Take Control of Your Destiny / by James Leath

This is a speech I gave to a championship football team three months before they were champions. It was a room full of young men, but the speech could easily be for either gender.

In the movie Back to the Future, Marty McFly gets in a time machine and goes back to when his parents were in high school. It’s a fun movie to watch, though no one ever explains how a high school delinquent is best friends with a disgraced nuclear scientist who turns a Dolorian into a time machine-- but I digress.

It's called “Back to the Future” because Marty spends the bulk of his time in the 1950’s trying to get back to the 1980s. Along the way, Marty encounters obstacles that need tending to before he can return home. Obstacles that reveal to him some defects in his character if not taken care of would have terrible consequences. When he finally gets home, he sees the path he was once on and makes some changes that put him in a way better spot had he never seen the error of his ways.

Listen up… it’s preseason. You are now in the 1950s. I am not your coach, or your teacher, so as a voice that is here only to share some ideas about how to be a top performer, let me ask you this simple question: what are you doing in private that could potentially hurt the team? In 37 years of life, I can tell you without any hesitation that what goes on in the dark manifests itself in the light—every time, without fail. Our minds are clever. It is so easy to believe that we won’t get caught or that we can control these private acts. Here is how you know you are doing something that has potential to do harm to yourself or the team: if when you silently asked yourself that question, you thought, “No, I’m good,” then you are probably right. You don’t know what you don’t know and right now, that is an okay place to be. But if something came to mind right away and you thought, “I wonder…” then yes, that is the thing. That thing you do when no one is watching or when you are alone with your buddies is the fire that has the potential to burn down the person you could be if you didn’t do that thing. So, you have a choice to make. If you are wondering, then stop. Stop doing that thing you are wondering about.

You are in the 1950s (preseason) and if you stop right now, then when you get to the 1980s (in-season and postseason) you have nothing to worry about. I was once your age. I get it. The temptations you face are no different than when I was your age, or when your coaches were your age. Drugs, alcohol, sex…all three have their place in this world, but they are distractions and potentially harmful if and when they distract you from your purpose.  

Imagine, for a second, it is your last day on Earth. You see someone walking toward you. Good looking, same height as you, walks just like you…wait, it is you, but something is different about this version of you. He holds out his hand, you shake it, “Who are you?” You ask. He smiles, lets go of your hand, and says, “I am you, except I am the you that reached our full potential. I said “yes” to the right opportunities, “no” to the wrong ones, and had the right people around me to help me recognize the difference between the two. I’m you, just the best version of you.”

Right now, you have the opportunity to change your destiny. That may sound grandiose, and you are right—it is. You have one life, and you play a sport that can teach you lessons that will guide you the rest of your life. However, every starter in here represents someone else who stands on the sideline waiting for the coach to call their name. When that darkness we talked about earlier comes to light, you will be removed from the team and quickly replaced. You could be the best in the league at your position, but there are consequences for us all on the decisions we make. All it takes is one bad choice, and by the next year, if you are lucky, people might still talk about you, remembering your name and your story. The following year, your name is forgotten but the story may linger. After that, it's like you were never there.

Don’t live a life that is easily forgotten. Live your life as a standard others strive to be like. You don’t have to be the best on the team to be remembered. You can be remembered for your work ethic, your integrity, your sense of humor, your intelligence. Be a leader by adding value to the team any way you can. Only 11 players can play at a time, but everyone is needed if the team is going to win. Everyone is needed at practice. Everyone is needed in the weight room and doing their best in the classroom.

Your future is being created right now, in this instant. Take ownership of what you can control and be the reason for your success, leaning not on the talent of others, but by the character of your best self.”