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Volume 22 No. 27
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Class Acts: Commencement speeches

This spring’s crop of graduation speakers included several sports luminaries, from owners at their alma maters to active athletes to recently retired legends. Here are some of the words of wisdom they offered college and high school graduates of 2019.

— Compiled by Zach Goins; * indicates alma mater

Photo: Loyola University

Gayle Benson

Owner, New Orleans Saints and Pelicans

Loyola University New Orleans

The most important thing, and sometimes most difficult, is being honest with yourself. When things are going well, it can be easy to pat yourself on the back, but it can be a little more humbling to take the time to really analyze the success and give proper credit to those efforts who led to that success.

Take the time to invest in making personal connections with those you work with, your family and your friends. It may not necessarily be in the form of writing them a note, but committing yourself to making the effort to develop those relationships in little ways will pay dividends in the future.


Photo: USC

Maverick Carter

Co-founder and CEO, SpringHill Entertainment

University of Southern California (Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism)

I’m here to challenge all of you to think about what it means to be “more than.” … “More than” means refusing to define yourself according to what society dictates or everyone around you thinks you should do or should be. “More than” challenges every norm, refuses to accept the rules as they are. One size fits all. And most importantly, “more than” implores you to take massive risks. Being “more than” means you court failure, embarrassment and the possible loss of everything. By the same token, “more than” also means you have the courage, passion and dedication to be more than anyone thought possible.

The degree gives you the freedom to gamble, to take a chance, to start something, to change the world, to go chase your dream. What happens if you bet big and you fail? What happens if you refuse to play it safe? What happens if you ignore everyone trying to box you in and you pursue your passion? I can tell you. The worst thing that will happen is you will break even. The best thing that will happen is that you will be “more than.”


Photo: Michigan State

Kirk Cousins

Quarterback, Minnesota Vikings

Michigan State University*

As you seek to answer all the inevitable “what” questions, don’t miss the importance of “who.” Who you do life with day in and day out will be a major factor in the joy with which you live moving forward.

In whatever role you find yourself in, think about how you can over-deliver. Work like you’re the company president, and one day, you may very well be the company president. From day one, don’t just deliver, over-deliver.

Through it all, enjoy the journey. You can prepare for the future today, but you can’t live the future today.


Photo: Cleveland State

Paul Dolan

Chairman and CEO, Cleveland Indians

Cleveland State University

In the very early days of my new job, I sent the simple message to the people I was charged with overseeing, in my own way, that I need help. This simple admission I could not lead or manage the organization alone, I believe, made all the difference for me and opened the door to an important organizational development.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. In fact, relish asking for help. By acknowledging your own limitations and reaching out to others for help, you not only improve yourself, but you build trust with others and forge the sense of community that makes everyone better and stronger.


Photo: Creighton

Kyle Korver

Guard/forward, Utah Jazz

Creighton University*

Like a train, life is happening — history is happening — right now, whether we choose to take part in it or not. There is a world out there that is changing, for good or for bad, right now, whether we take part in it or not. Our society is changing, whether we opt in or not. We have a choice — to care or not. But you can’t be on board the train, be a member of our society, and claim you didn’t know you were along for the ride. 

We should be uncomfortable with the kind of comfort that comes at the expense of others. If you retreat to your own individual island in life and pretend that you aren’t on this big train together, we all lose. We all lose out on your important voice. Your unique contribution to this world. So let’s reject the myth that we aren’t all in this together — that caring about the me means you can’t care about the we.


Photo: Courtesy of Seton Hall University

Bob Ley

ESPN anchor

Seton Hall University*

Let me suggest two vital tools that are easy to pack on our respective journeys. The first I would offer is critical thinking. The ability to construct an argument or to deconstruct the other guy’s argument, to articulate it, to reason your way through a problem, to identify the source of data or information, and then to question it. The reflexive ability to do that before bunkering down in a trench of opinion, that’s sadly lacking in the public square.

The second tool I’d suggest is grace. Here again is where I believe each one of you can make a difference . . . in conversation, on social media, on matters large and small. Reach for that moment, that small bit of grace, some kindness, thoughtfulness, understanding, and apply it. Do not let the opinion mob go for the jugular. Reflect on the second chances each one of us has enjoyed in life and act accordingly.


