Good morning and thank you Dr. Thomas DeFranco for that introduction, and a special thank you to my good friend Dr. Doug Casa, who is a professor here and the chief operating officer of the Korey Stringer Institute, to the faculty, family and friends and of course to the Class of 2011.
I am humbled to be here at the Korey Stringer Institute, which bears my husband’s name, and I know he would be embarrassed by all the attention, but he might give me a fist pump for the reason the institute is housed here at UConn.
I am also honored to be joining you — the graduates – for this momentous and pivotal time in your lives. It was not that long ago that I sat where you are sitting, so I know that many of you have already started counting down how soon I will be finished speaking.
But if you will just humor me for a while, I want to share with you my story in the hope that you might glean something from it that may be helpful to you as you begin a lifetime commitment to teaching others.
First let me say, I did not plan on becoming an advocate or spokesperson for any issue. I studied psychology and, after graduation from Ohio State University, I planned to work and maybe attend graduate school. In the back of my mind, I entertained getting married and having children but I can honestly say I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do beyond finding a job after graduation. In my parents’ mind, finding a job was not an option – it was a plan. Like many of the parents here today, they were like corporate investors seeking a return on their investment.
But today is about you, the graduates, so I hope that my personal story and lessons that I’ve learned will offer you hope in the days ahead as you embark on your new journey.
The author T. Alan Armstrong said, “Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months and years they spend preparing for it. The victorious performance itself is merely the demonstration of their championship character.”
Today’s graduation is “merely the demonstration of” your championship character. Whether you are a young graduate or a seasoned graduate who returned to school later in life, today we are celebrating that championship character in all of you.
You have spent hours, months and years to get to this victorious point in your life. As you put these days behind you, I hope that you will remember not just the classes you took but the lessons you have learned. College is about so much more than a career, a profession or a job. It is training for life. It is where many of us learned to play well with others, to step outside our comfort zones, to explore beyond our imaginations, and to peek inside ourselves to discover who we really are.
One of the lessons I wish I would have fully understood back then was the value of a quality education. I frankly took it for granted. But education is more than just grades and classrooms. It is a practice run for real life and the challenges you are bound to face along the way.
The University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education is the No. 1 public graduate school of education in the Northeast and on the East Coast. As future educators, that is a priceless gift America’s school children can ill afford for you to forget. Especially when you consider the following statistics.
- A high school dropout will earn about $260,000 less than high school graduates in their lifetime.
- High school dropouts have a life expectancy 9.2 years shorter than high school graduates.
- A one-year increase in average years of schooling for dropouts would reduce murder and assault rates by almost 30 percent, motor vehicle theft by 20 percent, arson by 13 percent, and burglary and larceny by about 6 percent.
- There will be a shortfall of 7 million college-educated workers in America by 2012.
The story behind the statistics is that educators are a critical component of improving the American educational system and increasing the chances of success for American students.
You have heard that my late husband, Korey Stringer, was an NFL Pro Bowler offensive lineman. But you may not know that I was a track and field athlete and I have a great appreciation for what sports teaches you about the human spirit.
PattiSue Plumer, a U.S. Olympian, was the first woman to beat one of Mary Decker‘s distance running records during the 1980s. But she saw her share of setbacks, including a broken leg after being hit by a taxi in Japan, several bouts with pneumonia, food poisoning at the Seoul Olympics, and a dog bite at the 1991 World Championships.
But she once said something that, as a sprinter, I can appreciate. She said, “Racing teaches us to challenge ourselves. It teaches us to push beyond where we thought we could go. It helps us to find out what we are made of.”
My life could not have been more of a test of that spirit than when in 2001 I lost my husband to an exertional heat stroke during a Minnesota Vikings pre-season football practice. On that hot summer July day, he was practicing in scorching heat that pushed his body temperature to 108.8 degrees.
In track and field, you train for your next race by working on your timing, your endurance and your mental readiness. And then the whistle blows; and there I was paralyzed in the blocks, unable to take off, because this was a race that I was not prepared to run.
The day after Korey died, I was a 27-year-old widow and single parent of a 4-year-old son. I was devastated, as any young wife would have been. I struggled to come to grips with this unbearable loss. My parents raised my sister and I to be very independent and responsible courageous women. But I didn’t know how to do this. There was no training, no classes; there was nothing that had prepared me for this. My family and friends were supportive, but I internalized my grief so that I could get through the pain.
