DON'T EAT FREE HOT DOGS: A message to the Class of 2019

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In honor of graduation season, here’s the speech I gave last year to the Class of 2019 at my alma mater, Riverwood High School in Atlanta. It’s a compilation of old war stories and damn good advice, called ...

A message to the Class of 2019

Good afternoon! It’s a tremendous honor to be here. Thank you to Principal Gardner, Miss Ross, and Miss Thomas for inviting me. And thank you to YOU, Class of 2019, for getting your act together and graduating! Way to go!

Riverwood High School. Something about this place — I’ve been gone three decades, I’m allegedly a fully functioning adult, and yet here I was, earlier today, working on this assignment right up until the last minute, once again bringing it to Riverwood right under the wire. Some things never change. I’m sure none of you have had that experience over the last few weeks.

I look out at you, days away from graduation, and I see myself, 30 years ago, right here in this same spot. Well, not literally this spot; we didn’t have anything as nice as this theater when I was here. Back then, this spot was a tennis court, all cracks and weeds and cockeyed nets, but you get the idea.

Now, you look up at me, and you see an old dude, someone your parents’ age, white in the beard. My friends, I am here to tell you that the distance from out there to up here may be 30 years — but it’s going to go so much faster than you’d believe. So my job today is to spend the next few minutes getting your head ready for the next few years.

When I was here, I was a skinny little idiot who lived around the corner, right up Heards Ferry Road. I played football for a year and got my face knocked into the dirt by guys who were more pickup truck than human being. I ran cross-country all over these streets, and tried not to impale myself doing hurdles and high jumps on the track.

And every day, I came to school in a building with no windows. I’ve spent the last 30-plus years telling people this — my high school was a bunker with no external light, anywhere — and they never believe me. But you folks know the truth.

I have never in my life encountered a darkness as dark as when I was sitting in, say, English class over there and the power went out. And if you happened to be in the cafeteria when that happened, that was an adventure — it would start raining trays and biscuits and milk cartons. Anarchy.

Here’s where I’m supposed to say that all that enforced enclosure made us all better students, but the truth is, it probably didn’t. What those geniuses who designed that giant brick in the 1960s didn’t understand was that windows are crucial. Sure, you might spend time staring out them and not focus on the Hawley-Smoot Tariff or the poems of Emily Dickinson. But the windows give you a look at the world outside — a goal to reach, even if that goal is just to stay half awake until the bell rings.

But the darkness wasn’t all bad. It gave us a good story to tell, and sometimes, that’s the best possible outcome of a bad situation. Many’s the time I’ve been in the midst of something awful or ridiculous and thought, “well, this sucks … but it’s going to make for a GREAT story.”

I’m a storyteller. It’s my job to relate stories as honestly as I know how, and part of my job involves asking questions. And a lot of times, I’m asking questions of players who make it clear they’d rather be doing literally anything on earth than talk to me. Your parents know exactly what I’m talking about. And that’s fine! It’s all part of my job.

But you do a job long enough, you learn a few tricks, like how to get people who don’t WANT to talk to start talking. One of my go-to questions in these situations is, What do you know now that you wish you’d known 10 years ago?

You’d be amazed at how that gets even the most silent players to open up. Everyone loves talking about their own experience, how they’ve changed, hopefully become better. Think, right now: what would you tell the you of four years ago, nervous and terrified about attending Riverwood High School? What advice would you give about where to go, what to do, who to hang out with, what classes to take, what classes to avoid?

The advice people usually give their younger selves is pretty straightforward: Show up 15 minutes early. Drink more water. Walk when you can. Be a decent human being. It’s all useful.

But in all the time I’ve asked that question, in all the responses I’ve gotten, I’ve never heard anyone say to their younger selves, “Make sure you scroll through Instagram 20 times a day.” Nobody anywhere looked back at the last 10 years of their life and thought, “man, I wish I’d spent more time on my phone.”

One of the last places in the country — probably the world — where they don’t allow cell phones is right down the road — Augusta National Golf Club, where they hold the Masters golf tournament every year. Now, I’m going to sidestep all the politics of the place and simply say this: being around 20,000 people where no one’s on their phone, where no one’s got their head down, where no one’s interrupting face-to-face conversations to check their messages, where everyone is simply present, talking to one another — it’s illuminating.

A few weeks back, I was standing by the 18th green at Augusta when Tiger Woods won the Masters. The sound, the emotion were like waves rolling over the crowd. And nobody was holding up their phones. Nobody was texting their friends. Nobody posed for a selfie with Tiger in the background. We were all completely there, all present, all reveling in this perfect moment.

