Athletes to orators: Best graduation speeches by sports figures

It’s graduation season: a time to celebrate the culmination of years of work and achievement, not only by the graduates but their parents, siblings and friends. Along with the cap, gown and diploma, part of graduation day is being honored by a special commencement speaker. These speakers range from presidents to actors to, you guessed it, athletes.

From speaking at their alma maters to giving new graduates from other schools some inspiration, athletes are popular choices as keynote speakers and have given some memorable addresses. Here are some of the best commencement speeches from the sports world.

Rob Hale, UMass, 2023

Basic theme: Be resilient. Hale, who is co-owner of the Boston Celtics, emphasized the importance of being a leader, taking chances and bouncing back when things don’t go as planned. Along with sharing his own personal experiences with failure, he cited the career journeys of Michael Jordan, who he referred to as the “second greatest basketball player of all time” behind Bill Russell, and Steve Jobs to further support his point.

At the end, he gave each 2,500 students $1,000 as a graduation gift. He urged them to keep $500 for themselves and gift the remaining $500 to someone in need.

Funniest line: “I started the business [Quincy-based Granite Telecommunications] right over there and it went public, and I was the leader. Then I managed to lead it right into bankruptcy. And in the process I lost one billion dollars. Have you ever met someone that lost a billion dollars before? There’s a very good chance I’m the biggest loser you’ve ever met.”

Words of wisdom: “It’s okay to fail. Don’t let the fear of failure define you.” “I’ve seen failure face-to-face. It stings. It hurts. It didn’t kill me.”

Basic theme: Be intentional, flexible and exercise strategic timing while emphasizing your soft skills. The New Orleans Pelicans guard and NBAPA president acknowledged how AI can be stiff competition for recent grads, but also how adversity can be a catalyst for growth. McCollum shared that being denied the starting shooting guard position that he was promised during his sophomore year of high school inspired him to train harder. The very next year, he broke the school records for points in a game and 3-pointers in his first career start. Three days after that game, he received a letter from his alma mater, Lehigh University.

Funniest line: “Being accepted at Lehigh meant I made it. I made it out of my mother’s house. I made it out of Canton, Ohio. Shoutout to the 330. However, I had no idea what boat shoes were. Seriously, I’d never seen them before. No clue what lacrosse was, not the slightest clue what field hockey was about. And I’d never seen so many North Face and Canada Goose jackets in my life.

Words of wisdom: “Successful people are intentional people.” “It’s how we respond to and push through adversity that makes us the individuals we ultimately become. Most people walk away from their dreams just before they break through to success.”

Allyson Felix, USC, 2022

Basic theme: Finding your voice. Felix, who has won seven Olympic gold medals, spoke at her alma mater. She told a story about how, despite all her success, she had to fight for a new sponsorship deal when she got pregnant. That led Felix to give voice to the inequality in the sport and stand up for herself.

Funniest line: “When I parked [on my first day of class], I made sure that I put my [steering wheel security device] on, and I was all set. I headed across the street to class. Classes went great. Everything went well. And I went back to find my car. I looked up and down the aisle where I thought I parked, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. I got really nervous that somebody broke into my car — they must have figured out how to remove my club and they took off in my car. I called my brother in a panic. I told him all of that. And he quickly calmed me down, started to chuckle and let me know that my car had been towed.”

Words of wisdom: “Your voice has power, and you have to use your voice, even if it shakes. There are times when you’ll ask for change, and there are times when you’ll have to create it. Your life has purpose, so it’s important to live a life of purpose.”

Jay Wright, Villanova University, 2022

Basic theme: Determination. Wright spoke to the Class of 2022 shortly after his last Final Four run at the school. Wright retired as the Wildcats coach following the 2022 season and told the graduates that he considered himself part of the class. He told stories of his basketball philosophies and the lessons he went back to before winning his first national title.

Funniest line: “To the parents, uncles, aunts, grandmas, grandpas, brothers, sisters, family and friends gathered here to support these young talented people, I know many of you are proud. I know many of you are surprised, and a few of you won’t believe it until you see the diploma in hand. My parents were the latter.”

