That was the message former NFL offensive lineman turned motivational speaker Shawn Harper had for an audience of young people Wednesday at the Glacier Valley Rotary Club’s annual Pillars of America speakers series.
Harper told his personal story of growing up poor with a single mom in Columbus, Ohio, where he overcame abuse, learning disabilities, and other people’s doubts about whether he could go to college and play professional football.
“So, I could never become wealthy, because in my mind I’m seeing poverty. I could never have success, because all I’m seeing is myself failing from the first grade,” Harper said. “My identity was imprinted with destruction.”
Instead of accepting that, Harper says he developed some keys to achieving success. They include having a dream and chasing it; having the vision to spot obstacles; and making the right choices.
He says the right choices led him to playing football at junior college and Indiana University, which he graduated from in 1992. His professional career ultimately included stops in the NFL and NFL Europe.
He says one of the most important choices a young person can make is the choice to not do drugs.
“My best friend right now is doing 25 years flat time. Another one is dead,” he said. “Because of drugs, because of choices. You’re not born winners and losers, you’re born choosers.”
The 6 foot 4 inch, 320 pound former lineman invited 14-year-old Cody Weldon onto the stage to demonstrate how drugs can weigh a person down. Harper lifted Weldon onto his shoulders, and held him there while he talked, until he grew tired.
Weldon – a student at Floyd Dryden Middle School – says he met Harper at a pre-talk reception, where the speaker asked him to be part of the speech. He says he was a little nervous at first, but quickly got over it.
“I’m a little bit shy,” Weldon admits. “But I went up I guess, and it wasn’t that bad. It was pretty fun.”
Weldon says he liked Harper’s message and thinks it will change how he makes choices in the future.
“Probably going to try a little bit harder at some of the things I do,” he said. “Probably will get on top of some things that I’ve procrastinated over. Overall, just probably going to make my life a little bit better.”
Hundreds of Juneau middle and high school students attend the Pillars of America series every year. Students from the Hoonah School District are scheduled to attend this year thanks to a grant from the Rotary club and Sealaska Corporation. However, the Hoonah students missed Harper’s talk after getting weathered out of Capital City Wednesday morning.