Thank you very much for that introduction. Usually I just get introduced as “Ciara’s husband,” so that was cool. And let me start by answering the question that is on so many of your minds: Yes, she’s here too.
President Hanlon, members of the board of trustees, faculty, and honored guests—thank you for inviting me to join you today.
And most of all…congratulations to the Class of 2022!
My father, Harry Wilson, Dartmouth Class of 1977, had a favorite poem. It’s by Langston Hughes. Mother to Son. Maybe some of you know it.
He memorized this poem. He would recite it all the time to my brother, my sister and me. And he would do the voice, because you gotta do the voice. He’d say…
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
On one hand, graduates, you don’t need me—or even Langston Hughes—to tell you life isn’t always easy or fair. Today, you’re graduating from an incredible school. But these four years probably weren’t the typical college experience you’d imagined. Shutting down when the pandemic hit. Missing your sophomore summer. Figuring out what the heck a Zoom call is.
And then coming back here, not just bringing this campus back to life, but making it better and stronger and fairer than ever. Every graduating class has an achievement to celebrate. But you, Class of ’22, you did something really special. You all should be so proud of that.
And you didn’t you reach this moment alone. You had people: parents, family members, faculty, coaches, staff, friends, mentors. People who loved you enough to push you harder and further than you ever thought you could go.
They’re celebrating with you. And they deserve a BIG round of applause.
This is their special day, too.
And I’ll be honest. This is also a special day for me. Because in a very real way, Dartmouth made me the person I am today. I’m not a Dartmouth graduate myself, that’s for sure—nobody’s perfect—but three of my uncles are. Uncle John, Class of 1980. Uncle Richard, Class of 1985. And Uncle Ben, Class of 1973, who’s here today. Stand up, Uncle Ben.
Then there’s my dad. Harrison Benjamin Wilson III. “Harry.” Aka, “HB Productions.” Number 29. This year, along with his classmate, your president, Phil Hanlon, he would have celebrated his 45th reunion. And yet, I bet my dad’s Dartmouth experience wasn’t so different from yours. He explored the White Mountains with the Outing Club. Shivered his way across the Green during those long New Hampshire winters. Ate Mile High Apple Pie at Lou’s. (I’ve had that apple pie, by the way. It’s pretty darn good!) My dad majored in history—he did his independent study on busing and school integration—and spent late nights studying in Baker Library.
He never told me this DIRECTLY, but he also probably played a little pong. I bet he was good, too.
To say my dad was my role model would be an understatement. He played two sports in college, football and baseball, just like me. People thought he was too short to make an impact on the football field, so he walked onto the team and earned his spot. In fact, one of his teammates was your coach, Buddy Teevens, who I’m proud to call a mentor and a friend.
My dad loved to compete. He loved winning. Senior year, as a wide receiver, he set the single season record for yards and catches. He was All-Ivy and All-East, baby. A lot of what I do on Sundays looks like it comes naturally. But I learned it from my dad.
But what my dad taught me, the way his experience at Dartmouth transformed not just HIS life but MINE, goes way beyond the field.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not giving my dad all the credit. My mom, Tammy Wilson, she’s the best. She sacrificed daily—late nights working at the hospital, tons of prayer—she helped me reach my dreams. But standing here at my father’s alma mater, looking out over this place that helped him become the man he was…it’s impossible not to think about his legacy.
And LIVING WITH LEGACY is what I want to talk about today.
Now, legacy might seem like a strange topic for a commencement speech. I mean, this is your BEGINNING. You’re just starting out.
But graduates, if there’s one thing I hope to accomplish today, it’s to challenge you not to wait to think about what your legacy will be. Because legacy isn’t just something you leave behind. It’s something you build. Something you add to, every day.
My dad… he didn’t get as many days as he deserved. I miss him so much. But because he lived with legacy, he’s never really gone. I hear his voice all the time.
So as you leave this campus and build your own legacies, I want to tell you a few things my dad said to me. Things he knew, would one day… be part of his legacy. Things he still says to me, even now.