Words of wisdom: “I’m in awe of each one of you. Your determination, resiliency and fortitude will go down in history. I’m so proud to be a part of you today. I hope you will consider me to be an honorary member of the Class of 2022.”

Whether in college or high school, the Class of 2020 went through a lot. The coronavirus pandemic sent schools online. It also took away the on-campus, in-person experiences that make those places special. Speakers for that class universally noted those things whether making special videos or delivering speeches from their homes.

As part of a special broadcast by NBC, Rapinoe and James were among the actors, musicians and other celebrities offering their advice to the graduates.

The two Olympians and sports icons hit on the same theme — that 2020, and facing the pandemic and social injustices around the country, were defining moments for a generation. What came next would be up to the Class of 2020.

Rapinoe’s words of wisdom: “We are separated in ways we’ve never experienced and facing a world that will never be the same. So, I’m not asking you to come together. I’m going to ask you to demand better together.”

James’ words of wisdom: “Pursue every ambition, go as far as you can possibly dream and be the first generation to embrace a new responsibility, a responsibility to rebuild your community.”

Basic theme: Moving forward. Ionescu had returned to Oregon for her final season of eligibility while starting a master’s program. She had a chance to lead the Ducks to a national title, but then the pandemic hit and her outstanding college career, like so many others, came to a deflating end.

During the production of her address, Ionescu sank a half-court shot.

Words of wisdom: “If you are passionate about something, tell the world. Advocate for change, not just for yourself, but for others as well.”

Basic theme: Going for the win. Just months before Mahomes addressed Texas Tech students, he won his first Super Bowl after winning his first NFL MVP in the prior year. He used his time to encourage graduates to chase their own Super Bowl.

Words of wisdom: “As Red Raiders, we’re built to persevere.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Drew University, 2016

Basic theme: The basketball legend called for a revamping of what we perceive to be the American dream and for a recalibration of expectations for graduates as they strive to be the “hope of the future.” “The first step toward happiness, dear graduates, is to ignore the hype about you being the hope of the future. Yes, you’re technically the future, but that’s a default setting, not a spiritual calling. Taking on the responsibility of trying to fix everything that’s wrong with the world leads either to hipster cynicism about how everything is too corrupt to fix, or depression at achieving only incremental gains.”

Funniest line: “Spring is the glorious time of year when overcoats are packed away and people start to feel hopeful about the future. Lilacs are in bloom, love is in the air, and colleges and universities invite success stories like me to stand behind fancy podiums to convince parents and graduates that your education was worth the outrageous price.”

Words of wisdom: “Each generation must customize the American dream to fit their own circumstances and the realities of the world around them. Instead of promoting a generic dream, we need to encourage each new generation to prioritize their own values. Polls indicate that, as opposed to previous generations, millennials see travel as a major part of the American dream, as well as self-employment, and defining close friends as part of their family. This reimagining is exactly what you should be doing.”

Muhammad Ali, Harvard University, 1975


Muhammad Ali speaks at Harvard University

The champ gave the graduating class of 1975 a performance they will never forget

Basic theme: Heart, friendship and common sense. Ali showed off his trademark personality and humor while delivering a speech focused on love and compassion for others. “Love can be seen in all aspects of life once we understand it. Love for those whom depend upon one, love for those whom one comes in contact with in everyday life, love for one’s country, love for one’s race, love for humanity. It can even extend to love for the smallest creature or insect that lives. If we study the qualities of the heart we will find that the heart quality is a loving quality.”

Funniest line: “I was told that it’s a big honor to be invited to speak at a place like Harvard.”

Words of wisdom: “The first and most important thing that we all must try to understand is the cultivating of the heart quality. And there’s only one way to cultivate the heart quality and that is to become more and more selfless; not selfish, but selfless. What prevents men from the loving manner is the fall of their self. And the more we think of self, the less we think of others.”

Drew Brees, Loyola University, 2010

Basic theme: Speaking at New Orleans’ Superdome five years after Hurricane Katrina, Brees’ message to graduates was to embrace adversity. “I can guarantee you that you will face adversity along the way, and for most of you it will be the toughest thing you’ve ever had to face in your life. But I’ll also tell you that every successful person you meet or talk to will say that it was because of that adversity that they were given the opportunity to reach new heights that they never thought possible.” Brees cited the example of his shoulder injury suffered as he was heading into the offseason without a contract. “At the time, I thought this is probably the worst thing that could have ever happened to me. But now I look back at it four years later, and I say it was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me … because it brought me to New Orleans.” Brees encouraged graduates to see adversity as an opportunity to serve others, to have gratitude and to enjoy the moment while reflecting on the journey from time to time.

