The immense respect Fred VanVleet's hometown has for him is clear from an unusual request he received earlier this spring.
Administrators at Auburn High School in Rockford, Ill., asked VanVleet to speak at commencement on May 29 even though the Wichita State sophomore was only two years removed from donning a cap and gown for his own high school graduation.
VanVleet's seven-minute speech to the 350 graduating seniors at his alma mater was both polished and inspirational.
Through the prism of his own quest to earn a basketball scholarship so that his parents didn't have to pay to send him to college, VanVleet emphasized that the graduates could achieve their own dreams if they too sacrificed and gave extra effort. He also urged graduates to do something positive with their lives to help reshape Rockford's image.
"I want to challenge everyone in here to not let this day be a peak of your life. When you look back on your life, don’t let this graduation day be the high-water mark of your life. I want you to go out after this and use this as a platform to continue doing bigger things.
"They're always telling us, 'Rockford is a miserable place to live. There's not a lot of talent coming out of Rockford." Blah, blah, blah. You know the rest of the story. I look at it like there's only two things you can do about it. You can live up to it and make it worse or you can change it and make it better. I'm on my way to making it better myself, and I'm going to need you guys' help to do that as well."
VanVleet's own story makes it clear he believes what he said.
Driven by his mother and stepdad to avoid the drugs, violence and gang life prevalent in Rockford, VanVleet avoided parties and nightlife and and instead channeled his energy and passion into basketball. Daily 6 a.m. workouts before school helped him earn a scholarship from Wichita State, where he has helped lead the Shockers to a Final Four and an unbeaten regular season in two years with the program.
Now VanVleet is a potential preseason All-American as a junior and he is being asked to be a role model to kids who were his peers only two years ago. Judging from both his life story and his speech, administrators at Auburn High School should be proud of their decision.
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- Fred VanVleet