Photo: Clark University

Jeffrey Lurie

Owner, Philadelphia Eagles

Clark University (Worcester, Mass.)*

In the big data, A.I. world you’re graduating into I can’t emphasize enough how the qualities that make us uniquely human are more essential than ever. That means emotional intelligence, empathy and appreciation for the people not only in your own family, but those you choose to be with in every facet of your life and work.

And as we value a truly open mind, I believe it’s just as important to have an open heart. . . . I don’t think it’s possible to be our best selves without being open to people, experiences and even work that touches our hearts. We all need joy in our lives — and I hope you have both the open mind and open heart to find your own joy.

If I can add anything even remotely useful on your graduation day, it’s simply about the extraordinary power of unconditional love, of resilience, empathy and gratitude — and of maintaining a childlike sense of wonder and curiosity about the world, with both an open mind and an open heart. Even in this digital, data-driven age — and perhaps especially in this age — those are the enduring values that make us truly alive and human.


Photo: Rutgers University

Devin and Jason McCourty

Defensive backs, New England Patriots

Rutgers University*

Devin: Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. The power of positive thinking can change your life. Let all your moments of self-doubt, fear or disappointment fuel your drive to be great.

Jason: Because it will be in those moments of fear that we have to realize that we must redefine success and what it means to us. … When you compare, it is the thief of your own joy. … Never let the journey of the next person define your successes or your failures. Redefine success every step of the way.  


Photo: Courtesy of Delaware

Matt Nagy

Head coach, Chicago Bears

University of Delaware*

There’s only two things that you need to remember when you leave today. Just two. Be in the five percentile and be you. … When you drive to work in the morning and you get to a red light, check out how many miserable human beings at 6 a.m. in the morning are sitting at that stoplight. They’re the 95%. They hate their job. You guys sitting in front of me … You guys are the 5%.

Be you. … Let your personality show. Live freely. Don’t worry about what others think. Trust your instincts. 

Trust your gut. Take calculated risks. Be different. Stay humble. Learn names. And most importantly, have fun.


Photo: Regis College

David Ortiz

Boston Red Sox legend

Regis College (Weston, Mass.)

You don’t need to be able to hit a 95 mile-per-hour fastball, because you have all the slugging power that you need right there in your mind. … You have all the tools you need to be successful. Hard work and preparation were the most important to me in my career. There are not successful people in this world who do not work hard every day or who do not prepare every day to overcome challenges.


Photo: Central Connecticut State

Scott Pioli

Longtime NFL executive

Central Connecticut State University*

We are all blessed with either time, talent or treasure. Everyone has at least one of those. Some have more. Those talents that you are blessed with, give them to other people. That is a responsibility that we all have, in some way to give back to others.

I ask all of you, please have the heart of a servant and allow it to somehow manifest itself in some greater good that’s beyond yourself and fueled by empathy.

We’re all going to have tragedies in our life, we’re all going to have failure. Some will be small failure; some will be epic failure. I encourage you, when that happens be still, listen, pray, and move forward.


Photo: Saint Vincent College

Alejandro Villanueva

Offensive tackle, Pittsburgh Steelers

Saint Vincent College (Latrobe, Pa.)

We all try to make sense of life as best we can, and over time, it becomes a collection of chapters and anecdotes that ultimately come together to shape your outlook on life. Good experiences shape you in a way, bad experiences shape you in different ways. 

Giving [to others] without recognition is the most fulfilling. Giving to a person that is harder to like is the most rewarding. Giving without hesitation is the most authentic. Never be ashamed to reach out for help in times of need — only be ashamed if you do not do more for others.


Photo: Instagram (@DwyaneWade)

Dwyane Wade

Miami Heat legend

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (Parkland, Fla.)

What you do with each of these moments will determine how much greater this new chapter will be. I want you to take pride in what you already accomplished. Have joy when you reflect on all the lessons you’ve learned along the way. Don’t sit in your fear, but stand firm in your belief in yourself.


Photo: University of Wisconsin

J.J. Watt

Defensive end, Houston Texans

University of Wisconsin-Madison*

I truly believe that you should have as big of dreams as you want in this world. Never let anybody tell you you can’t accomplish those dreams. I once had a teacher that told me my dream of one day playing in the NFL was unrealistic. Well, hello.

I learned that no matter how big you are, no matter how strong you are, no matter how tough you may be, everybody needs to ask for help at some point in their lives. We all could use a helping hand. We all can help somebody else. On the path to your dreams, you will not do it alone.

First Look podcast, with Oregon’s Whitney Wagoner joining the discussion at the 12:15 mark: