I recently had a chance to speak to a group of over 150 senior scholar athletes from several high schools around Southwest Michigan who had earned over a 3.25 career GPA. I shared with them the 3 things I wish I knew when I graduated from high school. Here are the highlights of the message:

It was the game of all games. The game of the century…literally. It was the 100 year anniversary of the tradition-rich rivalry between Orrville High School—my beloved hometown in Northeast Ohio—and our unspeakable nemesis, Wooster High School. As if this Friday night under the lights could get any better, we were hosting this game for the ages. The stadium was standing room only and it was the perfect opportunity to finish the regular season in style before the playoffs began.

That night I threw 1…2…3…4…5…not touchdowns…but interceptions. Without sharing another word, you can probably guess the final outcome of the game.

But even though I gave the ball away 5 times, I also gained something that night. I gained a powerful lesson. A lesson I carry with me to this very day. A lesson that my high school football coach had the opportunity to share with me not once, not twice….but 5 times, after each interception. (Maybe that’s why it stuck with me so well!)

“The next play is the most important play.”

You are here today for your exceptional performance in the classroom and your outstanding accomplishments on the field, mat, or court. I congratulate each and every one of you on your fine achievements. But as you move forward toward graduation and the next opportunities before you, may I remind you, the next play is the most important play.

Tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year will all be here before you know it. While you have much reason to celebrate, let me assure you—today is not the best day or the biggest accomplishment of your life. If it is then an opportunity has been missed. You are on to bigger and better things and the next play is the most important play.

So as you prepare for life’s next play, let me simply present three things I wish I had known when I was your age moving on to the next play of my life. Three things that I had to learn the hard way. But if you can realize these 3things now, you will be ahead of the game for the next play to come.

Those three things are: Latitude, Attitude, and Gratitude.

  1. Latitude—What you do with your freedom determines your outcome
  2. Attitude—How you handle your circumstances determines your success
  3. Gratitude—How thankful you are determines what you give back

Latitude – What you do with your freedom determines your outcome

In just a couple more months, each and every one of you will be out from under the roof and rule of your parents or caretakers. You will be free! You will have the latitude to do as you please. But you will quickly learn something I never understood when I was your age—the most precious gift you have is time.

Time is the only thing that’s equal. Talent is not equal—we each have unique gifts. Opportunities are not equal—we don’t all get the same chances. But every single one of us have 24 hours each day to live, breathe, and spend as we choose. You will have more freedom than you’ve probably ever had before, and what you choose to do with that freedom will ultimately determine what you achieve. Because with freedom comes responsibility.

A day is coming, and coming soon, where no one will be there to wake you up at 6:30AM. No one will be making sure you are at practice on time. No one will be watching down the hallway to ensure you aren’t late. There will be no bell ringing or that awful, annoying tone over the PA system, telling you it’s time to switch classes.

All that discipline…all that structure…all that guidance for your time…will be on YOU and YOU ALONE.

Enjoy your latitude and your new freedom. Rest assured, it’s coming soon. But please…don’t waste your time. Don’t waste your life, your potential, and your opportunities. Spend your time well.

Attitude – How you handle your circumstances determines your success

During my freshman year of football at Western Michigan University—age 18, fresh out of high school—I experienced the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. In September of that year I was named the starting quarterback at WMU as a true freshman. But just 2 months later, in November, I suffered a devastating knee injury, tearing my ACL, MCL and PCL in my right knee, forcing me to sit out of competition a whole year.

Life will be hard. If there was just one thing I wish someone would’ve told me ahead of time, it would simply be this: bad things are going to happen to you. It won’t be easy. But what I learned from that experience, and several other tough experiences, were 3 things:

  1. We have total control over our attitudes in every situation
  2. We can overcome more than we realize
  3. Every adversity is an opportunity

Simply put, when life gets tough—and it will—we have a choice before us. We can complain. Or we can continue on. And what I learned during that first year away from home was my attitude during adversity not only a determining factor in conquering the injury before me, but my attitude was also the thing that solidified me as a leader with my teammates and coaches. They saw me going through this tough situation, but remaining composed and continuing to work. And when it was time to take the field again, they were ready to follow my leadership.

There are very, very few things we can control in our lives—but our attitude is one of them. Choose your attitude daily.

Gratitude – How thankful you are determines what you give back

If you remember nothing else from me today, please remember this: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” So often, at your age, you are forced into a mode of get, get, get. Get the starting spot on the team. Get named captain. Get the GPA you desire. Get the ACT score you want. Get that college application looking right so you can get into the school you want to go to. Get a job so you have some money on the side. Get, get, get.

Sometimes in all this getting what’s mine for me…we forget that we make a life by what we give. We leave our mark by what we do for others and give back. We go away from home, we start this new and exciting chapter of life, but it’s like someone hit the reset button. Everything is at zero again. I have to prove myself in school again. I have to get a new job again. I have to make new friends again.

I’ve learned the best remedy for this feeling of discomfort and uncertainty is simply this: to count your blessings and then go do something for someone else. When you are feeling down, when you are feeling unsure, when you are wondering if you can make it…stop. Consider all the amazing things you have going on for you—your life, your family, your health, the opportunity that is before you, the things that have been provided for you—and then go and help someone else who cannot help you in return.

The thing about gratitude is most of us think about it often. If I ask each of you being honored today: “Are you grateful?”…all of you would raise your hands high. But here’s the other thing about gratitude…even though we all think it often…very few of us say it. Very few of us verbalize it. Very few of us make our gratitude known. Very few of us write a note or go to the person we are thankful for and tell them: “You helped me. You mean a lot to me…thank you!” But doing so would mean the world to that person, and we know this, but so often we avoid acting on it.

Let me remind you that there is no self-made man or woman. You have accomplished a lot—it’s the reason you’re here today—but it is because of parents, teachers, family members, coaches, friends, pastors, siblings, mentors, and so many more people—who cared enough about you to invest time into your life to make you better.

So please, do someone a favor. Say thank you to someone. Pick one meaningful person in your life—someone who helped you get here today—and tell them what they mean to you. Write them a card, give them a call, talk to them in person…but tell them somehow what they mean to you. Tell them you’re grateful for what they’ve done for you. It will mean the world to them.

Gratitude and serving others are gifts you and I can always give, no matter our life’s circumstance. Please, choose to be grateful and to help others. You’ll be glad you did.

My high school coach said it that fateful five interception night, and I believe it’s true: “the next play is the most important play.” And it’s just about time for you each to go on to the next play of your lives…whatever it is.

But as you go on, please remember three things—Latitude, Attitude, and Gratitude. Latitude – You will have more freedom than ever before, and what you do with your freedom determines your outcome. Attitude—You always have total control of your attitude and how you handle your circumstances determines your success. And finally Gratitude—How thankful you are determines what you give back. We always have the choice to say thank you and to serve and help others.

Congratulations on your fine accomplishments and good luck with the next play.

#LeadWell

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