To the students at Ginn Academy,
Several years ago, I looked up the percentage of foster kids who receive a bachelor’s degree. It’s less than two percent. And if you factor in me being an African-American male, it is even lower. I, like many of you, have had the odds stacked against me in life.
But I know now, to beat those odds, all you have to do is listen.
You probably think that I don’t know about your problems or that I couldn’t possibly understand your specific challenges. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s not. But like you, I certainly didn’t have it easy.
I don’t remember much of my early childhood – only that there was a lot of moving around. My mother battled drug addiction, and I never met my biological father. He passed away when I was a baby. While I initially lived with my mom, I was taken away from her, and I started going into group homes and foster care.
Group homes felt somewhat institutionalized. We ate buffet-style, with people putting food on our plates as we moved down the line. For clothes, they took us to a huge room where we picked out whatever we wanted to wear that day. I did not have clothes of my own.
On weekends, I would often go to different people’s houses. I think they were inquiring about adopting my little brother and me, but at the time, I just thought we were going to my friends’ houses for the weekend.
At first, I didn’t feel any type of way about my situation. I thought bouncing around and living with different people was normal because that was all I knew.
Then, one Thanksgiving, when I was eight years old, my friend invited me to spend the holiday with his family. He had a mom, a dad, a brother, and a sister.
As I walked into their house, I remember thinking, “Dang, this is crazy!”
They had a big house, a bunch of game systems, and all the kids played sports. Both parents lived in the house and cooked a lot of food. Everybody was close-knit. It was a family environment, which was a really good feeling. That was when I realized something was missing in my life. And from that point on, more than anything, I wanted parents of my own.
Later that year, my social worker came to my school in Arizona and told me that my brother and I were going to Cleveland. I never heard of Ohio, let alone Cleveland. An aunt, we didn’t know, lived in Cleveland. The social worker told us we were only going for a few weeks, but we never went back to Arizona. And I never saw my mother again.
My aunt was older and single. She did not have children of her own, but she adopted a few of my cousins before taking in my brother and me. For the first time, we regularly had home-cooked meals and our own clothes. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a family vibe like I imagined, but I did feel like I found a home.
Once I moved in with my aunt in Cleveland, the struggle was different. I was already used to poverty, but now I was living in poverty. I could see it. I am sure you understand. Like me, you, too, probably have got friends who have been shot, killed, or went to jail for life.
Where we are from, it’s easy to go down a bad path, but I know now there is so much more out there for all of us if we just listen.
In middle school, I was always cracking jokes and playing around. During that time, I got adopted, and my auntie changed my name. Two of my cousins who lived with us had the same first name as me, Brandon. So, they made my middle name, Xavier, my new first name, and switched my last name. I wasn’t happy about the name change, and I think acting out was my way of dealing with all my past and current struggles.
Football was my only real passion, and I was very good. Many of the Catholic schools recruited me, but my auntie didn’t want to pay money only for me to get kicked out. So, my principal suggested Ginn Academy – the same school you attend right now.
My freshman year, a scout from the University of Southern California came to our school to see our players. I couldn’t believe it. Then, our coach and the leader of our school, Ted Ginn Sr., invited some of his former players, such as Pierre Woods, Donte Whitner, and Ted Ginn Jr., to come back and share their stories with us. These players graduated from college. They played in the NFL, and they won championships and super bowls.
That’s when I realized I, too, could have a future. And Coach Ginn wanted to help me get wherever I wanted to go.
The only thing I needed to do was listen.
He was constantly speaking about life and real-world situations.
For example, I was very immature, and I liked to joke around a lot.
He always said to me, “The world is serious, but you’re the only one playing.”
Also, he knew my story.
He’d tell me, “The world is not going to care about your problems.”
When Ginn would talk to us, there were times he had tears in his eyes trying to make us understand.
Ginn, Ms. Parker, and so many other people at Ginn Academy believed in me, and they believe in you too. They believe we can do anything, and they want us to believe that as well.
But you’ve got to listen.
During my senior year of high school, Ginn sat us down after practice and told us he had cancer. I was hurt and scared. However, he was still focused on me, my classmates, and our future.
I, along with my teammates, all wanted to play Division 1 football. We worked hard. We pushed each other. We held each other accountable. But when my senior year came around, the D1 offers weren’t exactly rolling in as I’d hoped. While many of my teammates got scholarships from big-time schools, I got more interest from smaller schools.
When smaller schools came to talk to me, I had a bad attitude. I didn’t want to speak to them. Ginn wanted me to meet with them. He kept trying to explain to me that I had a great opportunity.
Unfortunately, I didn’t listen.
I ended up committing to Lake Erie because they gave me a scholarship to play football. As a freshman, I started, but I wasn’t going to class or taking school seriously. In my first semester, I had all C’s and one D.
Ultimately, I got academically dismissed from school, lost my scholarship, and missed a year of football. I went to Tri-C, our local community college, with the intent of going back to Lake Erie without a scholarship. After Tri-C, I had to take two summer classes at Lake Erie and bring my GPA above a 2.0. This time, I put in the effort, but I got two B’s, and it wasn’t enough. I had a 1.9 GPA. I missed another year of football. Then, I failed a bio class, and that was it. The school dismissed me again.
I packed all my stuff up and didn’t tell anyone I got kicked out. It was heartbreaking. I didn’t know what I was going to do next.
This was the moment a lot of people probably would’ve quit. But instead, I started thinking about Ginn and all the lessons he shared with me. This was the moment I began to grow up, and I started to listen.
The very next day, I began applying to colleges.
Luckily, someone suggested I apply to Notre Dame College in Cleveland. I got in right away, but more bad news came when I found out that you have to sit out a year when you transfer academically ineligible. So, for the third straight year, I missed football. And if I wanted a shot at playing the following season, I damn near needed to get straight A’s.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I kept telling myself, “I’ve got to make this work.”
In the fall of 2015, I met with my coaches every day after class and focused on my school work. I ended up getting all A’s except for one C-plus. I did well enough to become eligible. Finally, I got over that hump.
That’s when I started to believe that whatever life throws at me, I can handle it. It’s also when I realized all Ginn was ever trying to tell us was that things will go wrong in life. But whatever adversity we face, we do have the courage and the strength to persevere.
I ended up playing well in football and got the opportunity to participate in an NFL Pro Day. In school, I had another setback trying to get my credits from Lake Erie to transfer over, but ultimately we figured it out, and I graduated from college. I became one of the two percent of foster children who grew up and got a bachelor’s degree. Ginn was there nearly every step of the way.
Ginn was there for my first spring game at Notre Dame and my senior game. He showed up when I gave a speech about my story. When I walked across the stage on graduation day, I looked out in the crowd, and there he was, pointing proudly at me. As much as Ginn has going on in his life, he showed up every time I asked him to be there for me.
I may not have had parents like I always wanted, but I did have Ginn. We all have Ginn. He cares about me just like he cares about you, and I am forever grateful.
Currently, I work in the finance department for Tesla. Next month, I will graduate from Grand Canyon University with my Master of Business Administration (MBA). My GPA is above a 3.0.
I tried looking up the odds of a foster kid getting a master’s degree, but I couldn’t find any stats – probably because there are so few of us.
The reason I am telling you all this is I want you all to know that if you listen to Ginn – if you really lean in and listen- what you will hear is him not only giving you the blueprint to beat the odds but also giving you the love, unconditional support, and self-confidence to set new standards.