Funniest line: “Find what you love to do and figure out a way to get paid for it.”

Words of wisdom: “According to my grandpa, there are three types of people in this world: There are those that make it happen, there are those that watch it happen, and then there are those that wake up one day and say, ‘What the heck happened?’ So which one are you?”

Mike Krzyzewski, Duke University, 2016

Basic theme: Coach K, who has been heralded for his motivational and communication skills, had a simple message: Expect great things and surround yourself with good people. “Great things don’t usually happen to a single person. They happen to teams,” he said.

Funniest line: “I went into the knee replacement surgery, and I was 6 feet tall. I looked like a cowboy, very bowlegged. And I came back and I’m 6-1 on my left side and about 5-11½ on my right side. The interesting thing about it is that I didn’t really need knee replacement surgery, but what it did, it straightened my left leg. My right leg is still bowed. So if I was in shorts — not that you’d be looking at me — and I’d be walking away, I would be the letter D. So, for all you guys that get tattoos and that — c’mon, man.”

Words of wisdom: “Understand that whatever degree you have and whatever degrees you hope to get, there’s nothing more important than attitude — and it’s your choice. … And so when [you get knocked down], your attitude has got to be, ‘This is not where I’m staying, man. We’re getting up.'”

Peyton Manning, University of Virginia, 2014

Basic theme: Manning gave advice to graduates on how to break into the working world as a rookie. It was fitting that the former NFL quarterback, who was known for his superior preparation skills, told the graduates that there was “no way to overprepare for your future.” “Have a formidable plan. Have a backup plan, and have a backup to your backup plan.” Manning also stated that the sheer number of graduates nationwide has the chance to shake up the workplace by influencing change. He challenged them to challenge executives and leaders to make decisions not based solely on the bottom line, but what’s best for your community.

Funniest line: “We’re getting beat 21-0, and my coach turns to me and says, ‘Peyton, you’re going in.’ … So I’m jogging into that huddle and I remembered something that my dad told me. He said, ‘Son, if you get into the huddle with the starters at any point of the season … you take control of that huddle.’ … And I get into that huddle and I said, ‘All right, guys. I know I’m just a freshman, but I can take us down that field, get us a touchdown and get us back in this game. Let’s go!’ Big left tackle, a guy named Jason Layman, about 6-5, 330 pounds, grabs me by the shoulder and says, ‘Hey, freshman, shut the blank up and call the blanking play.’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ That was really great advice from my dad.”

Words of wisdom: “When you’re chided for your naïveté — and you will be — remind your critics that an amateur built the ark, experts built the Titanic.”

Alex Smith, University of Utah, 2014

Basic theme: Smith took creativity in public speaking to a higher level during his commencement speech. He made three key points, the first two being about the importance of identifying your weaknesses and embracing new experiences, even though they may make you uncomfortable. For his “third prescription” — the Washington Redskins quarterback was awarded an honorary doctorate — Smith had everyone in attendance stand up, boo and hurl insults at him. That illustrated his early hardships as an NFL quarterback, with some labeling the former No. 1 draft pick as a bust. His message: “Accept what you cannot control. We can only control how we react and how we respond.”

Funniest line: [In talking about his senior year of high school, where his father also was his principal] “On a side note, he had also signed me up for these Rotary speech competitions. And part of the criteria for these competitions was that it had to be an original oratory. … Funny story, true story, the topic for my speech was — overpaid professional athletes.”

Words of wisdom: “We are not running for most popular. Instead, encourage you all to run for most respected. Unless Ray Lewis is chasing you. Then I encourage you to run for your life.”

