As he stood at the podium a few years ago, looking out at the eager faces of a few hundred newly minted college graduates, Mike Tomlin felt as if a kaleidoscope of butterflies was fluttering in his stomach. The Pittsburgh Steelers head coach had delivered motivational speeches to his team numerous times, including just minutes before pressure-packed Super Bowls. So you would have thought this would be old hat. But Tomlin had never given a commencement address before. He was so intent on striking just the right chord that he tweaked his speech at least 50 times.
“I’m a little out of my comfort zone,’’ he told the students at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. that day. “I thought long and hard about what I would say . . . In the last two months, I’ve conducted 89 interviews with draft eligible prospects, some of whom had college degrees. And I asked them what their commencement speaker said to them. They said they had no idea. That made me extremely comfortable.’’
The crowd roared with laughter. Feeling at ease, Tomlin then drew comparisons between commencement speeches and pre-game speeches.
“This is what I do,’’ he said. “I gather the Steelers around in a room very similar to this. And on the other side of the door awaits a tremendous amount of distraction. And what waits for you is very similar to what waits for us on game day. But it’s even bigger; it’s the game of life.”
He finished by urging the grads “to continue to dream the wild dreams you dreamt when you were young.” The cap-and-gown-clad students gave Tomlin a standing ovation.
National Public Radio ranked his 16-minute talk one of the 300 best commencement speeches of all-time. Pretty impressive, considering the list includes orations by Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King Jr., J.K. Rowling and Oprah Winfrey.
We’re at that time of year when there’s a whole lot of speechifying going on at commencement ceremonies throughout the land. Sadly, most of the speeches will fall a yard or two or 50 shy of the goal line. As late newspaper columnist Art Buchwald once told students: “I could have said something profound, but you would have forgotten it in 15 minutes—which is the afterlife of a graduation speech.”
Sports personalities have long been asked to impart words of wisdom to the future leaders of America. Some speakers, like famed participatory sports author George Plimpton, have been humorously blunt.
“Go back to your rooms and unpack,’’ he implored Harvard University’s Class of 1977. “There’s not much out here.”
While weaving a strong tale about taking risks – even at age 60 – marathon swimmer Diana Nyad had Middlebury College graduates rolling in the aisles.
“The only thing I can share with you about my college experience that would be informative was that I parachuted out of the four-story window of my dorm without a lot of erudite research on the aerodynamics of that,’’ she joked. “And just to tell you, you need to go a lot higher than the fourth floor for the chute to open.”
Though best known as a comedian and political satirist, Stephen Colbert boasts a loose sports connection, having raised money to save the U.S. Olympic Speedskating team and even appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated clad in a skater’s skin suit. He brought the house down at Wake Forest’s commencement when he told graduates: “Get ready for my generation to tell you everything that can’t be done . . . we should know . . . we’re the ones who didn’t do them.”
Bo Jackson encouraged graduates to, “get outside of the box. Make things happen. Be your own person.”
Bo knows what he’s talking about, defying convention by simultaneously becoming a Major League Baseball All-Star outfielder and a Pro Bowl running back.
Tennis legend Billy Jean King urged students to “find a mentor and be a mentor. Give back. And when people tell you not to believe in your dreams, and they say ‘Why?’, say ‘Why not?’ ’’ Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski emphasized the importance of resiliency. “There was something good about being knocked down, as long as it wasn’t your destination,’’ he told Duke’s 2016 graduates.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson showed members of the University of Wisconsin Class of 2016 that laughter truly can be the best elixir—especially when dealing with a glaring public failure like the Super Bowl-losing pick he had tossed a few months earlier.
“If you’re playing the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl and you’ve got 26 seconds left and you’re down by four and it’s second-and-goal on their 1-yard line, try not to throw an interception,’’ he said, grinning. “That’s purely, purely hypothetical, of course.”
Wilson also discussed how his coach at North Carolina State told him he would be losing his starting quarterback job and that he had no shot of making it in the NFL. This anecdote didn’t play well in North Carolina, where it was perceived as picking the scab off an old wound. But Wilson spun the tale in a positive way, reminding students not to lose faith in themselves when others give up on them. He eventually transferred to Wisconsin and set some records while leading the Badgers to a bowl game. That resulted in Wilson being drafted by Seattle and eventually winning a Super Bowl. It all worked out well, he said, except, of course, for that darn interception against the Patriots.
We’ll leave you with the timeless words of philosopher/catcher Yogi Berra, who advised graduates:
“When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” And always remember that “a nickel isn’t worth a dime anymore,’’ and “it ain’t over until it’s over.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.