I tried to give myself permission to let Korey go. But there were expectations, commitments and other people who also cared and loved him. So I unconsciously assumed some of his traits and tried to be him for others by keeping his public commitments and filling in for him because I felt that is what people missed and quite frankly it kept him close to me. One of the most difficult things I had to do during that time was to work through my grief to get to my purpose.
I found strength in a song, in the quiet whisper of the wind, the giggle of my son’s laughter, the stillness of pending peace and the famous words of Michael Gartner: “Life is too short to wake up with regrets. So love the people who treat you right. Forget about the ones who don’t. Believe everything happens for a reason. If you get a second chance, grab it with both hands. If it changes your life, let it. Nobody said life would be easy, they just promised it would be worth it.”
So a year after his death, I continued to dissect how this could have happened. While there was nothing I could do to bring Korey back, I did not want another young wife or family to have to endure the relentless pain and eternal grief of losing someone whose death could have been prevented.
What I soon discovered was that heat-related deaths had more than doubled since 1975. And in 2001 alone, the families of the University of Florida freshman football player Eraste Autin and Indiana’s Clinton High School player Travis Stowers were grieving along with my family from the loss of their loved ones from sports-related heat stroke deaths. I struggled with how to deal with the high profile public sympathy for Korey when these two young men’s lives were just as important to their families as Korey’s was to mine.
I did not simply wake up one day and just decide that our son needed me to get it together so that we could begin the healing process. It was not that systematic or calculating. Like the healing process itself, I took little bitty steps. Korey had an incredibly giving spirit and philanthropic heart. He believed in making intimate connections with people that made a huge impact. He almost rejected the practice of outward giving and photo ops that applauded his generosity.
The deaths of Autin and Stowers were the final impetus for me to seriously begin formalizing the Korey Stringer Foundation. So the foundation was created with the help of people like Doug Casa, Jimmy Gould and others. Along with our partnership with the National Football League, Gatorade and the University of Connecticut, Neag School of Education, the vision for the Korey Stringer Institute was realized.
The institute’s mission is both personal and absolute. It is to provide first-rate information, resources, assistance and advocacy for the prevention of sudden death in sport, especially as it relates to exertional heat stroke, which has a 100 percent survival rate when immediate cooling is initiated within 10 minutes of collapse.
Currently, exertional heat is among the top three reasons athletes die while playing sports. The goal of the Korey Stringer Institute is to raise awareness by teaching sports professionals and athletes how to avoid the conditions that lead to heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses, treat heat-related illnesses when they occur, and ultimately prevent all heat-related deaths.
I want to thank the institute staff and board advisors for their continuous and ongoing support and dedication to what has been a labor of love.
Finally, as you, the graduates prepare to meet the challenges that await you, I hope you won’t mind a few parting words.
As someone who became a public voice by default, I live by the mantra “tomorrow is not promised” — so here are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way.
- Be honest with yourself. Even the most perfectly laid plans can be derailed and it is at that time that you will come face to face with your true self. I should have been more honest with myself. I needed to grieve in my own way. When you are secure and grounded enough to be honest with yourself, you will also be honest with others.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. I had to learn to recover my joy. Sometimes that comes with maturity or just being a parent. Children have a unique way of reminding you that you really aren’t that important.
- Seize the opportunity. If you are faced with making a difference in someone’s life, like the Nike slogan, JUST DO IT! That enormously tragic time in my life became an opportunity to help transform the lives of others. It was an opportunity I could not morally ignore.
- Challenge yourself. Force yourself to stretch beyond your boundaries and your limitations. As I unwillingly learned, sometimes you don’t know what you CAN DO until you HAVE TO.
- Be grateful. Find the time in your busy lives to be grateful. Say thank you every chance you get because it reminds the universe that you are blessed. Grace is a lifestyle.
And finally Run YOUR Race. As Olympian Carl Lewis said, “My thoughts before a big race are usually pretty simple. I tell myself: Get out of the blocks, run your race, stay relaxed. If you run your race, you’ll win.”
To the Class of 2011 — RUN YOUR RACE. GET OUT OF THE BLOCKS, RUN YOUR RACE AND IF YOU RUN YOUR RACE, YOU WILL WIN. CONGRATULATIONS TO THE CLASS OF 2011 AND THANK YOU!!!!!!
To view photos from Commencement, click here.