You’ve got some of those kinds of moments coming up in the very near future. Graduation day. Your last summer vacation before college. Your last time hanging with your friends before you all go your separate ways. Appreciate it all. Take it all in. Because it doesn’t last forever.

An example: just a few hours after that transcendent Tiger Woods win—one of the greatest moments in my professional life—I was in my house, down on my hands and knees, cleaning up after my dog had thrown up on the kitchen floor. Life comes at you fast, and it leaves just as fast.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you. You do have difficult times ahead. Your heart’s going to break. You’re going to have hard classes with professors that don’t care that your stomach hurts. You’re going to have bosses that don’t talk to you in polite voices. There will be nights when you’re sitting alone and everyone you know is out having fun. You’re going to say and do things that make you feel like a complete fool.

There’s no way around all that. Pain, loneliness, accidentally dropping a steak into your lap while you’re on a date with someone you’re really trying to impress, just to give a totally hypothetical example — it happens. It’s all part of life. Just don’t let it define you. Don’t be driven by fear or rage.

And the world’s going to change around you, too. None of us know exactly where we’re headed. When I was where you are, my job was still 15 years away from even being invented. Many of the most important people in my life wouldn’t show up or even exist for decades after I left Riverwood. You can’t predict where you’ll be in five or 10 years, and you shouldn’t even try. Be prepared for change, even if you don’t know what that change will be.

If you believe in yourself, if you hold yourself to a higher standard, and if you throw in a bit of kindness and a joke or two along the way, my friends, you’ll be untouchable. More than that, you’ll be an inspiration.

Now, it’s unlikely that I’m going to inspire any of you to become sportswriters, and that’s probably good news, for your sake. Even so, I’m going to leave you five tips that I’ve learned from my days on the job that I think you’ll find useful.

1. DON’T EAT FREE HOT DOGS. Every press box offers free food to reporters. And it’s usually pretty good. But there’s always one pan of stagnant greasy water with a couple sad hot dogs bobbing in it. Take it from me: don’t eat those. Sometimes, free and easy is not better. Treat yourself with a bit more respect than that, or suffer the very painful consequences.

2. GET OUT OF THE PRESS BOX. One of the great perks of our job is free tickets to games. And we get set up pretty nicely, with the food and comfortable chairs and big windows to watch the action. But if you don’t get out of that chair and go find the story, well, you’re not really doing your job. Don’t settle into the easy groove. Don’t just hit the basic marks. Exceed them.

3, TALK TO THE BACKUP QUARTERBACK. At big events, you’ll always find Tom Brady or LeBron James surrounded by two dozen reporters. And right next to him is the guy who knows everything that Tom Brady does … and nobody’s talking to him. Everyone’s got an interesting story to tell … you just need to ask.

4. BRING A PENCIL. I was covering the Winter Olympics in South Korea last year, and at the Opening Ceremony, the wind chill dropped to about 10 degrees below zero. My laptop froze. Both of my phones froze. The ink in my pens froze. And when I noted all this on Twitter, I had a bunch of people bleating at me, saying, “That’s why you should have brought a pencil!” Worst part was, they were right! Laptops and phones are great, yes. But don’t rely on them for everything. Sometimes the best technology is no technology.

5. TAKE ONE LAST LOOK AT THE STADIUM. Every time I leave an event, after I’ve filed my last story, I always make sure to take one last look at the empty stadium. I go down on the field where they’re sweeping up the confetti. I listen to the echoes in a place that was deafening just a few hours before. And I think about how lucky I am to be there, in that moment. That’s usually the point when I get run off by security, but you get the idea.

You’re lucky too, to be in this moment. As you wrap up here at Riverwood, take a little time to look around. Remember the halls. Remember the sound of the bell. Remember how lucky you were to be here, and how much you have still ahead.

I’m going to let you in on a secret, folks. Something your parents and teachers know, but you don’t. Here it is: yes, we’re all tremendously happy for you. We all want you to succeed. But the truth is, we’re all jealous as hell of you.

You have two rare and precious gifts that I don’t have, that your parents don’t have, that your older brothers and sisters don’t even have. You have TIME and you have OPPORTUNITY. You will never have more time than you have this very moment to do anything you want to do. And you’ll never have a broader runway of opportunities open to you than you do right now.

Learn to play that instrument. Write that novel. Grab that microphone and sing. Start that business out of your dorm room. Inspire that change you want to see in society.

And at some point, stop just looking out that window — because even the biggest windows only show you a tiny slice of the world. Get outside your own head. Get outside your town. Get outside your state. Get outside your country … and then come back and tell us all the stories.

You’ve got a great, grand adventure ahead of you. Enjoy it, appreciate it, and don’t let a minute of it pass you by. Class of 2019: Good luck, kick ass, and Go Raiders. Thank you!

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