Alex Smith, NFL quarterback, U alumnus and member of college football’s original BCS-busting team, is not your typical jock. And on Thursday night, he did not give your typical commencement address.
After earning a degree in economics with a 3.74 GPA and being drafted No. 1 in the NFL Draft, Smith has seen his fair share of change (he had seven different offensive coordinators in seven years with the San Francisco 49ers), uncertainty (he has spent a few stints on the NFL’s Injury Reserve) and disappointment (he lost his starting job to a second-year quarterback and watched his team in the Super Bowl from the bench).
To give the audience a taste of what some of that felt like, Smith had one side of the Huntsman Center scream “you’re a bust!” and the other side “you ruined my fantasy football team!”
In 2013, Smith signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that had the NFL’s worst record (2-14) the season before, and led the franchise to its best record in 10 years and a playoff berth. His performance earned him a spot on the Pro Bowl team and validated the fact that Smith was a bona fide leader.
It was this message of failure and perseverance that resonated with the thousands of graduates, family members, faculty, staff and fans who were in attendance to watch Smith deliver this University of Utah 2014 Commencement Address:
TRANSCRIPTION OF ALEX SMITH’S 2014 COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS
I am so honored to be back on campus at this incredible university, on such an important day for all of you and your families and loved ones, so, thank you for having me; I appreciate it.
To President Pershing and the entire board of trustees, thank you for allowing me to speak tonight and thank you for recognizing me with an honorary doctorate. I was thinking, this upcoming season, with such a common last name like Smith that I might actually put Dr. Smith on the back of my jersey, but more importantly, I can now prescribe advice to you, because I’m a doctor.
It’s been almost 10 years to the day that I graduated from the U and I’ve had many ups and downs, over the course of that time, and there are really three concepts that I’ve learned and relied on, over those years:
1) Identify my weaknesses
2) Embrace the new
3) Letting go of what I cannot control
When I graduated from Utah, I was headed into the biggest job interview of my life, the NFL Draft. As you can imagine, I wanted so badly to impress; I wanted to be perfect. I tried to be the perfect draft prospect. In my meetings with the coaches and the executives, I tried to be the perfect interview. At the Combine and at my workouts, I tried to be the perfect player. I tried to promote my strengths and conceal my weaknesses and on paper, I kind of succeeded; I was the first pick in the draft.
And with that, I inherited this big shiny trophy that I carried around and it had one word engraved on it, anxiety. You see, the problem was, and this is the point, I felt like I had to be perfect to justify my draft status. I became my own worst enemy. I constantly stressed for others’ approval and worried about what they were thinking. I felt like I couldn’t even make the smallest of mistakes and then, when I did make a mistake, I agonized over it; this became a paralyzing cycle. I became cautious. I was tentative. My entire mindset became, ‘don’t screw up’. Literally, I would tell myself, ‘Don’t screw up. Don’t throw an incompletion. Don’t throw an interception. Don’t fumble. Don’t drop the snap. Don’t line up under the guard’; that’s what I’d tell myself.
I was young and I let my insecurities and own self-doubt get the best of me. I worried about others’ approval and the result was, I was stressed, I was exhausted and I was full of anxiety and most importantly, I was completely unproductive.
My first prescription:
We are not running for most popular, instead, I encourage you all to run for most-respected, unless Ray Lewis is chasing you, and then I encourage you to run for your life.
I recently had the opportunity to hang out with UFC Champion Georges St-Pierre. For those of you who don’t know, Georges, he’s a world class mixed-martial artist, and some would even regard him as the best ever. After getting to spend some time with him, one thing really stuck with me, it was how much time Georges and his team spent evaluating his own weaknesses. I’d always imagined that they spent all their time and energy focusing on their next opponent, a lot like we do in football; instead, Georges spends his time targeting his own weaknesses. He isn’t insecure about his abilities or who he is, instead, he’s honest with himself and he embraces the challenge of his own shortcomings.
This is a direct quote from Georges:
“I always train with better wrestlers than me, better boxers than me, and better jiu jitsu guys than me; when you train with people who are better, it keeps challenging you. By challenging them, it makes me better.”
Failures and setbacks are inevitable for all of us. I encourage you to embrace the challenge of your own imperfection. Embrace your journey to your own potential. It wasn’t until I stopped worrying about my own validation and finally refocused my energy on things I could actually change that I finally grew as a person and as a professional. And speaking of growing, my parents, our parents, can be some of the best coaches of our lives.
