#TGW: Welcome Back
Four ultra-successful former student-athletes return to The Flats to share words of wisdom and encouragement with current student-athletes embarking on a new academic year
Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
The athletic calendar at Georgia Tech hasn't turned quite yet as Friday's 6 p.m. volleyball match vs. Auburn in O'Keefe Gymnasium will officially kick off the 2017-18 campaign, yet Yellow Jackets from every sport took in their first pep talks on Monday in a student-athlete "Welcome Back" evening in McCamish Pavilion.
Student-athlete advisor and mentor Derrick Moore emceed as current Jackets heard from former student-athletes Kofi Smith, Jaime Weston, Sam Bracken and Calvin Johnson before athletics director Todd Stansbury wrapped up the event.
Their messages were universal in at least one way. They all told the student-athletes that they'd better be ready to buckle up and be ready to take on adversity on and off the field.
Smith offered the first example when the former football player (1994-98) spoke of rising from a nearly devastating moment on the field. Mostly a special-teams standout, he finally earned a start at defensive back for the final game of his junior season, against Georgia.
In that game, "I was balling, having the game of my life up until the last 14 seconds when Corey Allen caught that touchdown pass on me . . . The problem is I knew the play was coming . . . I was scared that I was going to mess up, scared that I was going to get beat. I kept telling myself, `Don't get beat, don't get beat, don't mess up.' That which I was saying became my reality. I got beat."
After the loss, Smith brooded privately, secluding himself before a friend slid an uplifting note under his door and he called to mind what many Tech staff members -- including Stansbury as his freshman academic advisor -- had told him.
"In some shape or fashion, they all said, `You are more than a football player,' " Smith said before explaining that his seminal moment moved him from, "A fixed mindset where [he thought] `I failed therefore I am a failure,' to a growth mindset that takes something happening to you and you say, `How can I become better from this?' "
Smith bounced back to become a team captain as a senior. He graduated with a degree in industrial engineering in '99, earned an executive MBA from Tech in 2009, and in 2011 at age 35 he became the youngest CEO and president of the Atlanta Airlines Terminal Corporation, which manages facility operations at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
He is also currently pursuing an executive doctorate in business and is thankful for his time at Tech, where he said, "The Total Person helped me know that I'm more than a football player."
Weston graduated in 1994 with a degree in management and since 2003 has been working at the NFL, where she is currently senior vice president of marketing and fan strategy. Her best advice was for student-athletes to take advantage of all that Tech offers in terms of tutoring and more.
Redshirt junior defensive back Jalen Johnson said Monday evening was a welcome eye-opener and it was good, "Knowing that they went to Tech and worked hard, that they went through the trials and tribulations that we're going through . . . At Georgia Tech, people care for one another. Georgia Tech has every tool that you need to be successful."
Bracken's path through Tech was crooked.
Growing up near Las Vegas, he was abused as a child and got into drugs and alcohol. Football offered him a chance to step up and, after earning a scholarship with the Jackets, he saw substantial playing time in 1981 as a freshman outside linebacker.
Thinking he had a chance to start as a sophomore, Bracken was told by coaches that he would need to switch positions to make way for eventual All-America linebacker Pat Swilling. Then he severely injured both shoulders in spring practice and doctors told him he didn't need to play football any longer.
"I couldn't get my head around that. I said there has to be a way for me to play. He said, `You can have these radical reconstructive surgeries . . . six weeks apart,' " Bracken recalled. "I fell deep into depression. I think Todd was my roommate at the time . . . It was a freaking struggle . . . Fortunately, coach [Bill] Curry saw more in me than just a student-athlete."
Bracken had the surgeries, lost considerable weight, and was all but immobile for quite a time. Then, he began working his way back. Having played as a freshman for a team that beat Alabama and then lost 10 straight games, as a senior he started at right guard for the 1985 squad that went 9-2-1 with an All-American Bowl win over Michigan State.
After graduating with a degree in industrial management in 1986, Bracken earned an MBA from Brigham Young in '93, spent 11 years at FranklinCovey and rose to global director. He is now a motivational speaker and executive coach and the best-selling author of three books.
He wrote My Orange Duffle Bag: A Journey to Radical Change; Unwind: 7 Principles for a Stress-Free Life; and GUTS: Find Your Greatness, Beat the Odds, Live from Passion.
"By the time we were seniors, we did very, very well," he said. "I graduated with honors. I'm a contributing member of society, a successful author, I have a beautiful wife and family . . . "
Bracken's advice came in layers and, like Weston, he suggested student-athletes utilize the support systems offered by Georgia Tech and surround themselves with motivated and purposeful teammates and classmates.
"There are three things that make you life-ready: Love, failure, the huddle," he told the Jackets. "Do what you love and what loves you back . . . Failure is critical. You must fail to succeed . . . J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books were rejected numerous times. Now she's richer than the queen of England.
"Use the huddle to win. You draw on the complementary strengths of one another. Be mindful of your huddle."
Johnson hardly struggled on the field, earning first team All-ACC honors in each of his three seasons (2004-06) and being named unanimous first team All-American as a junior after catching 76 passes for 1,202 yards and 15 touchdowns.
He took it in the chops a few times in the classroom, though, and in addition to warning of that likelihood for current student-athletes, he spoke of the value of his faith and of surrounding himself with solid people, including Moore.
"Here at Tech, I learned very early it wasn't going to be easy. I had friends over at Georgia who were taking PE, getting easy A's. We're taking psych and calculus," Johnson remembered. "I was good calculus in high school, where I had a 3.67. I thought I was kind of smart . . . I got a danged D!
"But one thing I learned, that huddle, that collaboration . . . guys would just get together, put those minds together and next thing you know we're getting Cs and then Bs."
Much as Smith had earlier told student-athletes, Johnson suggested that it is important in this day and age of social media for them to be mindful of how they present themselves.
"Be conscious of yourself and how you present yourself at all times," Johnson said. "Like Kofi said, you're a brand, you're a business now. Be smart about the things that you're putting out there that represent you."
Stansbury also played football for Tech under Curry in the early 1980s, only to have his career derailed by injuries. He later worked in the athletic association, first as an academic advisor and then in administration.
He's lived the hard life on The Flats and he's proud to talk about it. He's even more proud of what it produces in student-athletes.
"This place will knock you down and it's up to you to get back up. That is the gift that Georgia Tech will give you," he told student-athletes. "At Georgia Tech we have one experience . . . work, work, work. I got back up and found what I was made of.
"That's the lesson that you'll learn here and that's the value of a Georgia Tech education. Forty-two percent of all graduates are millionaires. That's unbelievable . . . We have no peers . . . We promise we are going to push you to be more than you even think possible."
Senior women's basketball player Zaire O'Neil left McCamish smiling, emboldened and ready for her final spin on The Flats.
"It's always special to hear from people who've been here because they've been in our shoes," he said. "It's harder to take information from people who are talking from the outside in. These people have fought through the struggles that we're going through.
"You might have that struggle getting up, but once you get up you know you can make it through anything. Like [Jaime Weston] was saying, she was on her last straw. Everything is a hard major at Georgia Tech and I feel like that puts us on a different level academically and athletically."