Russell Wilson's Charming UW Commencement Address Was The Anti-Michael Jordan Hall Of Fame Speech

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Look how chill that dude is right there. Twenty-seven years old, a Super Bowl winner, wearing a hoodie to a graduation ceremony at which he gave a funny, inspirational, self-effacing speech that also settled some scores with an old coach. This weekend in Madison, Russell Wilson—Seahawks QB, former Wisconsin Badger, non-asshat—put on a clinic in gracious public speaking. He was the converse Crying Jordan the world needed in 2016.

Here’s the video. This is literally the most fun anyone’s had giving one of these speeches, giggling as he says, “I’ve stood in this end zone many times before, but never quite in a uniform this ridiculous.” He may misplace his modifiers, but that’s about all.

Here’s what he managed to pull off in 18 minutes:

  • To give legit life advice. “If you’re dating a woman that’s way out of your league, ask her to marry you.” This doesn’t work for everyone, so handle with care.
  • To laugh at his life’s most glaring public failure. “If you’re playing the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl and you’ve got 26 seconds left and you’re down by four and it’s second and goal on their 1-yard line, try not to throw an interception. That last one is purely hypothetical, though, of course.” This is not scruffy humblebrag. That was one of the worst gaffes in football history. This is a painful anecdote, delivered with an actual smile.
  • To deflate idiotic expectations without getting nasty about it. “I love singing. I’m Michael Jackson’s Tito, I’m Janet Jackson’s long-lost unknown brother. My moonwalk? Cuts the rug. “Dancing Machine”? “Smooth Criminal”? (points to self) This guy. But no matter how badly I wanted to be a pop star, it would not matter how much self-confidence I had, or how many hours I spent at the studio. Trust me on this. I cannot sing. So the question I asked when life told me no was, ‘What am I capable of? Am I capable of doing what I want to do?’” Take it from Russell Wilson: You cannot do anything you put your mind to. So put your mind to things you can actually do.
  • Here, enjoy a Jackson 5 break:
  • To praise his own talents without sounding like an entitled jackass, then segue into more legit life advice. “Not to brag, but I was really good T-ball player. I’m talking about really good. I crushed it at T-ball. Even though I was just 3 or 4, I remember thinking, ‘I could be something special one day.’ My dad thought I might be getting ahead of myself, so he’d set me straight. He’d say, ‘Son, potential just means you haven’t done it yet.’” That’s Russell Wilson’s late pops and his toddler-deflating wisdom straight to you, grads of 2016.
  • To relive his life’s most intimate tribulation. “I got drafted to play baseball on June 8, 2010. And the next night, my dad passed away. ... I miss my dad every single day. People have asked me, if I had five more minutes with him, what would I say to him? But I wouldn’t say anything at all. I would just hug him. That’s what I would do.” Dammit, Russell Wilson. And to a stadium full of grads with their parents looking on. Imagine the father-son bearhugs outside Camp Randall moments later.
  • To stomp a shallow mudhole in the erstwhile North Carolina State head coach, Tom O’Brien, who apparently chased him out of Raleigh because they differed on whether Wilson had a future at QB. Precipitating Wilson’s transfer to Wisconsin, where he set a record for passing efficiency, was a conversation with the coach: “The summer before my senior year of college, I’m playing minor league baseball. I call my football coach at N.C. State and say, ‘Hey Coach, I’d like to come back for my senior year.’And he told me I wasn’t coming back. He said: ‘Listen, son, you’re never going to play in the National Football League. You’re too small. There’s no chance. You got no shot, give it up.’ I said, ‘So you’re telling me if I come back to N.C. State, I won’t see the field?’ He said, ‘No, son, you won’t see the field.’ Now, this was everything I had worked for. And now it was completely gone. If I wanted to follow my dream, I had to leave N.C. State. I had no idea if I would get a second chance somewhere else.”

The great part about this last turn, which could have been a vindictive middle finger, is that Wilson didn’t make the story about a non-supportive coach (unlike, say, Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech). Instead, he made it about letting go. This was a moment, to Wilson, when life told him “no” and he had to figure some shit out on the fly, yet knowing that he had put in the work, and knowing that he was ready to play if he got the shot.

Not everyone has the natural advantages of former T-ball prodigy Russell Wilson, but we can all follow his example of how to speak in public, when life gives us that opportunity. Also, we can decide to not indulge in acting like an acrimonious prick, no matter how gratifying that usually seems in the moment.


Ever since I dug up that “Dancing Machine” video for this post, I’ve let YouTube keep playing. It’s been nothing but Michael Jackson on my computer for like half an hour now. Russell Wilson gave a very good sports speech.