Advice

Russell Wilson to Grads: ‘When Life Tells You No, Stay Ready’

May 16, 2016

Watch Russell Wilson's University of Wisconsin-Madison commencement speech

It’s good to be back in the stadium, obviously. Chancellor Blank and the Board of Regents, faculty, parents, family members, friends, distinguished guests: Thank you. It’s an honor to be here today. Bill, thank you for that introduction, really good. I didn’t know all that about you but it’s fun to hear. And congratulations to the Class of 2016!

I have stood in this end zone many times before, but never in a uniform quite this ridiculous. I’m just waiting for the “jump around.”

I was really excited to come back to Madison on a weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve gone to Wando’s and seen you guys at Wando’s drinking your Fish Bowls. That’s a joke—maybe. We’ve got some fun spots in Seattle, but nothing like Wando’s.

Of course, I’m also here to share some things I’ve learned. Things like: If you’re dating a woman that’s way out of your league, ask her to marry you. If you can throw a football 80 yards, for some reason people think that’s pretty cool. And if you’re playing New England 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 one-yard line, try not to throw an interception.

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That last one is purely hypothetical, though, of course.

But no, here’s something I really have learned: You can’t do it alone. You’ve got to surround yourself with good people. I’m lucky to have some really good people with me today: My mom, my sister and my fiancée.

And Class of 2016, you’ve got some really good people with you today, too: So let’s give it up for parents and grandparents, family and friends, professors and mentors who have helped you make it this far. They deserve a big round of applause.

Of course, today though is about the graduates. Earlier today, I had a chance to meet just a few of the members of the Class of 2016. I was truly inspired. I met Marcus Bolles. When Marcus came here the first time, he failed a few classes and had to transfer out. But he didn’t give up. After community college, he came back to University of Wisconsin-Madison. And today, he’s getting that bachelor’s degree.

I met Leah Olsen. Leah’s 6-year-old son, Dylan, has cerebral palsy, but he’s not willing to let that define him. And neither is Leah. She’s always fought for her son, and she’s graduating today with a degree in social work so she can fight for even more families like theirs.

I met Pablo Montes. Pablo’s the first in his family to go to college. There were semesters when he worked three different jobs while studying full-time. One semester he couldn’t make enough to pay rent, so he was homeless, living on friends’ couches. It hasn’t been easy for Pablo, and yet today he’s graduating with a double major in sociology and human development.

I met Katherine Nachman. Katherine served our country as an intelligence analyst in the Marine Corps. Then she went to school and earned her undergraduate degree, and today she’s graduating with a master’s in social work.

You know, meeting with Marcus and Leah and Pablo and Katherine and hearing stories about all the people in this stadium who are already beating the odds and changing the world—I admit I almost felt kind of confused. I mean, I am not the most conventional choice to give a charge to the graduates. I was a college student myself just six years ago. The thought of turning 30, just being 27, still kind of scares me. And when there’s a 300-pound guy chasing me down the field with a big G on the side of his helmet wearing green and yellow, the last thing I’m thinking about isb “How do I use my liberal arts degree?”

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But here’s what I realized: In a few hours, all of us will leave Camp Randall with the exact same mission: To make the most of whatever talents we were born with, whatever gifts God’s given us. Because if you’re earning a degree from UW-Madison, the question isn’t whether you have something to offer the world. You definitely have something to offer the world. The question is how and whether you’ll do it.

That’s something my dad always taught me. I remember playing T-ball as a kid. Not to brag, but I was really good T-ball player. I’m talking about really good. I crushed it at T-ball. Even though I was just 3 or 4, I remember thinking, “I could be something special one day.” My dad thought I might be getting ahead of myself, so he’d set me straight. He’d say, “Son, potential just means you haven’t done it yet.”

Potential just means you haven’t done it yet. Already in my career, I’ve seen that lots of people have potential, but not everyone does it. And I’ve learned that the difference isn’t the way people handle themselves when things go well. When you land the job you want or you go to the school you want or achieve a goal even earlier than you expected, go ahead and celebrate. Be happy, enjoy it. But remember that the moments when life tells you yes aren’t the ones that define you. The moments that really matter are the moments when life tells you no.

That’s what I want to focus on today: What do you do when life tells you no?

You may be surprised to hear this, but life has told me no lots of times in my career. In 2007, I went to college at N.C. State because I wanted to play baseball and football. Most of all, I wanted to play quarterback in the National Football League.

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Fast forward to 2008, my first eligible year on the football team, and I’m fighting against four other guys for the starting job. In training camp, there’s a red jersey they put on quarterbacks. Nah, not this guy. No one gives me that jersey. I’m doing everything, catching punts, catching routs, getting hit. I know I can play quarterback, I just need a chance.

About two weeks before our first game, my coach calls me into his office and tells me I’m not getting that chance. Excuse my country voice, but he says, “Son, I’m switching your position. I’m moving you to safety.” He’s not asking me. He’s telling me.

