This weekend I had the honor of talking to my former high school football team before their Homecoming game. Three years ago I was asked to come in and do the same and it turned out to be the only game they won all season. As the mighty Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology Colonials were winless so far this season, we all hoped that my talk this year would have the same effect.
There are so many things I know now that I wish I had known back then, but I only had a few minutes with them before the game so I just focused on the two themes that I thought would be most worthwhile for them. Following is a rough transcript of how the pre-game talk went (subject to my memory, which isn’t getting any younger!):
“Gentlemen, I am truly honored to be back here in front of you today. As Coach said, I was TJ Class of 1997. I played football for four years at TJ, three years as a two-way starter on varsity, and one year as Captain. After TJ I studied computer science and electrical engineering at Rice University, where I played fullback for the Owls. Professionally I have spent my career starting up and leading clean technology companies. It has been 14 years since I sat where you’re sitting right now and it is clear to me that, even though I got a lot out of TJ football during the four years I played, I’ve gotten so much more out of it in the 14 years since. I’m hoping that, by sharing some of that with you today, you’ll be able to get even more out of your own TJ football experience.
So what do you get out of TJ football? Lifelong friendships, certainly. Matt and I (Note: my classmate and TJ quarterback, Matt Young, came too, reinforcing this point very well.) are at the age when everyone’s getting married and it’s amazing how, when a TJ football player gets married, there are invariably many other TJ football players there at the wedding–and often some standing up there beside the groom. We went to different colleges, took different jobs, and are now scattered around the globe . . . but there is a bond that is forged when you stand together on the field of battle, united against a common foe, and that bond is not easily broken. So look at the player on your left, look at the player on your right, and understand that, for better or for worse, you’ll be stuck with each other for quite some time!
But you get so much more from TJ football than just relationships. You see, what happens up there on the football field is really a manifestation of that which happens to you in real life. Think about it: every day billions of people and organizations and businesses and teams set out to achieve some goal or overcome some obstacle or conquer some foe–just as you do on the football field. And, just as happens on the football field, it’s not the team with the most resources that wins. It’s not the business with the most capital or the athletes with the most physical prowess. No, it’s the team that executes on the field of play when it counts. It’s the team that demonstrates the greatest teamwork, leadership, discipline, and heart when it matters most. This is why startups are able to go up against Microsoft and win. This is why PhDs from schools you’ve never heard of are able to win the Nobel prize. It’s not about what you have; it’s about what you do.
Teamwork, leadership, discipline, heart . . . these aren’t subjects you can learn in a classroom. These aren’t traits you can read about in a book. These are intrinsic characteristics that you develop up there on the football field. So you think you’re out there playing a game but you’re really training yourself for the rest of your adult lives. I certainly didn’t realize that when I was playing football here but it is so abundantly clear to me now.
The greatest lesson that I learned from this TJ football training ground is how to deal with failure. The world’s greatest leaders are defined not by how they deal with success, rather how they respond to failure. This is because the path to success invariably winds its way through many failures first. Some people–most people–accept these and give up. Others learn from their failures, growing stronger, better prepared and even more motivated for success. These are the people who become truly great.
Sounds easy, right? But failure is hard. When you really set your heart on something and then fail to achieve it, it hurts–it hurts bad. I know. Lord knows we experienced plenty of failure in my TJ football days. And I know you guys have had your share of failure so far this season too, so I can imagine how you guys must be hurting right now–maybe a little frustrated, maybe a little downhearted.
A natural response to repeated failure is to stop caring. If you don’t yearn so much for victory, it doesn’t hurt so much when you don’t achieve it. If that’s how you feel right now about tonight’s game against Marshall, I won’t think any less of you. As I said, it is a very natural defense mechanism that saves a lot of people a lot of pain. But, if that’s how you feel right now about tonight’s game against Marshall, then don’t you dare set foot on our football field. Decades of players before you have shed blood, sweat, and tears on that field–often against very long odds–so, if you’re out there with anything less than 100% commitment to and belief in victory, it’s a dishonor to yourself, to your team, and to everyone who’s ever worn the uniform.
There is so much I’d like to share with you through the benefit of 14 years of 20/20 hindsight, but I just have these few minutes. I hope you will at least take away from this that what happens out there tonight will be more meaningful for the rest of your lives than you can possibly realize right now. The question is: are you going to let it be just some silly pastime? Or are you going to take it, own it, and ensure that is a source of strength and pride for you that pays dividends throughout your professional and personal lives?
I can’t answer that question; only you can. I would give just about anything to be out there fighting alongside you tonight, but I can’t. My time is passed; now it is your time. I will be cheering hard for you and sending you every ounce of strength and energy I have but, at the end of the night, it’s you guys who have to get it done on the field.
Seniors, I’m especially talking to you. You have less than three hours of game time left in your TJ football careers. Three hours! That’s a blink of the eye in your lives. Every play, every minute, every moment counts; you’ll never get a second chance. So get out there tonight and get it done. Don’t let up for even a second and leave it all on the field. Do it for TJ, do it for the fans, do it for your coaches. Hell, do it for me; I flew halfway across the country because I want to see you win! But most of all, do it for yourselves. You are Thomas Jefferson Colonial football players and you deserve victory. Go out there and take what’s yours.”
Wow, written out like that it seems really long but I don’t remember it taking more than a few minutes. Regardless, the team fought a hard battle and won the game at the last moment. I don’t know if my words “reached” anyone but I hope those young men found them beneficial.
The rest of the weekend was spent enjoying Fall weather and catching up with family and friends in Northern Virginia. Now I’m back in 90-degree Houston but still glowing from a wonderful weekend.