This time of the year sees thousands of young people in Rhode Island participating in a very important, time-honored ritual – marching across stages and platforms, in the presence of family and friends, to pick-up diplomas and degrees, thus graduating from high school or college.
This simple little stroll marks a significant milestone for our graduates. Having achieved one goal, they’re now ready to move on, to commence another exciting chapter in their lives.
And yes, graduations are also commencements; they open the door to the future. Our graduates have no idea, of course, what the future holds for them – where they’ll be, what they’ll be doing, and what they’ll be like a few years down the road. But we can point to some important virtues and values that will help them be successful, regardless of what life sends their way. And though there are many ways to approach the question of future success – and I suspect that commencement speakers covered most of them – let me share the following.
It comes from a little book, The Winners Manual for the Game of Life, written by Jim Tressel, head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes football team. There’s a personal connection here. I met Coach Tressel when we shared some time in Youngstown, Ohio – he as the head coach of the Youngstown State football team, and I as the local Catholic Bishop. Each year Coach Tressel invited me to lead a brief devotional service for his team at a pre-game meal. On reading the Winners Manual, I was delighted to learn that Coach Tressel quotes me in his book, referring to a presentation I gave to his team at one of the devotionals.
The Winners Manual for the Game of Life is based on the Winners Manual that Coach Tressel has meticulously developed over the years and shares with his team at the beginning of each season. While it’s obviously about football, it’s far more than that. It’s a collection of virtues and values, of inspirational stories and impressive real life examples, aimed at helping the players be champions on the field, but more importantly, equipping them to be successful and productive in life-after-football.
The coach points out that real success isn’t defined by winning games or even national championships. For this definition he turns to legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who says that success is the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming. An important virtue for sports to be sure, but for life in general!
In the Winners Manual, Coach Tressel suggests specific goals and purposes to motivate young athletes. While goals help define what we do, purpose defines “who we are as individuals and the kind of people we want to become.”
The first goal is family. The coach says, “Even though a player is going away to college, his family is still a major part of his purpose . . . We want to provide opportunities for our players to have time with their families, because that’s important in their lives.” (p. 20)
A good reminder for our graduates. Regardless of where they go in the future and what they do, they should always make their families a priority. Will they be faithful husbands and wives; will they be good and responsible parents; will they be caring and compassionate to their parents in their senior years?
The second element of purpose in Tressel’s book is spiritual. The coach writes, “We tell our players that they’re going to find opportunities to grow spiritually and learn more about belief systems and that they’ll be able to test their own belief systems. . . The faith aspect of a person’s life, because it affects everything else, is an integral part of his purpose.” (p. 20-21) And at the end of his book, the coach writes very movingly about the importance of life’s fundamentals – “knowing, loving and serving” God.
You’d expect a bishop to use such religious language, I guess, but coming from a football coach, it’s even more effective. The lesson is timely for graduates. Lest they get caught up in the rat race of the secular world, in the relentless pursuit of material success, it’s essential that they keep their priorities. Nothing should ever be more important than their faith, their relationship with God, our Creator and Judge. As Jesus said, “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but suffers the loss of his soul”? (Mt. 16: 26)
The third piece of purpose in life is giving. Tressel writes: “Here we talk about the fact that our players are blessed. Along with great blessing comes great responsibility to reach out and care and make a difference for others. The players have been blessed for a reason – not to hoard their talent but to use it for good.” (p. 21)
The desire to give, to share with others, is surely one of the most noble of human virtues, a value altogether consistent with the Christian Faith. Think about it – the happiest, most successful people you know are people who are generous – generous in their attitudes, their language, in helping others, in giving back to the Church and the community. Without a doubt, if our new graduates are to be happy, successful and respected, one of the most important habits they can develop is generosity.
Family, faith and generosity – beautiful virtues for our graduates to learn and live. Coach Tressel concludes: “May you be encouraged by these fundamentals and live a life of purpose. May God help you achieve goals you can’t even dream of right now. May you truly be a winner at the game of life.” (P. 268)