I can now tell you how my dad traumatized me, during my senior year of high school. He was the master of making me embrace the new. You see, when I was in high school, my dad also happened to be my principal and one of the perks of my dad being the principal was that he got to make my schedule. So, my senior year, when all my buddies had one or two classes and spent half their time off campus, hanging out and having fun, I had a completely full schedule and one of the classes he signed me up for was competitive speech. Next to snakes and heights, public speaking was pretty much one of my biggest fears. I was literally more comfortable throwing passes on third down than I was getting up in front of people, but he made me do it. I had to embrace the new and I’m glad I did, because little did I know that 15 years later, here I am speaking to all of you. On a side note, he also signed me for these rotary speech competitions and part of the criteria for those competitions was that it had to be an original oratory, meaning you had to write the speech, as well as give it, and one of the topics of one of my speeches was on overpaid professional athletes (the crowd erupted in laughter).
I can remember well, coming up to Utah for the first time and everything was new. I remember moving into the dorms and the same thing, a brand new experience. I remember going up to the Heritage Center for the first time and eating and same thing, I didn’t know a soul. Mind you, this was pre-smart-phone era, so I couldn’t do the old, pull the phone out and pretend like I have all this stuff going on.
We can never fully plan our future, so don’t try. And how many of you graduates know what you want to do today for the rest of your lives? I know I didn’t, when I got my diploma and that’s really okay. I encourage you all to embrace what life throws at you, no matter how uncomfortable or daunting it might seem. Let’s all have the courage to walk across the room and make a connection.
I really have had the opportunity to play for some extraordinary coaches, none better than my coach here at the U, Urban Meyer.
Coach Meyer used to always tell us this, ‘If what you want is different than what you have, then you need to change what you are doing’. Coach would always say that right before he asked us to do something really crazy, but he was right; if we wanted to be, I don’t know, the first school to break down the BCS, we couldn’t just keep doing the same old thing. It’s something that’s really helped me, over the years. It’s actually something I tell myself, every time that little voice in my head tries to get me to take the easy way out.
My second prescription:
Embrace the new, no matter how uncomfortable and make it work for you.
Honestly, when president Pershing and the university called me up and asked me to give the commencement address, my first reaction was ‘absolutely not, no way’. Why would I want to subject myself to something I fear so much (public speaking)? But, thanks to my dad being principal, this is no longer new to me and that’s the funny thing, when we embrace the new, we tend to conquer or fears.
(Smith then illustrated to the crowd another of his fears, being booed. He had the entire audience boo him, to give them an idea of what it’s like to take embrace discomfort).
Imagine 80,000 people tearing you apart and the heartbreak is this was a home game. These were the very same people I was trying so hard to impress, because you see, tonight in this safe setting, I can control the boos, because, well, that would just be awkward if you booed me off the stage at your commencement. But, in the real world, we can’t always change the boos and applause and in one of the most challenging moments of my life, it hit me and it brings me to my final prescription.
My third prescription:
Accept what you cannot control.
We can only control how we react and how we respond and that complex but so simple idea helped me survive. In fact, it actually gave me peace of mind and it’s truly why I am here today, because it was a few years later, when I thought I had silenced all of those jeers. I thought I had silenced all of my critics, when I really got tested. I thought I had put all those hardships, from early on in my career, behind me and now I was on track, so close to the success that I had always dreamed of. We were in the midst of a Super Bowl year and I was playing the best football that I had ever played and I got benched after getting a concussion. I was so close to the ultimate validation in my sport, the Super Bowl, and instead, I watched it pass me by from the sidelines. In fact, the only time that I actually set foot on the Super Bowl field was for the coin toss, because I was still technically a team captain.
What I want you all to understand is this, we’re all going to strive for success and I hope you all achieve it, but the truth is, at some point, you’re going to find yourself on the bench and you’re going to have two choices; one, you can sit and sulk and feel sorry for yourself or you can accept what you cannot control and you can refocus your energy, preparing yourself for the next opportunity life brings you. If I had not taken my own medicine, I know I probably wouldn’t be here today. I know I would not be a Kansas City Chief and I certainly wouldn’t be a doctor.
When we leave here, we all have a new season ahead of us and in the beginning of that new season, in our own unique way, we’re going to get to the field or graduate school or new city or new job and we’re going to plan and we’re going to huddle up and we’re going to call a play. We’re going to get to the line of scrimmage and we’re going to check the defense and then a funny thing is going to happen, things are not going to go as we planned. In fact, I can promise you, two things are going to happen:
1) Things will not always go as we planned
2) How you react and respond to jeers and applause is the only thing you can control
So, identify your weaknesses and make them strengths. Embrace the new and have the courage to walk across the room and put your faith over your fears; they both can’t exist together.
From one University of Utah graduate to another, congratulations, Class of 2014!
Now, let’s all go have a great season. Thank you!
Before Smith arrived on the stage last night, everyone knew he was a leader, based on his accomplishments on the football field, but the words that he shared with the Utah graduates proved that the current Chiefs QB can not only walk the walk, but he can also truly talk the talk.
Congratulations, Dr. Alex Smith!