I could have just gone along with it. Maybe I should have just gone along with it. But for whatever reason, I wasn’t ready to take no for an answer. I prayed about it. I talked to my mom. I talked to my brother. I would have talked to my dad about it, but he was on his death bed at the time. And after a few days I just came to this peace.

Now, this is the part of the speech where I’m supposed to tell you to believe in yourself. But those days of praying and all that, those weren’t about believing in myself. They were about knowing myself. Let me put it this way: If I loved singing, I’m Michael Jackson’s Tito, I’m Janet Jackson’s long-lost unknown brother. My moon walk?! Cuts the rug. Dancing Machine? Smooth Criminal? THIS GUY.

But no matter how badly I wanted to be a pop star, it would not matter how much self-confidence I had or how many hours I spent at the studio. Trust me on this. I cannot sing. So the question I asked when life told me no was, “What am I capable of? Am I capable of doing what I want to do?” I really had to think about it. And when it came to playing quarterback, the answer was yes. I knew I could throw a football and move really well. I knew I had the focus and the ability to succeed. I just needed the chance.

Once I knew what I was capable of, I didn’t feel afraid to let everyone else know, too. So a few days after our first meeting, I walk back into my coach’s office, chest big, feeling good. I’m 18, 19 years old at the time. And I say, “Coach, I’m going to be your starting quarterback. I’m going to be first team freshman All American. I’m going to be first team All ACC. I’m going to play in the National Football League. I’m going to win multiple Super Bowls and I’m going to be in the Hall of Fame.” He looked at me like I was crazy. But three days later, he named me his starting quarterback.

So here’s my first charge to the graduates: When life tells you no, ask yourself honestly, “What am I capable of?” And once you know the answer, don’t be afraid to let everyone else know it too.

Another time life told me no was during my junior year, when I was playing baseball. My freshman and sophomore year at N.C. State, I had about 450 to 500 at-bats. Now it’s the first few weeks of my junior season, draft-eligible year, and I’m barely playing and honestly, I don’t know why. And this one weekend, we played U.C. Irvine, both teams are top five in the country. And I don’t play at all, the whole weekend. Nothing. I’m not going to lie—I was more than frustrated. But my dad always used to tell me, “Be ready. Always be ready.”

So I decide I’m not going to complain. Instead, every time our defense comes in and we’re up to bat, I put my helmet on. I put my gloves on, Nomar Garciaparra-style. I get my bat in my hand. I stand there waiting: First inning, second inning, third inning, all the way to the 10th. We get to the bottom of the tenth or eleventh, and there’s two guys on base, with one out. I’m just sitting there with my helmet on, looking like a dork. A guy pops up. Two outs.

Then then I hear it. “Wilson, you’re up.” So I go to the plate. And this guy’s pitching is nasty, I’m talking he’s throwing 125 miles per hour if that’s possible. I mean, FUEGO! He’s legit.

The first pitch is a slider, and what do I do with it? Swing and miss. Next pitch, a slider again, strike two, I shouldn’t have swung. I’m one strike away from losing the game. But then he throws me a fastball. And what do I do with it? Wham. Hit it over the fence.

Now, everyone in the stands that day saw the game-winning home run. But they probably didn’t notice the guy who spent all those innings on the edge of the dugout, with a helmet on his head and a bat in his hand. But if I hadn’t stayed prepared like that, for 10 or 11 innings, that home run—that never would have happened.

So that’s my second charge to the graduates: When life tells you no, stay ready. Always be ready.

Now, so far, I’ve told you about two times when, for whatever reason, I was able to turn things around. But sometimes life tells you no and there’s nothing you can do about that. I’ve spoken a lot already about my dad. My mom and my dad were the biggest influences in my life. No one supported my athletic career more than he did. I got drafted to play baseball on June 8, 2010. And the next night, my dad passed away.

We knew it was coming. My dad had diabetes and he was really sick. But I’ll never forget it. I’m standing with my mom in the hallway. And the doctors come and they say, “Do you want to go back in his room?” We say, “No, we’ll stay out here for another 15 minutes or so.” So we keep standing there, just talking, and suddenly we have this feeling of God coming between us, and we both think, “You know what? We need to go back into the room.” Before I walk through the door, I can see the EKG moving just fine [beep, beep, beep]. I take one step in the door and I say, “Dad, I’m here.” [Beep]. The line goes flat.

I miss my dad every single day. People have asked me, if I had five more minutes with him, what would I say to him? But I wouldn’t say anything at all. I would just hug him. That’s what I would do.

Because that’s the kind of relationship my dad and I had. He gave me so much. And maybe most of all, he gave me the gift of perspective. Losing him was hard.

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But thinking about him now, I don’t feel sad. I feel blessed. I feel blessed for all the days we got together. I feel blessed because I know he’s in a better place. And I feel blessed knowing that if he were here today, the thing he’d most be proud of isn’t a Super Bowl ring or a new contract or a big speech at Camp Randall. He’d be proud of our family: of what a strong person my mom is and my brother and how well he’s doing and the amazing, amazing young woman my sister’s become. That’s what he’d be proud of.

