Good morning. As you read this, I’m on vacation. My wife and I twice delayed a 40th anniversary trip to Italy because of Covid. We’re there now, one day shy of 42 years married. As you read this, know that I’ve probably got an espresso, or a glass of Chianti, in my hand.
Today begins the guest-column phase of Football Morning in America prior to training camp. I will return with my regular column on July 18, then will be out at camps beginning with the column of July 25. Usually I make the graduation speeches a part of a spring column, but I like them so much and saw a few really good ones this year, so I decided to make them a separate column this year. I’ll be interested to see your reaction.
I get asked around the time of year, “Why the graduations speeches? This is a football column.” I know. But I love the lessons in them. A few years ago, I read a great one from Navy Admiral William McRaven. “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed,” he told University of Texas grads. His point: Every great accomplishment starts with a collection of small ones, and you need the discipline to do them all right. So when you wake up in the morning, make the bed, and make it crisply.
As an homage to football, I’m starting this year with some wise words from Louis Riddick, the former NFL defensive back and current ESPNer. In his case, and with all of these, they’re abridged, and they begin with why Riddick got into football analysis in the first place, and how that applies to those just starting their real-world lives.
Along the way, you’ll hear words of wisdom from an autistic valedictorian who does not speak, T-Swift (who is really good at this), an NPR host, a TV personality with words about fear, a vice president, Tim Tebow, Tyler Perry, Tim Cook (the Apple guy), Sean Payton, the founder of KIND bars, Dwyane Wade, great advice from writer Tom Junod, and this pearl from Abby Wambach:
“For God’s sake, don’t spend your life watching the news. It’s all bad news. Instead: Be the news.”
On with the show.
(Editor’s note: Speech videos are linked to each location/date.)
Louis Riddick, ESPN NFL analyst
University of Pittsburgh
Petersen Events Center, May 1
I wanted more people to hear what it was I thought about the game of football, its players, its strategies, its coaches. All of that. I embarked on a career in media. I didn’t go to school for media. Like I’m telling you right now, your journey may take you somewhere that’s totally different than what you think it’s going to take sitting there today.
It was a lucky break. They were starting a new show on ESPN. Let me just tell you a little bit about this journey. When I first started at ESPN, I didn’t have a contract. They said this: “We’ll pay you $800 a show, no guarantee of shows. You’re not under contract. You’re an at-will employee. The better you are, the more shows you get. The more shows you get, the more money you’ll make.”
I bet on myself. I said, “Cool. I’m in.”
From 2013 to 2021, I went from making $800 a show, becoming one of the voices of Monday Night Football, being on the opening night of the NFL Draft and I can tell you this: Those two jobs pay a hell of a lot more than $800 a show.
So, really, what does all this mean? What is my overriding message? What do I really want to tell you all?
Stay the course. Reinvent. Be bold. Surround yourself with positive people who want to positively reinforce you. Prove your supporters right. Don’t worry about the doubters; they’re always going to be out there. Continually push forward. Continually push forward to strive. Continually use your creative mind to think, “What is next for me? What does success look like for me?” Don’t let anybody else tell you what success is supposed to look like for you. That’ll come from within here. You’ll know it when you find it. When you do find it, don’t ever let it go. Keep working. Try to hold onto it. Just enjoy it.
Elizabeth Bonker, Rollins College valedictorian
Rollins College (Winter Park, Fla.)
Showalter Field, May 8
Student Elizabeth Bonker is affected by non-speaking autism and communicates solely by typing.
Rollins College class of 2022, today we celebrate our shared achievements. I know something about shared achievements because I am affected by a form of autism that doesn’t allow me to speak. My neuromotor issues also prevent me from tying my shoes or buttoning a shirt without assistance. I have typed this speech with one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard. I am one of the lucky few non-speaking autistics who have been taught to type. That one critical intervention unlocked my mind from its silent cage, enabling me to communicate and to be educated like my hero Helen Keller.
My situation may be extreme, but I believe Rollins has shown all of us how sharing gives meaning to life. During my freshman year, I remember hearing a story about our favorite alumnus, Mister Rogers. When he died, a handwritten note was found in his wallet. It said, “Life is for service.” Life is for service. So simple, yet so profound.
Whatever our life choices, each and every one of us can live a life of service—to our families, to our communities, and to the world. And the world can’t wait to see our light shine.
So, my call to action today is simple. Tear off a small piece from your commencement program and write “Life is for service” on it. Yes. We gave you the pens to really do it. Let’s start a new tradition. Take a photo and post it on social media. Then put it in your wallet or some other safe place, just as Mister Rogers did. And when we see each other at our reunions, we can talk about how our commencement notes reminded us to serve others. For to whom much is given, much is expected.
