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It was on this day six years ago that I gave my first motivational speech. The athletic coordinator at Empire Academy had chosen me to lead the first pep rally of the school year, and even now, a whole six years later, I still remember that evening like it was yesterday; I’d taken the microphone from the principal, took a deep breath, and looked out into the crowd. While most people would have been nervous had they been in my position, I’d been excited to speak to all of the students. I’d been there to motivate all that sat before me, regardless of their grade, age, or gender. I hadn’t cared about impressing the seniors or giving the freshmen and sophomores someone to admire. I’d been – and still am – well-known at Empire Academy because of the numerous sports and clubs that I’d participated in during my four years there, and it had been obvious to both the students and the faculty alike that I’d loved that school and its extracurricular activities.
I’d smiled at the crowd as I began to speak, unfazed by the bright ceiling lights and mass of teenagers in front of me. “Thank you for coming down here tonight,” I’d said, “but I’ve got something to tell all of you. We athletes need your help to win this year’s seasons. Believe me when I say that we do these things for all of you; we love putting up a great game for everyone to watch, but if the teams have no supporters we won’t have the motivation we need to win. We love the school and we love playing sports, and we especially love bringing home trophies for the teachers to put out in the halls – but without a reason to play there’s no reason to win.
“I say the words ‘bringing home’ because I truly consider this school my home. I feel more comfortable here than I do in my own house, and that’s because I value and cherish every single one of your presences. This is my school, and every Empire student is a part of my family – and from what I’ve learned over the years, a family supports one another. Some of you may think this is just an athlete’s school, but I assure you that it isn’t; no matter what clique you may belong to, this is your school, too. We all have to do our part if we want our teams to bring home trophies this season. Every student that’s on one of Empire’s teams is playing because they love the game and they love giving the teachers and the students a reason to collaborate for a common cause – winning. Competition is a major part of athletics, and yes, we all want to win – but we can’t do it without your help. I don’t care if you’re a nerd or a band geek or an art major, or whatever other stereotype society might have labeled you as being; whether you like it or not you’re an Eagle. Season have started, and I’m sure I speak for everybody whose name is on a roster when I say that we want you all in the bleachers at our games, cheering and screaming as loud as you can. Like I’ve already said, we’re doing this for you, not for us. We’re trying to give each and every student here a reason to be proud of their school and of the students in it. The time starts now! From personal experience I know that the teams dedicate hours after school each day to improving their skills, but we may as well throw all those hours of practice out the window if we don’t have anyone to watch us. We’re not asking you to understand the game or get down and dirty with us; we’re asking you to support us and give us a reason to bring home the gold. We have to show the other schools in the league that we Empire students have more school spirit than they do!”
The crowd’s cheers were vehement, and as I waited for the clapping to cease I loosened my grip on the microphone and made eye contact with what seemed like every person that sat on the gymnasium’s bleachers. I’d gotten myself hyped, but with my steady voice and encouraging smile in between sentences you’d never have known it.
“You guys may think I’m nothing but a dumb jock, and maybe you’re right. You can call me whatever you’d like, but I don’t care. I have pride in myself, in my school, and in the students that make up Empire Academy. I have confidence in the abilities of my teammates and in the skill of our coaches. I parade around the school grounds in an eagle costume and joke around with all of you during the day because I love this school and I love being an Eagle.
“I’ve heard people say that high school is the best four years of a person’s life. If that’s the case I want to be able to look back on these years without any regrets when I graduate in 2008. I don’t want to be weighed down with what ifs or thoughts of what could have been. When I look back on my years at Empire on graduation day I want to remember nothing but victories and accomplishments. All of this, though, from the success to the school spirit to the making of positive memories, starts with everyone sitting on the bleachers tonight; we want you to be able to celebrate with us at the end of the seasons, but we also want you to be there with us, supporting us and cheering us on. Will you?”
The walls of the gym began to vibrate with the sound of freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors cheering, clapping, and screaming once I’d stopped talking. I’d grinned, raised the microphone to my lips yet again, and said: “look, we all know that even after twelve years of sitting though English class I still can’t spell anything except my own name, so what I need you guys to do for me is spell out the name of our school mascot. I know that ‘eagle’ starts with the letter E, but how does the rest go?”
As the students in the bleachers spelled out E-A-G-L-E in a beat only high school students could create, I couldn’t help but smile at the intensity in my classmates’ voices. The school film director had been aiming his video camera at me, and so I’d smiled at him, proud that I’d been able to give such a coherent and moving speech.
“Who are we?” I’d asked, looking at the students again. “What team’s going to bring home gold trophies this year?”
“The Eagles!” the crowd had answered.
“What did you say?” I’d prodded. The coaches and I had all been looking for the same answer, the one that would really be the grand finale to the pep rally.
“THE EAGLES!” the students had hollered, some cupping their mouths with their hands and others pounding their fists against the wooden bleachers.
I’d smiled widely at the crowd and said: “that was great, guys. I love the sound the sound of eagles in the evening.” Glancing at the clock on the wall above the bleachers, I’d added: “I’m gonna hand the mike over to the principal in a minute so he can talk, but before I do that I just want to thank all of you again for coming to this rally on behalf of the teams. I hope I see you all at the next game!”
On that note, the students erupted in cheers and yelled so loudly I’d thought my ears might pop. They hadn’t, though, and as I handed the microphone over to the principal, I gave the crowd a thumbs-up and walked out of the gym. I’d waited in the hallway a minute or so for my teammates to join me, and when they did a smile that stretched from ear to ear appeared on my face.
“Damn, Joey,” Greg Lucas, one of my best friends back then who’d doubled as the starting third baseman for Empire’s baseball team, had said. “For someone who’s failed English class every year since third grade you sure can give an amazing pep talk.”
“You don’t have to be smart to encourage people,” I’d replied. “Inspiration comes from within yourself and from the people around you. If you can get a positive message across, whether it’s to yourself, your teammates, or the entire student body, motivation will follow.”
“Well,” the athletes say, “good job, Joey. I think you’ve made your message crystal clear. We’re sure to have at least half of that crowd at our games from now on. They love us!”
I’d thanked my teammates and laughed. “It’s impossible not to love us. We’re funny, good-looking, athletic…”
“Conceited…” Dean Kearney had added, making us all laugh.
After Dean’s comment, we’d left the school in a crowd of our own, laughing and talking amongst ourselves. Like I had said in my speech, we were all Eagles – but unlike real predator birds, we traveled together.