Mike Tomlin, Robert Morris University, 2017

Basic theme: The Pittsburgh Steelers coach’s message centered around three “nuggets of truth” that he said he tries to live out daily. They include pursuing your passions, trusting your preparation regardless of your emotions — “Don’t let negative emotions paralyze you” — and not succumbing to the pressure that awaits. Embrace that pressure, Tomlin said. “Pressure is ever-present. You’re either feeling it, or you’re applying it. Me, personally, I choose to apply it. I challenge you to do the same.”

Funniest line: “I’ll proceed with a couple of assumptions. And I realize that assumptions are very dangerous. There’s a cliché about assuming, isn’t it? It can make Patriots out of you and me.”

Words of wisdom: “I sat where you sit, with a degree in hand, with a little bit of uncertainty about what lied ahead. I had opportunities — very nice opportunities. … There were discussions about law school and corporate America, a few business opportunities that came my way. That day, I had a conversation with my parents and I told them that I was going to take a job coaching wide receivers at Virginia Military Institute for $12,000 annually. [Pause for laughs] That’s the response my parents had. [More laughs] Don’t be shortsighted! Chase your passions.”

Abby Wambach, Barnard College, 2018

Basic theme: Wambach, the retired U.S. soccer star, told the graduates from the all-women’s liberal arts college to not be timid and to accept failure as a means of gaining strength. Demand what you feel you have earned, Wambach urged. Also, she said that women must champion each other, even when competing for the same goal. “Her victory is your victory. Celebrate it,” she said.

Funniest line: “I found myself coaching my 10-year-old daughter’s soccer team. I coached them all the way to the championship — hashtag humble brag. One day I was warming up the team, doing a shooting drill. I was telling them a story about when I retired. One of those little girls looked up to me and said, ‘So, what did you retire from?’ And I looked down at her and said, ‘Soccer.’ And she said, ‘Oh, who did you play for?’ And I said, ‘the United States of America.’ And she said, ‘Oh, does that mean you know Alex Morgan?'”

Words of wisdom: “Failure is fuel, fuel is power.”

Russell Wilson, University of Wisconsin, 2016

Basic theme: While Wilson has been criticized for embellishing some facts in his speech, his message can’t be ignored. Wilson, then the star quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, suggested, through his personal experiences, how one can persevere when life tells you “no.”

Funniest line: “Of course, I’m also here to share some things I’ve learned. Things like, if you’re dating a woman that’s way out of your league, ask her to marry you. … And if you’re playing the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, and you’ve got 26 seconds left, and you’re down by four, and it’s second-and-goal on their 1-yard line, try not to throw an interception. That’s purely, purely hypothetical, though, of course.”

Words of wisdom: “If you know what you’re capable of, if you’re always prepared, and you keep things in perspective, then life has a way of turning no into yes.”

Charles Woodson, University of Michigan, 2018

Basic theme: Along with guaranteeing a win over Ohio State (of course), Woodson emphasized the value of giving and receiving help, referring to a story about his older brother helping him as a child when Woodson was immobile because of having surgery to correct his club feet. “I feel like for you guys going forward in your life, you’re going to be one of those two people — you’re going to be that child sitting there crying about not being able to do something, but you’re not able to do it, so you’ll need a helping hand. And then you’re going to be that older brother, who is going to continue to reach down and try to reach out to help someone along the way.”

Funniest line: “We’re going to come back to Michigan, and we’re going to build a big, beautiful wall on the southern border of Michigan and Ohio so that none of those bad people from Ohio can get into Michigan again. Wait, wait, wait, hold on, hold on, hold on … now if we built the wall between Michigan and Ohio that means me or Desmond [Howard] wouldn’t have been able to come here. All right, scratch that.”

Words of wisdom: “I want to leave you guys with one of my favorite quotes of all time, by Bruce Lee … ‘Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.'”

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From Athletes to Orators: Top Graduation Speeches by Sports Personalities

Athletes are often chosen to be keynote speakers at graduation ceremonies, offering their own inspiration and words of wisdom to new graduates. From being intentional and flexible to finding your voice and being resilient, athletes like Rob Hale, CJ McCollum, Allyson Felix, Jay Wright, Megan Rapinoe, LeBron James, Sabrina Ionescu, and Patrick Mahomes have given some of the best commencement speeches from the sports world. Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called for a revamping of what we perceive to be the American dream and for a recalibration of expectations for graduates as they strive to be the “hope of the future.”

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