I leave you today with a quote from Alan Turing, who broke the Nazi encryption code to help win World War II: “Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”
Taylor Swift, singer/songwriter
New York University
Yankee Stadium, May 18
I started writing songs when I was 12 and since then it’s been the compass guiding my life. And in turn, my life guided my writing. Everything I do is just an extension of my writing, whether it’s directing videos, or a short film, creating the visuals for a tour, or standing on a stage performing. Everything is connected by my love of the craft. The thrill of working through ideas and narrowing them down and polishing it all up in the end. Editing. Waking up in the middle of the night, throwing out the old idea because you just thought of a newer, better one. Or a plot device that ties the whole thing together.
There’s a reason they call it a hook. Sometimes a string of words just ensnares me and I can’t focus on anything until it’s been recorded or written down. As a songwriter, I’ve never been able to sit still or stay in one creative place for too long. I’ve made and released 11 albums, and in the process, switched genre from country to pop to alternative to folk.
This might sound like a very songwriter-centric line of discussion. But in a way, I really do think we are all writers. Most of us write in a difference voice for different situations. You write differently in your Instagram stories than you do your senior thesis. You send a different type of email to your boss than you do your best friend from home.
We are all literary chameleons. I think it’s fascinating. It’s just a continuation of the idea that we are so many things all the time. I know it can be really overwhelming, figuring out who to be and when … who you are now and how to act in order to get where you want to go.
I have some good news: It’s totally up to you.
I have some terrifying news: It’s totally up to you.
Leila Fadel, NPR reporter/host
Northeastern University (Boston)
Fenway Park, May 13
Today, what I say to you when you think about the future, don’t let fear stop you. I’m not talking about running through alleys under gun fire. I would recommend not doing that. I’m talking about the existential fear, that voice in your head that says you can’t, the fear that stops us from trying.
Lean into moments that feel scary.
Why am I talking about fear on such a hopeful day? In moments of fear, I found urgency and a clear understanding of why I had chosen to give a platform to those who needed it most. Fear can be debilitating, but it can also be our greatest motivator for good in this world even when it feels too hard, too big, too unsolvable.
Maria Shriver, TV personality
University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
Michigan Stadium, April 30
What I want to share with you today is this: Fear and certainty are an illusion. So is the belief that you are small, or that someone else is bigger, better, or braver than you. Or that someone else knows what’s best for you. They don’t. Your life, graduates, is best chartered by you. By your heart and your mind.
You know what else is an illusion? That success is the brass ring my generation told you it was. Or that you should wait to pursue that which lights you up. Graduates, don’t EVER wait to pursue that which makes you feel alive.
And the good news is, you don’t have to. Because your generation has been given the gift of a shredded rulebook, a wide-open field. So much of what used to be called normal is gone, and that is actually a gift. In fact, this uncertain moment that you and our world are facing, it’s an incredible opportunity for you. And those fears you’re feeling? They are actually a window into your own bravery. And this moment, it’s for the brave.
You are a generation in pursuit of the truth, and we need your energy, your work ethic, your creativity and your drive. We need you to unite our country — that so desperately needs to be united — with your thoughts, your words and your deeds. Because all of this work is for those who are afraid, but take action anyway.”
Kamala Harris, U.S. vice president
Tennessee State University (Nashville, Tenn.)
Hale Stadium, May 7
I was around your age when I decided that I wanted to take on systemic problems from the inside of the system, that I would look for solutions through the lens of my own experience and perspectives, and that I wanted and needed to be in the rooms where the decisions were being made.
Graduates, you stand on the brink of a new frontier where we are building the platforms for the next phase of technology, where we are conducting the research that will lead to the next great medical breakthrough—maybe even the cures for cancer or lupus or lifesaving reforms to maternal healthcare—where we are defining the fundamental principles that will underpin the 21st century. And we need you in the room helping to make these decisions.
As vice president, I spend a lot of time in these rooms. I preside over debates in the United States Senate. I consult with experts at the Goddard Space Flight Center as the Chair of the National Space Council. I host bilateral meetings with heads of state at the White House.
These are the rooms where decisions are being made. And these are the rooms that I was taught early on by my family, my mentors, and professors, who always believed that I should know that I could be and should be in those rooms, just as I believe you should be in these rooms.
Graduates, we need you. We need you to run companies and make decisions about who has access to capital. We need you to serve at the highest levels of government and determine our country’s standing in the world. We need you to work in our hospitals and in our courtrooms and in our schools. We need you to shape the future of technology. We need you because your perspective—the sum total of your intellect and your lived experience—will make our country stronger.