So that’s my third charge to the graduates, and maybe, maybe it’s the hardest of all: When life tells you no, find a way to keep things in perspective. That doesn’t make the painful moments any less painful. But it does mean you don’t have to live forever in the pain. You don’t have to live forever in that “no.”

Because if you know what you’re capable of, if you’re always prepared, and you keep things in perspective, then life has a way of turning no into yes.

That’s what brought me to University of Wisconsin. The summer before my senior year of college, I’m playing minor league baseball. I call my football coach at N.C. State and say, “Hey Coach, I’d like to come back for my senior year.”

And he told me I wasn’t coming back. He said: “Listen son, you’re never going to play in the National Football League. You’re too small. There’s no chance. You got no shot, give it up.”

I said, “So you’re telling me if I come back to N.C. State, I won’t see the field?” He said, “No, son, you won’t see the field.”

Now, this was everything I had worked for. And now it was completely gone. If I wanted to follow my dream, I had to leave N.C. State. I had no idea if I would get a second chance somewhere else.

Well, the news that I was transferring went out around four o’clock in the afternoon. I wasn’t sure what would happen. Then, at 4:15, I got a call from the Auburn Tigers. And then I got another call, and another and another. Most of these coaches had never met me, but it turned out that they’d heard about the way I’d handled myself, not just on the field but off of it as well. During the good times and the bad ones, too.

In the end, what had started out as the biggest no of my career became the biggest yes of my career. Because I didn’t get many second chances but this second chance was from the University of Wisconsin. From the moment I saw this campus, I knew this was the place I wanted to be. From my coaches, to my teammates, to the guys in the equipment room and to of course the fans—everyone I met was so incredibly welcoming. And even though I only spent about a year here, I got to see how the Wisconsin Idea isn’t just a motto. It’s a commitment to work hard and surround yourself with good people, to never stop improving and to make the world just a little bit better every day.

We often think about big heroes in life—people like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Ben Franklin. We think about their biggest accomplishments. What we don’t always think about, though, is the moments that made them who they were. When no one was looking, but they made themselves just a little better anyway. When they came up short but didn’t quit. And starting out in life, began to close the divide between who they were and who they might become.

I think about this young guy from West Orange, New Jersey. He became deaf at an early age… Scarlet fever got the best of him. However, that ‘no’ did not stop him from creating the light bulb. That man’s name: Thomas Edison.

See, Thomas Edison once said, ‘I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ He was just that much closer to making the right one. I’m thinking a lot about those moments right now and I bet many of you are too. Because if you’re here today it’s a sign that you’ve achieved so much already—and that you can have the potential to achieve so much more.

Now if my dad were with us, this is the point where he’d remind us that potential just means we haven’t done it yet. And he’d be right. But if we do what we need to when life tells us no—if we know what we’re capable of, if we stay prepared no matter what, if we keep our sense of perspective even when times are tough—then I know that together we’re going to do amazing things with our potential and achieve our greatest dreams.

So “On Wisconsin!” I would say good luck, but I don’t believe in good luck. Go make it happen. This is my story. Now it’s time to write your own.

Congratulations to the Class of 2016! I’m out.

Read more 2016 commencement speeches:

Anne-Marie Slaughter: ‘Care Is as Important as Career’

Barack Obama: ‘Passion Is Vital, But You’ve Got to Have a Strategy’

Condoleezza Rice to Grads: ‘Don’t Let Anyone Else Define Your Passion’

Cory Booker to Grads: ‘Tell Your Truth’

Darren Walker to Grads: ‘Stand For Something’

Earl Lewis: ‘Never Confuse The Attainement of an Education with What It Means to Be Educated’

Eboo Patel to Wake Forest Grads: ‘The Only Shame Is in Stagnation’

Hoda Kotb: ‘You’re the Sum Total of the Five People You Spend the Most Time With’

J.K. Simmons to Grads: ‘Live in the Moment’

Jane Goodall to Grads: ‘Remember to Live to Your True Human Potential’

Jill Bolte Taylor: ‘We Have the Power to Choose Who We Want to Be’

Lin-Manuel Miranda to Grads: ‘Your Stories Are Essential’

Madeleine Albright: ‘Everyone Must Participate in Solving Shared Problems’

Michael Bloomberg: ‘An Open Mind Is the Most Valuable Asset You Can Possess’

Michelle Obama to Grads: ‘Excellence Is the Most Powerful Answer You Can Give’

Obama to Grads: Building Walls Is ‘A Betrayal of Who We Are’

Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Finding Gratitude and Appreciation Is Key to Resilience’

Vivek Murthy: ‘Live a Connected Life’

William Foege to Grads: ‘Every Day We Edit Our Obituaries’