I didn’t have a Plan B.
When I earned an athletic scholarship to play football at SMU, I decided that football was going to be my path to success.
I knew I had the talent to succeed, and I wasn’t afraid to work my tail off to be great.
My faith, work ethic, and mindset to be the best that I can be paved the way for my life and career, but I made a grave mistake by putting all my eggs into the football basket.
I never thought about being anything except a football player.
This was all fine and well until the Indianapolis Colts retired me in 1992.
I word it this way because after spending eight years in the NFL, I wasn’t ready to be done yet – I wanted to continue playing.
But it didn’t matter.
The Colts and the NFL decided to move on from me, and I was sitting there shrugging my shoulders, wondering what I was going to do next without the slightest thought of a Plan B.
This is why I got so elated when I received a call from SMU all these years later, inviting me to speak at their 2024 Black Excellence Brunch.
I want these young kids to have a path, and I want them to learn from my mistake of not having one outside of football.
If my knees would allow me to, I’d be doing cartwheels right now just thinking about how my story can help these kids set out for a life and career they can be proud of and anything but average.
I’m sure students today can hardly comprehend this, but when I was a freshman at SMU, I was the only Black student in most of my classes.
How crazy is that to think about in 2024
But back then, that’s just the way it was.
It was the definition of a culture shock because there were no white kids in my neighborhood and school where I grew up in Houston.
Here I was at SMU, surrounded by a bunch of white kids, and none of us knew what to make of each other because we’d never been around each other before.
The benefit I had, which is a blessing and a curse depending upon who you ask, is I’ve never been the bashful type.
I like to talk and converse and get to know people, so that’s what I did with my classmates.
Once they got to know me, I couldn’t help but laugh when they were shocked to learn that I was a nice guy with a funny personality, but I couldn’t blame them because they didn’t know any different.
When you turned on the TV or read the newspaper back then, there was a lot of Black-on-Black crime.
When they started to realize I’m just like them, that’s when friendships and these harmonious relationships began to grow.
SMU helped provide a great experience for me in seeing people beyond their color and just how much we have in common together.
I’ve never been afraid of hard work, but I will say that I learned what working hard was really all about when I got to SMU.
There were several different people that helped me realize this, but there weren’t many that had a bigger influence on my football career than Putt Choate.
He was a linebacker on the team, and man, he just worked his absolute tail off.
As one of the leaders of the team, he was always making sure I was in the right position and getting on my case if he saw I wasn’t giving my best, and I can’t tell you how much of an inspiration he was to me.
The other thing about Putt was, he was a white guy.
That was beautiful because we didn’t see color on the football field; it was all about coming together as a band of brothers regardless of skin color.
Thanks to guys like Putt, Coach Ron Meyer, James Mobley, etc., they all cultivated in me a new level of working hard, which has been instrumental to my life and career.
Truthfully, the work ethic I picked up at SMU became my saving grace.
It’s one of the main reasons why I had such a tremendous collegiate career and was able to transition to the NFL.
When my career in the NFL came to an end, while I unfortunately didn’t know what to do with my life, I had the confidence that whatever I pursued, no one was going to work harder than me.
That’s why I’m always telling my youngest daughter, Madison, who’s a heck of a volleyball player, that she’s got to outwork everyone because that’s not only going to translate into success in her volleyball career, but also her professional career when she moves on from the sport.
It may sound like a cliche, but you cannot underestimate the power of what a strong work ethic can do to your life, and I’m just so blessed to have discovered this at SMU by some tremendous leaders.
As I mentioned earlier, I want to remind these kids at the Black Excellence Brunch how fortunate they are to have the resources that they do, like the Black Alumni Association, for example.
I would’ve given anything to have an outlet like that when I was a student-athlete because connecting and networking outside of football is the piece I was missing.
I was able to figure it out and have a successful career outside of the sport, but if I would’ve had the opportunity to connect with former SMU alum who built successful lives for themselves when they retired from their respective sport, that would’ve been a game changer for me.
And that’s what I’m here to do for these kids.
A message I plan on sharing with them is, what’s your passion in life?
Mine was football, which was great, but you can’t play football forever, and the last thing I want is for them to wait until the last second to decide what they want to do with their life.
Don’t wait until you graduate or are forced out of football like me.
Whatever it is you’re passionate about, do everything you can to network, connect, and form relationships that will guide you and set you up for success in your chosen career path.
You can’t put a value on seeing someone that looks like you and is successful, and ultimately, that’s what makes me so thrilled to speak at the Black Excellence Brunch.
There weren’t many, if any, people in my neighborhood growing up that graduated from college. I can give these kids something that I never had, which is someone who looks just like them with a degree in hand that was able to carve out a successful career.
I want them to understand that they have the potential to accomplish anything in this life, and they should never listen to anyone who tells them otherwise.
Because if a young Black kid from Houston like me can make it and be successful, anyone can.
It doesn’t matter what color you are or where you come from. What matters is your belief in yourself and your willingness to put in the work.
This is what I will instill in them because that’s what’s been instilled in me.
To this day, I’m 64 years old, and I’m still looking to get better and improve each and every day.
Like I said, I’m so excited they’ll probably have to take the microphone out of my hand at the brunch because I could go on forever, but I’ll never apologize for the passion and enthusiasm I have for helping young people find their way in life.
If my message inspires them to embrace the hard work, be the best that they can be, and refuse to be average, I have no doubt in their ability to lead a life that will fulfill them and bring them joy.
Harvey Armstrong, Daniel Gresham, Avery Pennywell and Rob Seals are the panelists at the 2024 Black Excellence Brunch on February 24 at 11am (SOLD OUT). The panelists will be honored at the Women’s Basketball game that tips at 2 p.m. at Moody Coliseum (TICKETS)