Like many individuals who have grown up in inner cities across the country, I was surrounded by violent crime and harsh conditions growing up.
I had a choice to make.
I could become a product of my environment and follow the same path that so many of my family and friends did, or I could find a way out.
The decision, for me, was easy.
After the passing of my father when I was just 11 years old, football became an outlet.
While I never officially had hopes and dreams of taking this sport to the highest level of competition, I thought maybe, just maybe, this could be my way out.
When it was time for my high school career to begin, I took the first steps in honoring that decision.
Each and every morning, I hopped on a bus and rode from my home in south inner-city Dallas all the way north to Hillcrest High School. A school with endless opportunities, a solid football program, and a way for me to gain exposure.
One of the schools that began to express interest early on was SMU.
At the time, I had a lot of close friends who were already enrolled and were participating in the football workouts at SMU.
I knew of the winning culture and traditions that were being built and wanted to be a major part of that in the coming years.
Ultimately, with success on the horizon and SMU being just a short drive from my mother’s house, the decision was simple once I had the opportunity to join the Mustangs.
Everything I dreamed of and more came true in those years at SMU.
I graduated and accomplished more in those days than I could have ever dreamed of.
The future, at that time, however, was largely unknown. While football had been my avenue out of the inner city, my dream was always to return and give back to that community.
I wanted to be a police officer and serve and protect a community that was, undoubtedly, in desperate need.
But one day, senior year at SMU, I got a call from USFL representative.
They were looking to draft me.
I was very excited and ready to sign immediately.
A close friend of mine, however, who represented me at the time, advised that we wait.
The NFL draft was upon us, and he thought that maybe, just maybe, I had a shot at the ‘big’ league, too.
And just as he predicted, I was invited to the combine in 1984 and, subsequently, was drafted in the fourth round, 96th overall, by the Cleveland Browns.
At that moment, I remember feeling every single emotion possible.
I was honored, grateful, overjoyed, and above all else, determined.
During my first season in the NFL, I learned a lot about football, but quite honestly, learned an even greater deal about myself as a person.
I began studying Jesus, his journey, and all of the ways in which he has impacted humanity. During that trek of learning, I remember a particularly defining moment that changed my life forever.
It was just a typical day at the training facility where I had run into a good friend of mine. The words that he uttered to me in the midst of our conversation, however, were far from ordinary.
He told me, “Rickey, in this league, you have to prepare to leave before you even arrive.”
Those words hit me like a ton of bricks.
At that moment, I realized I had absolutely no plan for what my life after the NFL would look like.
I had no sense of direction, no goals or aspirations, and most definitely no set agenda.
I ambitiously continued studying and learning more about our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and made it my sole mission to spread the good news of his promise to the entire world.
After my six-year career in the NFL came to a close, I continued doing just that.
I graduated from seminary school and pastored for 20 years in a variety of church settings.
I had found my calling, but still, I wanted to do more.
I longed to have an even greater impact on the world as a whole.
Today, I now have the unique opportunity to impact world leaders across the globe.
I travel all over the world and teach leaders how to lift others up and, all the while, continue spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.
As I take a moment to look back on my journey and what got me to where I am today, I can’t help but feel an incredible sense of pride, humility, and overall gratitude.
In everything that I chose to do in life, I made it a point to be excellent at it and to give my very best in order to reach my full potential.
In essence, to me, that is exactly what Black Excellence is.
It’s putting your best foot forward each and every day and doing all that we possibly can to honor the legacies of those heroes who came before us.
I think of icons like Jackie Robinson and the sacrifices he made to allow athletes of my generation an opportunity to not only play the game but to be in the positions that we are in today.
We must honor that legacy and stand upon the shoulders of these trailblazers and ensure that we, too, do whatever it takes to invest in the next generation of young, black Americans.
In my everyday life, I do all that I can to mentor and be that shoulder for which this next group of young people can stand as they embark on their journeys ahead.
As I prepare for the Black Excellence Brunch at SMU, my goal is to give back. Give back to a community that provided me with so many life-changing opportunities.
For me, personally, if I can impact just one person in that room, provide an ounce of encouragement, or inspire just one individual to go out and leave their mark on the world, my mission will be accomplished.
After all, this university is who I ultimately credit with my life’s successes.
Including, but surely not limited to, helping me find a way out.
The 2023 SMU Black Excellence Brunch is in the Miller Boulevard Ballroom on Sunday, February 19 at 11 a.m. The panelists are Rickey Bolden ’87, Alisha Filmore ’13, James T. Mobley ’81 and Everett Ray ’21.
For more information or to register, click here.