And so, when you are in those rooms, my advice to you is to be true to yourself. Hold close the values that your grandparents, your parents, your pastors, and your neighbors instilled in you. Have the courage and conviction to follow your moral compass. I want you all to always remember that you are not alone, that you come from people, that you come with people.
Because I promise you: There will be a time when you will walk into a boardroom or a courtroom or maybe even the Situation Room, and you will walk into the room and find you are the only person in that room who looks like you or has had your life experience. And at that moment, you must remember you are not in that room alone. Always know that you carry the voices of everyone here and those upon whose shoulders you stand.
Tim Tebow, former quarterback
University of Florida (Gainesville, Fla.)
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, April 29
I hope you are successful; I really do. But I hope your lives don’t stop with success. Because you know what success is about? You. Significance is about other people. I would rather have a life of significance than a life of success.
It’ll be really easy for you as you start climbing the different ladders of wherever you’re going to be more and more successful. It will get so easy to lose track of real significance. The world is going to tell you that it’s all about money, fame, and power; praise, promotion, and platform.
I think one of the greatest forms of tragedy is being successful in all the things that don’t matter. But you know what you get a chance to do? You get a chance to be really freakin’ successful and take all your success and turn it into significance by loving others, by helping others—especially those that can’t do anything for you.
Tyler Perry, actor, screenwriter and director
Emory University (Atlanta)
Emory Triangle, May 9
I remember being on the beach with my son. He was about 4 years old at the time. We were walking up the beach. I’m trying to get to the end of the beach because it’s hot, the sun is blaring down. He’s behind me. He’s jumping and he’s falling. He’s jumping. I’m just like, Lord have mercy. Son, please come sit down. I just want to sit down.
My son was there jumping and jumping. I finally stopped and I turned to him. He was covered with sand. It’s on his face. It’s on his legs. I said, “What are you doing?”
He said something to me that moved me. He said, “Look Papa. I’m following in your footsteps.” He was jumping to try to keep up with my gait. I think about that and it brought tears to my eyes. This beautiful, innocent, little creature wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.
I said to him, “Let me tell you something. Hold my hand. We’re going to walk up the beach together.” We walked up the beach. We got to the end of it and I said, “Look.” He looked back, and he saw his footprints and mine. I said, “You made your own footsteps and Papa made his.”
So today, I want to say to you, this is your life. Not your parents’. Not anyone else’s. It’s your life to live. Don’t be afraid to chart your own course. Don’t be afraid to make your own way. Don’t be afraid to walk your own path and leave your own footprints.
There are those of you that may be trying to dig in. There’s a special few trying to dig in, want to dig in to make your footprints and nothing is happening. I want you to know that maybe it’s because you’re trying to dig into air. Some of you were meant to fly.
Tim Cook, Apple CEO
Gallaudet University (Washington, D.C.)
Field House, May 13
Gallaudet is the only university in the world where deaf, deafblind and hard-of-hearing students live and learn bilingually in American sign language and English.
The questions you’re grappling with today are not so different than the questions that motivate much of the world, especially at this moment in our history. For many, the pandemic upended not just the way we live our lives, but the way we think about the lives we’re living. People are increasingly asking big questions of themselves: What do I really want to do with my life? Who do I really want to be?
At the heart of it, I think, is one of humanity’s most essential questions. What does it take to build a life that provides meaning and fulfillment?
The thing about it is that no one can answer that question for you. That includes me. There’s no iPhone feature that can come to the rescue. AI is good, but it’s not that good.
Still, I have one important piece of advice I want to share. So important that it’s the only piece of advice I’m going to share today. That is this: whatever you do, lead with your values.
By leading with your values, what I mean is that you should make decisions—big and small—each and every day based on a deep understanding of who you are and what you believe.
These are not static things, and you wouldn’t want them to be. You will learn more and grow more with each passing year as all of us do. But there are foundational values that are bedrock. Things that are core to your personality and your character. These are the things you should choose to live by.
Sean Payton, retired football coach
Loyola University of New Orleans
Lakefront Arena, May 14
We’re constantly looking at how we become more effective at predicting who’s going to be successful. It isn’t just talent-driven. Certainly, talent had something to do with it. But ultimately, this topic was studied by a doctor named Angela Duckworth and the term “grit” came up. There’s a book on it. She’s followed up with another book.
We started to establish “grit scores.” What does that mean? In essence, it’s one’s ability to constantly see something through. It’s easier said than done. Every one of us has gotten to a point where we’re like, Hey, enough.
