I’m from a humble background, my first thoughts about future and potential came from looking around and seeing so much unrecognized talent. It seemed that nobody was who they wanted to be, people were going to jobs they didn’t want, but had to take because of limited options. I remember thinking at 6 years old that I needed to do something to help my family. The thought, the dream, wasn’t materialistic it was more about levels of fulfillment and happiness. The unrealized talent and unfulfilled dreams that I observed in my social circles created a lot of unhappy people. I started saying to myself, 'how can I not be one of those people at 40 doing what they don’t want to do?' With my parents' guidance, I stuck to the cliches-- I showed up on time, I worked hard, I never gave up. I was one of those kids who never got caught up in athletics like other people did because I knew at a young age that it was a short lived thing. So the whole time I was growing up, I wasn’t thinking about riches, I was thinking about potential and opportunities. I wanted to have as many opportunities as possible when I was an adult so that I would not have unrealized talent. Preparing yourself and creating choices in life is the equivalent to being in great shape for football, it allows you to be ready when people come to tackle you, you can recognize the challenge, you can make great moves and you can be successful.
I knew I didn’t want to waste the eight hours a day I spent in school, I had to be there, so I decided to make the best of it. I was often the class clown but I was always a great student. My mom was colorful, full of personality, smart—but she gave up her limitless opportunities when she had my sister at 17 and me at 19, in order to raise us. My dad is quiet and stands on his principals, period. He is a believer in what’s right is right and what is wrong is wrong. He always advised us to stick to the script and do the right thing. It was a blessing to have two parents in my home, it did wonders for my self-esteem and my outlook on life. Every year my self-confidence and outlook on life would build and grow into something bigger under the careful watch of my parents.
The first and most important question I ever answered was about identity. One of the biggest challenges that young people face is deciding what they want to do and who they want to be. If you can't figure that out, you are so vulnerable to the world. We’ve got to instill an identity in a child, by letting them know what their name is. One of my teachers and my grandmother both challenged me to do this exercise, to learn my name. They told me to write down my name, and then think of three things that you are and write those down beneath your name. I wrote down Marcellus, smart, athletic, nice & funny. They told me that was my name, my identity. They told me whenever someone calls you by your name you respond and engage with them. But whenever anyone called you outside of your name, you ignore them. So when local drug dealers were acting like I was soft and a punk for not participating, I looked at my list and I didn’t see those words, so I didn’t own them. If someone assumed or treated me as if I were stupid, I looked on the list and didn't see that word, that identity, so I refused to own it as well.
If kids internalize the idea that whoever I am, that’s who I’m going to be; that I can decide who I am and not let other's change my view of myself. Tell the kids to think about themselves and put themselves in the right position and by doing that you accrue circumstances and people that can help you on your journey. Sometimes I didn’t want to go to practice just like my friends, but I knew it was part of my path because I was smart and missing practice was dumb, so I went to practice in order to be the Marcellus that I said I was going to be.
I look back now at where I grew up, my apartment, my elementary school, we were poorer than I thought. I just didn’t know any better as a child. I couldn't use my circumstances as a crutch because I had great people around me and I payed attention to the great people and not the small apartment or mean streets. There are good people everywhere, even if it’s a bad environment, there are other people there with positive missions and plans. There were always teachers available to help me.
I was both a nerd and an athlete from the beginning. But I readily admit that I started to feel better about myself at an earlier age as an athlete than I did as a student. In school, you were told that it was going to be a long path, which is true, but hard for a young person to process and become self-driven. But you could figure out who was the best in sports right away. Who is the smartest at any given point in school? We don’t know. Who’s the fastest? We can go outside right now on the playground and figure that out. In the classroom you are told to invest in yourself and one day it will all blossom and flourish and bear fruit. I did academic competitions throughout high school, but every single weekend I would get medals, trophies, my name in the paper, all for playing football and running track. You don't get that reinforcement in the classroom, and then we wonder why millions of kids see sports as the way to go!
I go to little league games and events and it is clear that kids learn what they see, not what they hear. They see their parents wake up two hours before the game to pack lunches and put on team colors and pin their picture on their chest. They see you drive far away to cheer for them running up and down a field or court. They gladly go to Diary Queen or pizza to celebrate their victory or console a loss. But they also see that you don’t come to parent/teacher conferences with that same enthusiasm or preparation or maybe not at all. They see that you don't volunteer at the school or drive carpool for the spelling bee. The dynamic between the two cultures, sports and education, shows the level of importance placed on each one, and our kids are hearing us loud and clear. Some of these parents are just too young, lets keep it real. And other parents are distracted by the vision of their child making millions at age 20 verses student loans and Phd’s that will all pay off at age 40 years. That gamble that parents are taking is why many kids don’t care about school work and focus on sports. And its up to us as adults, coaches, teachers, role models and parents to shift that message.
I always encourage young people to work on multiple things, be a great athlete and a great student. I tell them, if you have something in both hands, a football in one and a book in the other, when you bring them together you can really make some noise. But if you only have something in one hand, no matter how hard you wave that around, you can’t make too much noise. We, the grown ups, have to market school the way we market sports. We need to make school cool, we need someone who represents education to have some swagger.
Young people, your environment is asking you a question, athlete or scholar? Without balance, you are on a one lane road. It's unfortunate because you can be well rounded. Coolness is true ownership. You can make anything cool if you believe it and make it cool. You’ve got to own your stuff. If it's your car and it's missing rims, so what, it's yours, own it! I had a car in college with no front end and a radio with constant static, but I owned it.
There are so many lessons I could share with young people, but here are a few key ones. I lost the school spelling bee in elementary school for not capitalizing the word ‘Queen’. I was furious at the time, but it taught me afterwards to pay attention to details. Paying attention to details meant that I made a decision that nothing would get by me again. In middle school, I didn’t like to do homework, but I loved the Transformers cartoon. One day I made up a trick for myself. My time was limited because of practices, so I told myself that I couldn’t watch the Transformers until I had done at least 30 minutes of homework. I stuck to that script, therefore I learned the work habit of studying. At Columbia University in New York City and I learned that perception is reality. I was one dimensional when it came to respecting and collaborating with others, and I was exposed to so many different types of people, different styles, and thoughts in college. I learned that there are so many ways to the top of the mountain. We’ve all got different terrains and different elements, different struggles and challenges, but all roads can lead to the mountaintop.
I think being a 'Smart Guy' goes beyond book smarts. It's not the most difficult thing to learn the material and regurgitate it for the test on Friday. A true 'Smart Guy' knows about life smarts. I've fallen down many times. People try so hard not to fall down, but the key is to learn how to get up. Being smart is about getting up over and over again. A coach once told me that more teams lose games for theirselfs than their oponents accutaly beat them. Other people don't take your success away, most of the time you lose it by not getting back up off the ground. Those reminders are so critical to someone who is trying to become successful. Never get psyched out in life, be your own first and biggest cheerleader as soon as they say 'go' and never stop until you've accomplished your goals.
The first thing I want young people who are reading this to remember is you’ve got to stay in the race. Never, ever stop, that is rule number one. And whatever you want to be, fake it to you make it. Once you have your name, that identity, you will know what the right things and the wrong things are for you, and you can apply yourself more to the right things. Take it day by day, let life add it up, and focus on doing what you need to do and doing the most you can every day.
I wish for all that you choose to make your dreams a reality.
You can learn more about Marcellus' popular radio talk show, Max and Marcellus, at ESPN Radio Max & Marcellus Show