Ohio University Commencement Address
June 14, 2008
ATHENS, Ohio -- Quite a daunting task, giving a commencement speech. Even more daunting to do it twice. Because Ohio University, my alma mater (Class of '79), can't fit all of its 3,300 grads and families into the on-campus arena, the commencement is done twice -- at 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. So my 11 minutes of wisdom to the highly impressive class of '08 (and I mean that; OU graduated a bunch of very serious world-savers Saturday) were heard twice.
"Thank you, Dr. King," OU president Rod McDavis said to me when it was over. He'd given me an honorary doctorate of communications degree, and I immediately took out my stethoscope and examined his head. Dr. King? That's for Martin Luther, not Peter. But it was quite a day, and quite an honor, and what follows is my speech, without the little asides from the crowd and me about various NFL passions. Lots of Browns fans in the audience, just like I remember.
Dr. McDavis, members of the Board of Trustees, parents, families, friends of Ohio University and, especially, you, the Class of 2008 ... I'm honored and humbled to come back to my roots. I sat where you sat 29 years ago this weekend. Unfortunately, I remember nothing about the commencement speech in 1979, except my father was really bored and annoyed. If nothing else, I'll at least try to be briefer.
First, I'd like all the graduates to stand. Face your parents, please, or whoever is here who helped make it possible for you to attend this university. If your benefactors are not here, just think of them now. As someone who invested his first college-fund dollar when his eldest daughter was 1, I'm going to ask you to do something that you just might forget to do this weekend. Give your folks and support group a standing ovation. Give it up for them.
Thank you. Families, there's your feel-good moment for the weekend. Graduates, now it's about you.
I'll start by paraphrasing that wise old Cowboy philosopher Jimmy Johnson: "How 'bout them Bobcats!''
For the past 19 years, I've written about the NFL for Sports Illustrated, the largest sports magazine in the world. For the last 11, I've written a column for SI.com, Monday Morning Quarterback, that 2 million people click on, usually when they want to play hooky from work or school. I talk to millions Sunday nights during the fall on NBC. But preparing a commencement speech is far more harrowing than writing for, or talking to, millions of people I can't see.
What possible meaningful life lessons can a sportswriter and a face-for-radio TV guy give to 4,000 kids as they start their lives in the real world? What I thought I'd do preparing this is what I do for a living: report. I asked some famous people I know what advice they'd have for the OU class of 2008. I asked Dick Ebersol, the NBC Sports poohbah. He said, "Always ask why.'' I asked Peyton Manning. He said, "Don't forget where you came from. Make your family part of your life every day.'' I asked Bob Costas. He said, "Things are very seldom black and white. Don't demonize. Try to understand.'' I asked the 35-year-old coach of the Steelers, Mike Tomlin, who some of you might love ... and some might not. He said, "When we're kids, we dream wildly. As we grow up, we dream realistically. We shouldn't. I got where I am today by being a ridiculous dreamer.''
Valuable stuff, I thought. But those guys aren't here. You're stuck with me. And I think we have something in common. I came here, as most of you did, as a nothing freshman. My parents sent me $20 a month, so I had to watch every dime. True story: When times were toughest, I sold my blood plasma once a month for $7 at a place off-campus. I lived on West Green, East Green, in the Lakeview Apartments, and then in a little dump on Central Avenue. I had a work-study job in the library. I ate at Miller's Chicken. I drank at The Union. I fell asleep on College Green on a nice day more than once. I ate bagels and Chinese food for the first time here. I graduated with a 3.3 grade-point, surviving more than flourishing academically. And, most importantly, I met a great girl here -- and 28 years ago today, married that great girl in Galbreath Chapel.
So whether all of that gives me the right, I'm going to tell you how you can get from your seat to this podium. Hey, it happened once. It can happen 3,300 times more.
Lesson 1: If you've done the work at Ohio University, you can do it in the real world.
If you were paying attention, you got the kind of training here that will pay off out there. My last three years at OU, I worked between 20 and 50 hours a week at The Post, the perfect environment for journalist-wannabes. Why? If you made a mess with a story you had to clean it up yourself. When I left here, I had no fear.
I had an internship with the Associated Press in The Netherlands the fall after I graduated, and in the first month on the job in Amsterdam, without being able to speak the language, I learned that they expected me to do the work of the main correspondent there. Soon I had to get on a train and cover a shipwreck with 46 dead in Rotterdam and write a story the world was waiting for. I found a survivor who spoke a little English, and dictated a story by phone back to Amsterdam. I did it because I had no choice ... and because my on-the-job training at The Post prepared me. The biggest trait I took from here? Confidence in myself.
