Calling the opportunity “truly awesome,” University of Michigan alum and nine-time Pro Bowler Charles Woodson gave the commencement address to the 7,000 members of Michigan’s Class of 2018 over the weekend.
An All-American and Heisman Trophy winner with the Wolverines, Woodson said he’d been asked to give the commencement speech once before, by a different school, but declined in part because he wasn’t ready and in part because he was holding out hope that his school would ask him someday.
At the beginning of is address, Woodson highlighted why he chose Michigan, and one of the reasons was because of seeing fellow Wolverines standout Desmond Howard; he noted the many similarities between himself and Howard, and there were many.
He said “it hurts my heart” that members of the graduating class didn’t get to experience a football win over “You Know Who,” Michigan’s fierce rival, Ohio State (the Buckeyes have won the last six meetings), but promised that in 212 days Michigan would go into Columbus and beat Ohio State.
But midway through, Woodson got to the crux of his message: giving and receiving help. He told a story from his childhood to illustrate his point.
“When I was born, I was born with club feet; my feet were growing inward,” Woodson said. “My mother, she noticed, took me to the doctor, and that was the diagnosis. The doctor let us know as long as we take care of it now, it won’t be a problem. We caught it early, so he’ll be fine. But I had to wear these corrective shoes that had my feet fixed outward, and there was a bar in between those two shoes, so you can imagine, I couldn’t move around very well.
“So my brother tells me that when we’d be at home, him and my sister running around, playing, I’d be sitting there, crying, because I couldn’t get up, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t join them. So what he would do is he would begin to come, grab me and he would drag me around the house, just to be around my brother and my sister. But I was always crying, always fussing …
“That continued for some time, and he said one day, when he came to grab me, he saw a smile on my face. So I’m thinking, in my tiny little brain, I had to think to myself, you know what: my brother is actually helping me. It’s not about me not being able to get up and move around by myself, I have somebody here that is willing to help me get where I need to go. Just imagine for my brother, who was grabbing me all of these times and I’m crying and fussing; it’s a hassle. But now he has someone that’s willing to help him help me.
“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 that’s sitting there crying, mad about not being able to do something or wanting to do something and figuring that you need to do it by yourself but you’re not able to do it; you need a helping hand.
“And then you’re going to be that older brother, who’s going to continue to reach down and try to reach out to you and try to help, and then finally one day you’re going to reach down and you’re going to see that smile, and it’s going to be a feeling like you’ll never forget, the fact that you’ve been able to help someone get on their feet.”
Woodson implored the audience to remember some of the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to look at others not as black, white, Asian, Democrat or Republican, gay or straight.
“When you look around, I just want you to simply see human beings. Nothing more, nothing less. And I guarantee you, if you can begin to see people that way, just as human beings, you’ll begin to see them a little bit different … “
“So today, I’m asking you, I’m begging you, do not carry the hate forward. My wife is begging you, don’t carry the hate forward. My two boys who have to grow up in this world are begging you, don’t carry the hate forward. But carry forward that spirit of helping others.”
Woodson, now 41 years old and an NFL analyst on ESPN among other things, received an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Michigan.
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