Mr. Tiki Barber
Valedictory Address, University of Virginia
May 15, 2004
I’m living in New York where our winters last until April. It’s a refreshing, I guess, heat wave that you get down here on graduation weekends. I know you guys are sweating, but hang in there. I won’t be too long. When the trustees of this class asked me to come back and speak, I thought maybe it was for one of three reasons. They still remember that I was on the team that was the first in the ACC to beat Florida State or, two, since I’ve graduated, I’ve stayed involved and been on the Young Alumni Council and am now on the Annual Giving Advisory Board. But the third one I think is what really matters, which is that when my brother and I graduated, we significantly raised the average starting salary of our class. That means a lot, especially with annual giving around the corner.
I first want to thank a couple of people for being here. One, whom I’m sure most of you know if you’ve followed Virginia football, and I’m glad that he’s here and I want to congratulate him for being inducted this year into the College Football Hall of Fame. My head coach when I was here, George Welsh. George and I had a lot of great wins and a lot of great times. We combated at times. I tell the story when we yelled at each other on the football field and he kicked me off, and I realized that he was just looking out for my best interests and he wanted me to be the best player that I could be. I owe a great deal of what I’ve done as a professional to Coach Welsh, so I appreciate that.
The second person is someone who’s very very close to me - my mother, even though we have to forgive her, she’s a Hokie. I think I’ve converted her to a Wahoo over the last few years, probably about year three I think we got her to be a Wahoo, but she has been my inspiration for my life. She’s shown me what it takes to succeed in difficult situations as a single mother raising two knucklehead kids. We came out all right, and I really thank you for being here, Mom.
I always tell stories about when my brother and I were growing up and how we couldn’t play sports unless my mom forced us to do our homework. Now that we’ve made it in the NFL, I think about some of the things and some of the questions that we all have in life that focus us. And the five questions I come up with are things you probably learned in elementary school. They’re the five questions of reading comprehension. You know, that’s a long way to think back for some of you, but the five questions of reading comprehension were who, what, why, how and when. Now two of those, for most people, are easy. Who is quite obviously all of you, especially you students who now are graduating students, as you go forth in your life. When is easy as well, because for you graduating students, it’s right now. You have a lot of challenges in front of you, but this is what you’ve been preparing for your whole life.
And then you get to the harder questions - the what, and this is one that I think a lot of people struggle with. What do you want to do when you leave school? I’ve been playing football for eight years now, and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Football’s a sport, but I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up and I’m sure some of you have those same questions. What it all boils down to is choice. What choices are you going to make in your life, but I think more important is what are going to be the consequences of those choices? It’s not always easy to make decisions in life, but you have a great background in going to the University of Virginia. You have great peers. You have great parents who are proud of you, and they’re your support system when you go through tough times and make tough decisions.
The second of the harder questions is why and in my opinion this is the most important one. This is your internal reason for doing things. It’s not what you tell other people; it’s what you tell yourself. When I was a second year in the NFL I didn’t have much success as a football player. I couldn’t play well. I was injured a lot and I was hurting a lot and I had to find a focus. So a teammate of mine and I started running this hill out in northern New Jersey and it was a brutal hill. It was two and a half miles uphill. It was rocky terrain. We’d go out there in late February when it’s three degrees outside and there’s snow on the ground and it’s dark and there’s no reason to be there other than to push ourselves. I developed my why then. My why was I don’t want to be average. I want to be better than average. I tell myself as I’m running this hill the reason I’m doing this is because no one else is doing it and over those long, long mornings, I developed a passion for what I do. And I would encourage all of you, as you make choices to figure out what you want to do, to find your passion because that's something you’ll enjoy. That’s something you’ll love doing for the rest of your life and it’s not always easy. You have to try some certain things and you may fail, as we all do, but eventually you will succeed and when you do find that passion, you’ll be better for doing it.
The last question of the five is how and in my opinion, this is the easiest one because you all know how to be successful. You’ve graduated from the University of Virginia. You’ve learned many things from race relations to finances to living on your own, to having to wash your own clothes, to cook your own meals. That’s what college does for you. And as you go into your regular lives, just remember those things. It takes hard work. It takes dedication. It takes a commitment. I think most importantly it takes sacrifice though, because sacrifice, when you work really hard at something, justifies what you’re doing. When you sweat and you toil, those things make it justifiable what you’re doing.
Much has been said about our war against terrorism. A few months ago, maybe not even a month ago, one of my brothers, so to say, was killed in Iraq - Pat Tillman, whom I only knew from playing but he was a football player and by playing against him I felt like he was one of me. He gave up his ultimate sacrifice, his life for his country, and there have been many definitions of what he is, but I think the biggest one is that he’s a hero. Since this has all happened, there have been many questions about the word hero. I looked it up in the dictionary. There are a few definitions. One is a very big sandwich, but that's not what I’m talking about.
Another one, and this one I think applies to Pat, is someone who displays courage, nobility, and strength in the face of opposition. That’s clearly what our men in uniform are doing - displaying courage, nobility, and strength. But another definition that I think is more applicable to most of us is someone who fights for a cause. You guys will work very hard to be successful in your life, but I think somewhere along the line you’ll find out there’s a greater calling for you. There are so many ills in our society, whether it’s poverty, AIDs, illiteracy, drug abuse, domestic violence, or in some subtle and not so subtle ways, racism. These are not something you can turn away from. You have three choices generally. You can turn a blind eye; you can lend your support from arm’s length; or you can embrace it with conviction and that’s what I encourage all of you to do. The principles and the ideals that you use to be successful in business are the exact same ones that you can use to help a starving family, the same ones that can provide support for someone afflicted with a disease. It’s the same inspiration that will give a battered woman the strength to walk out and fight for her life.
When I think about what you have the opportunity to do with your lives I’m excited for you, because as you go forward in life you’ll be presented with many challenges, personal choices, personal decisions to make. We live in a world where there are challenges in everything that we do, but it’s your opportunity to make a difference.
My advice to all of you is to follow your passion and hold on to it with everything that you’ve got. As you climb that mountaintop and as you finally get to that peak, I would encourage you to look inside yourself, find a greater calling, and in the words of one of America’s great scribes and philosophers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, believe that every man is a hero and an oracle to somebody.
Thank you very much. Congratulations and good luck with all that you do.