Let’s go back about 20 years. I’m in 10th grade, 14 or 15 years old, growing up in Richmond, Virginia. I’ve been playing high school football, and I’m pretty good. I know I’ve got skill. But having skill isn’t the same as having a dream.
Anyway, one week, my dad and I take a flight down to Peyton Manning Passing Academy, in Thibodaux, Louisiana. Real down south. Now, when we get there, we’re in this crummy, and I mean terrible, hotel. And the only room they have is right next to the laundry room, so you can hear the washing machines going all night. Smells kind of funky. Good times.
But my first day of camp, they pick twelve kids who get to work with the one and only Peyton Manning, and I get picked. Peyton tells me, [PEYTON VOICE] “You can really spin that ball for a little guy.”
That night, my dad takes me out to this hole-in-the-wall gumbo spot—Louisiana gumbo, it’s spicy—and we stay there for a while, because we don’t want to go back to the hotel. We’re talking. And he says:
“You know, you could play against the Manning brothers one day. You could play in the NFL.” And I was a confident kid, but I must have given him a look like, “Are you sure?” Because he looked right at me and said:
“Why not you?”
Class of ’22, I have a theory that we’re all born with gifts, with skills… but we’re not ALWAYS born with dreams. We need someone to plant that seed, light that spark. And my dad’s way of lighting the spark was a simple, three-word question.
I wanted to play two sports at NC State. People said, “There’s no way you can do that.” But I could hear my dad’s voice in my head: “Why not you?”
Graduating in three years: Why not you?
Staying at quarterback instead of switching positions: Why not you?
Building businesses: Why not you?
Playing in the NFL. Winning a Super Bowl. Why not you?
Seeing this hot, long-legged singer named Ciara for the first time in a music video, her little smirk of a smile: “C’mon, Russ. Why not you?”
Graduates, I’m not here to tell you every dream is going to come true for you. My dreams of being Like Mike, at my height, those didn’t come true. But I am here to tell you that every dream is going to come true for SOMEONE. And why shouldn’t that SOMEONE be you?
Asking yourself, “Why not you?” is part of what I mean by living with legacy. See, I’ve been lucky enough to meet all kinds of people who are living the life they always wanted. They have different goals. They reached those goals in different ways. But there’s one big thing they have in common: they all believed… it was possible.
Throughout your life, you’re going to have plenty of chances to give up on your dreams. I can’t tell you how many opportunities I’ve had to quit. But if you’ve got that voice in your head saying, “Why not you?” THAT helps keep you going.
AND it helps keep you WORKING. Because if you believe all things are POSSIBLE… well, that still means you’ve got to put in the work to make it happen. “WHY NOT YOU?” is a WINNER’S mentality. It’s about dreaming and delivering. It’s a question that doesn’t just make you confident – it makes you try harder.
My dad was right. Eleven years after he asked me that question in a restaurant in Louisiana, I played my first game against Peyton Manning. And it’s funny how life comes full circle, because now that I’m in Denver, Peyton’s working with me again, helping me get better every day.
Because I still have dreams. I want to win more Super Bowls, build more businesses, own an NFL team one day. And as I go out and pursue my dreams, I’ll keep hearing the same question over and over again.
Why… not… you?
Now as you can probably tell by this point, my dad was a pretty confident guy. But something I loved about him – something I know he worked hard to pass on to his children—is that he knew confidence and humility can go hand in hand.
I remember one time, my dad and I are driving back to Richmond from my grandfather’s house in Norfolk. It’s two A.M. I’m in the passenger’s seat, asleep. Knocked out cold. My mouth is hanging wide open, drool on the window. My dad wakes me up. Banging on my shoulder.
“Son, what does this mean to you? ‘There’s a king in every crowd.’”
Now, I’ve got to be honest, it took me a while to figure that one out. But it stuck with me. I have a wristband I wear every day. When I look down at it, I read those words my dad said to me. “A king in every crowd.”
So let me tell you what that means to me now.
