’re working through problems and thinking what if, don't cloud your mind with too much information. Some call it information glut, data smog. I call it too much stuff. All of that interconnectivity and networking that you do can actually cloud your decision-making. You can be spinning a wheel like a caged hamster going nowhere and on a whole, we’ve become cultivated with an insatiable appetite for information. We want more of it and we demand that it be in our hands faster than ever and I am no different.
While your generation, I’m told, rarely uses email unless you are forced to, I'm told that the average teenager sends six messages for every waking hour with an average response time of 90 seconds or less. There’s an abundance of information at our fingertips and with the appropriate filters to sift through it, the overload often leads to anxiety and even paralysis in our decision-making.
You are about to run through the tunnel onto an enormous field of uncertainty. Your four years here in Charlottesville have prepared you better than most, but unfortunately, that’s probably not enough for some of the fierce opponents that you’re going to face in the years ahead.
As an NFL quarterback, hard hits are part of the game. People often ask me, “Peyton, who has hit you the hardest?,” and the answer is a guy named Ray Lewis who played for the Baltimore Ravens, and Ray, he’s a very friendly guy. When he hits you, he likes to kind of drive you into the ground. He kind of likes to use you to help him get up, always whispering something like, “I’ll be back here in a couple of minutes, punk.” Very, very friendly.
I mentioned all those Pro Bowls I was fortunate to play in. Well, I played on the AFC and Ray Lewis was also on the AFC and I spent that whole week buying Ray’s dinner, his drinks. I bought him golf clubs one year, hoping he might soften the blow come the fall. He never seemed to remember.
Hard hits or not, I don’t believe there is any way to over prepare for your future. Have a formulated plan, have a backup plan and have a backup to your backup plan. My preparation begins by watching game tape of our team and competitors. It helps me put the pieces of the puzzle together. Years ago, I had a system put in my house where I could analyze every game, every competitor without having to go in to the team's practice facility. So, if you asked me how long do I watch game film to prepare, I couldn’t tell you because I’ve never kept a clock. I just watch until I feel ready. I watch and I prepare. I can actually get lost in the intense focus of figuring things out that others may never even look at.
If you really want to be a game changer out there, become a master observer, just the willingness to stop and look at things that no one else has even bothered to look at enables game changers to identify real points of meaning. The simple process of focusing on things that are normally taken for granted can be a source of great power and creativity.
I am a naturally curious person. I want to know and thoroughly understand things. We learn when we observe. We pick up on clues. We figure things out. That is what preparation is all about.
In the Broncos office, we have a play called attack. We run it to catch our opponents off guard when they are trying to substitute defensive players on the field. Plan A is never enough when the competition wants to win as badly as you do.
And here’s is one last reason for being ultimately prepared. Relevancy has a deadline. If you can figure something out before the pressure is turned on, before the scrutiny burns hot, your actions will be clearer, you’ll be able to respond faster and you are more likely to bend and not break in the process. And when you or someone you care about breaks, be prepared to reach up and bend down. Reach up to stretch yourself and your dreams even more and bend down to offer a hand or whisper a word of encouragement. Discover your own way of reaching up and bending down. Find a cause that you’re passionate about and indulge in giving back. Give your time, your money or your talent.
Everybody has the same 24 hours to live out a day in their lives. The question is, what will you do with your 24 hours today, tomorrow or the next? I challenge you to make each of those 24 hours, 24 hours of impact.
You're about to embark on the most monumental, awesome adventure of your life to date. Do yourself a favor. Get comfortable with silence. When you do, the important moments will seem louder. Close your eyes once in a while and I promise you that you will see the important things clearer. And every now and then, let go of that tight grip that you have on your goals. When you do, it will be easier to enjoy the journey because, believe me when I say, those audacious goals that you have will still be there.
Congratulations to all of you. Good luck to you. God bless you and Wahoowah.