So if there was one thing that I could convey to you that I think had a lot to do with maybe some of my success, but also some of our success, I would say it’s that ability to constantly get back up. I can’t tell you how many times you’re going to be knocked over. Some of you have been already. A third of you are the first in your family to go to college. That’s unbelievable.
Tub Thumping is the name of a song in the ‘90s—I’m dating myself—from a band, Chumbawumba. “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.” I did some research on that. Evidently, it’s fairly political. But that would be the song I would sing. Because it constantly goes back to the same lyrics.
“I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.”
That would be my wish for this class.
Daniel Lubetzky, founder of KIND bars
High Point University (High Point, N.C.)
Roberts Hall Lawn, May 7
“My core piece of advice: We need to adopt daily habits rooted in curiosity, courage and compassion. It may seem simple but it’s seriously hard work. The easier path is to surround yourself with those who tell you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear. Opt instead for curiosity. Think critically about everything. Develop the courage to have uncomfortable conversations—the only kind that will help us all grow. Put yourself in other peoples’ shoes. Be more forgiving. If we join forces to treat each other with compassion, courage and curiosity, always working hard to unlock the truth of this human experiment we call life, think of what an amazing world we’re going to create.”
Tom Junod, writer
University at Albany (Albany, N.Y.)
Bob Ford Field, May 14
I can always tell when the story I’m writing is going well, because suddenly I see and hear pieces of it everywhere, and everything I see and hear gives me hints about where to go next. When I started writing this speech, for instance, my daughter Nia was upstairs playing music. She never plays music I like. But that morning, I heard that Tears for Fears song I’ve always loved no matter how many times I hear it—the song that begins with the line, “Welcome to your life.” And I was like, that’s a great line for a commencement speech. Maybe I should use it.
So, you see: If you learn to listen, you will learn your story. If you learn your story, you will learn to listen.
And how do you know that you’re listening to something you’re supposed to hear, something that might be more useful to you than someone on Instagram telling you, “You’re awesome” or someone on Twitter telling you, “You suck.”
The hair standing up on your arms or on your neck.
Those are things your body does that lets your mind know that you’ve just heard or seen or read something important.
You can’t make them happen, you can’t stop them from happening, and they never, ever lie. They are you. And if you find yourself leading a life without goosebumps, that’s the surest sign you’re not doing it right.
Dwyane Wade, retired basketball player
Marquette University (Milwaukee)
AFI Amphitheater, May 23
Who here has a fear of the unknown? Raise your hand.
In these moments when I truly feel fear, I create space for solitude. The definition of solitude is “alone,” not loneliness as some may think, but alone in my thoughts. In solitude I find clarity. There is no judgment and it is where I get to know the real me. In solitude, I find understanding and create solutions. It is also where I visualize what I want for my life, and design the plan for achieving it. In solitude, there is nothing that will get in the way of creating the life you want — except you!
A brief basketball story.
Back in the 2011-12 season with the Miami Heat I turned 30. I was playing with a 27-year-old LeBron James, one of the greatest talents the league has ever seen. We were coming off a championship loss to the Dallas Mavericks the previous season. After losing, there is a lot of soul-searching that goes on. I decided to take a deep look inside myself: my game, my age, my injuries. That self-awareness helped me recognize that I needed to step back from being The Man. If we were going to win more championships, we needed one definitive leader and, as obvious as that choice seems today, because LeBron will be entering his 100th season in the NBA, it was not so obvious then.
The decision I made was a team decision, and the most difficult professional decision I’d ever made. I also knew it was the correct one. We then went on to win championships two out of the next three seasons. I share this story because its success was only achieved through solitude and self-awareness.
Quoting my good friend, Kobe Bryant, he once said, “Those times when you get up early and you work hard, those times when you stay up late and you work hard, those times when don’t feel like working, you’re too tired, you don’t want to push yourself, but you do it anyway, that is actually the dream. That’s the dream.”
Abby Wambach, activist/retired World Cup champion
Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles)
Loyola Westchester campus lawn, May 7
The world out there is big. Sometimes, when I watch the news it all just feels too big, too broken, too far gone. It’s hard to know where to start. As you head out into the big world, forget about the big world. But don’t you dare abandon the small worlds, the ones you can see and hear and touch. The only worlds you’re obligated to change are the small ones—the office you’re in, the relationships you’re in, the Uber you’re in, the dinner table you’re at, the community in which you live.
For God’s sake, don’t spend your life watching the news. It’s all bad news. Instead: Be the news. The good news I have for you today, LMU, is that there are worlds out there waiting to be forever changed by you. Go forth and make a new world by doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Get out there and flip some damn tables.