First, I’m a Christian, so for me personally, a king or queen in every crowd means that whatever I do, God is watching. But no matter how or what you believe, that idea still matters. You should make EVERY decision, live EVERY moment, as though someone you care about is paying attention. My dad used to say, “You never know what scout or GM is watching.”
But then he’d say… “AND you never know what little kid is watching, too.” That’s the other part of a king or queen in every crowd. No matter where you go, no matter how big you get… the most important person in the room ISN’T you. It’s the person who you can serve.
See, there’s nothing wrong with ambition. Ambition can be a good thing—and I’d imagine, at a school like Dartmouth, we’ve got some ambitious people out here. But your ambition has to be in service of something. That’s what makes it worthwhile.
I think about this all the time. I want to win as many Super Bowls as possible. That’s important to me. But what matters even more… is whether I’m able to reach the next group of kids sitting in the passenger seat next to their moms or dads, talking about their dreams. Did I inspire them enough? The kids sitting in the 300 section, all the way in the nosebleeds. Can I inspire them enough? Can I show them that they can do anything?
No matter what you do after you leave this campus, your life, your legacy, will be defined not by the accomplishments you list on your resumé or the goals you achieve, but by the impact you have. My dad always used to say, “Son, it’s not the day you’re born, or the day you die, it’s the hashmark in between. How are the people around you affected? What are they gonna say about you?” More importantly, what do YOU want them to say about you.
That’s what living with legacy is all about.
Now, so far, the stories I’ve shared about me and my dad have been car ride stories. The good times. Going to camps and games, jamming out to the 70s and 80s CDs we made. Elton John. Earth Wind and Fire. Teddy Pendergrass. Those moments of pure joy—that’s part of legacy, for sure.
But this last story’s a little heavier.
It’s almost exactly twelve years ago. I go to visit my father in the hospital. As you know by now, my dad was a proud man. An athlete. A fighter. A dreamer. But now, after years of complications from diabetes, he doesn’t have much time left. He can barely speak.
He’s lying in that hospital bed. I sit next to him. Take his hand. And I start singing one of his favorite songs. Marvin Sapp. Never Would Have Made It.
Never would have made it
Never could have made it, without You
I would have lost it all
But now I see how You were there for me
And I can say.
Tears are coming down his face. Tears are coming down my face. And then he says to me—through all that pain, he says to me… “Just remember. Your name carries weight.”
It’s one of the last things he ever told me. “Your name carries weight.” And graduates, that’s the last piece of living with legacy that I want to talk about today.
Because what my dad was telling me in that moment was, “Act as though you matter.”
To MATTER can be a scary thing. Sometimes, it’s easier to pretend we DON’T matter—to go through life as though our actions, and inactions, carry no weight.
But they do. What you do—the little stuff and the big stuff—will have an impact. An impact that touches the people closest to you and ripples out further than you’ll ever realize. And part of your job, as a person on this earth, is to never forget that your name carries weight. You don’t have to live your life knowing all the answers. But you DO have to live your life trying to answer the right questions.
How many people can you help?
Are you able to love amid storms?
Are you able to care for people when they have nothing?
Can you act out of a sense of servitude, without asking for anything?
If you can do that, then all good things will come.
A few weeks after I sang to my dad in that hospital room, I was back there with my mom. My dad couldn’t speak, but he could hear us.
At one point, I leave the room. My mom and I talk for about half an hour. Before I come back in, I can hear his EKG from the hallway. Beep. Beep. Beep. I take one step into his room. I say, “Dad, I’m here.” And then all of a sudden… beeeeeeep. The line goes flat.
It was one of the hardest moments of my life. But I knew, even then, that it was the beginning, not the end. And I think my dad knew it too…LEGACY.
Class of 2022, life for you won’t be no crystal stair. There will be tacks in it, and splinters, and boards torn up, and places with no carpet on the floor. Bare. Your journey will be unpredictable.
But I KNOW it will be amazing.
And if you ask yourself, ‘Why not me?’ If you remember the king and queen in every crowd. If you carry yourself as though your name carries weight. Then you’ll live a life—and build a legacy—you can be proud of.
Text as prepared for delivery.