Lesson 2: Don't let money rule the job you take. You'll have a nice car someday. Love what you do, not what you make.
In 1989, out of the blue, I was asked by the managing editor of Sports Illustrated, Mark Mulvoy, to come into New York for a job interview. I was a nervous 31-year-old beat guy. Mulvoy was the most powerful man in sports journalism. After about 90 minutes, he offered me the job writing the NFL column for the magazine. I never even asked how much they'd pay me until we got up and I was about to leave. It was a $4,000 raise, fairly paltry to go from a newspaper to Sports Illustrated. But I didn't care; I'd have paid Mulvoy to do that job. I was always doing what I loved, so I never cared about money very much. The bills got paid.
Lesson 3: Use spell check.
You know what bosses in the real world hate? Sloppiness. I had a journalism professor here, Dru Evarts, who had a rule in every one of her classes. Any paper you wrote for her would get an automatic F if there was one misspelling or one grammatical error. Experience was a painful teacher there, and some really good writers got Cs and Ds over the years in her class. Her theory was a good one -- there's never an excuse for submitting anything less than your absolute best. Now, with computers able to validate every apostrophe, there's really no excuse for you to send out a cover letter or résumé with even a minor mistake.
A couple of years ago, a young writer asked me to read one of his stories. I counted -- 14 errors. I emailed him back and said, "Don't waste your time trying to do this job until you have enough respect for your readers to spell 'thorough' correctly.'' Think of yourself as a boss. Why would you want to hire you? In this economy, you'd better be good -- and extremely conscientious.
Lesson 4: Be a person your friends, your family and your employer can trust.
I don't know many people who get far in any job without being able to be trusted. Let me tell you a story. I got to know Brett Favre, the Packers quarterback who just retired, in 1995 when I spent a week in Green Bay for a story. He was not the guy I thought I'd find. When I walked into his house for the first time, he was watching the Discovery Channel. That week, he helped throw the Packers' developmentally disabled mailroom guy a surprise birthday party. So I get to know Favre and what makes him tick. And the next spring, I'm asked to play in the Brett Favre Charity Golf Tournament in Biloxi, Miss. The night before I leave for Mississippi, news breaks that Favre's going into rehab for an addiction to the painkiller Vicodin.
And Favre calls me. "We're still doing the golf tournament, and I want everyone to come,'' he says. "But it's true. I'm going into rehab tomorrow.'' Over the phone, he spilled his guts about how it happened, about how it nearly killed him, about how he betrayed his family. I can still hear him tell me about the toll it took. It's the kind of quote you live for as a reporter. "I'm 26 years old, I just threw 38 touchdown passes in one year, and I'm the NFL MVP. People look at me and say, 'I'd love to be that guy.' But the price of being that guy is I'm entering a rehab facility tomorrow to get off painkillers. Would they love that?''
I think he bled over the phone that night because he trusted me and thought I'd tell his story fairly. The day I retire, I hope that's what it says on my professional tombstone: He was fair.
I'm going to end the way one of my readers, Dan Cormican, from Morrisville, North Carolina, suggested. At the end of Monday Morning Quarterback, I always give my 10 opinions of the week, in what I call Ten Things I Think I Think.
Ten Things I Think I Think for OU Class of 2008
1. I think you shouldn't script your life at 21 or 22. Be ready for anything. Be open to anything.
2. I think entitlement lasts about a week out in the world. After that, no one cares who you are. They care what you can do.
3. I think you should read for a half-hour every day ... and Us Weekly doesn't count.
4. I think you should be prepared for failures, and you should use those to learn. Most of you have been schooled in Self-Esteemville growing up. Bill Gates had a great line for this: "Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not.''
5. I think you won't trust your parents when they tell you this, but I hope you trust me: You'll be a lot happier 10 years from now when you go to buy your first house if you put some of your graduation money from Uncle Herb in the bank on Monday instead of buying that new MP3 player.
6. I think, once you lay down roots somewhere, you'll feel better about yourself if you volunteer to do something for someone or some cause at least once a week.
7. I think if you don't vote in this presidential election I am personally going to find out where you live and come and yell at you.
8. I think the one truth you'll learn is you don't have to drink 15 beers to have fun.
9. I think the Browns are going to make the playoffs this year.
10. I think you should remember it's a big world out there. Did you know the United States has just 4 percent of the world's population? For every one of us, there are four and a half Chinese people. Live in the universe. Don't go thinking you're the center of it.
Finally: I think I'm in danger of boring a lot of fathers out there right now, and maybe some mothers too. So I'll say good-bye, and good luck. Have great lives.