As Robert Ayers stepped to the stage, all eyes in the auditorium focused on the Broncos defensive lineman.
As the keynote speaker for the YESS Institute End-of-Year Celebration, his message resonated with the high school students in the audience because of how well he was able to relate to the group.
“I want you guys to understand where I’ve been,” he said.
Ayers went on to talk about growing up in poverty and some of the “wrong choices” he made when he was the same age as his audience.
He told the students about getting into fights and getting kicked out of schools when he was their age.
But Ayers was able to turn it around and he expressed to the group that included both mentors and mentees from the YESS Institute that if he could do it, so could they.
“I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs and fortunately I’ve made it to where I am,” he said. “It took a lot of hard work and dedication.”
Ayers listed key pieces of advice that he thought helped him become a better person that he started focusing on when he was 14 or 15-years old – the same age as his audience:
“The first one is when you make a decision – something I always tell people is that when it comes to making a decision, ask yourself, ‘Is this what I want to do?’ A lot of times if you’re doing something you don’t want to do, you shouldn’t be doing it.
“The second thing is, ‘What are the consequences?’ When you make a decision to skip school or do whatever, ask yourself what are the consequences. If they’re bad, more than likely, you shouldn’t be doing it.
“The next thing is, ‘Who do my choices affect and how?’ A lot of people might ask, ‘Well, how do my choices really affect other people?’ Well, they do, because if you are getting kicked out of school it affects your parents because it hurts them to see their kids doing that. I know my mother always told me it bothered her because she felt like she didn’t raise me right. That always struck with me and at that age, I knew I wanted to change things.
“The next thing I want to speak to is choosing friends wisely. When I look back on it, I see that when I was getting in trouble at a young age, I realized I had the same types of bad friends. Friends that weren’t going to school, fighting in school, getting kicked out of school. I realized that if I hung around those types of people, that’s what I was going to do. At that point, I knew I had to hang around better people. In high school, I began hanging around better people. I had friends that were going to class, so I went to class too. Good habits rub off on you. Understand that peer pressure is real and it does have an affect to you
“The next thing is, don’t be afraid to be different. Different isn’t always bad. If 100 people are selling drugs and you’re not and you’re going to school, you’re different. But it’s a good different. It’s the right different. At the end of the day, it’ll have a positive effect on your life and on your success. Don’t be afraid to be different at all.”
“Another thing that I keyed on was, ‘Remind yourself of your goals.’ At the age of 14, I knew I didn’t want to make my parents disappointed. I knew I wanted to do something positive. Remind yourself of your goals. Me personally, I write my goals down. In college, there was a kid who was our rival in high school and we played the same position. He went on to college and ended up getting drafted in the NFL. So, what I did was, I took a picture of him getting drafted to the NFL and I put it in my locker. So, for four years of college, I came back and looked at that one picture and told myself, ‘I’m going to be better than that one guy.’ Nothing against him, but I knew what I wanted to do. That was my way of reminding myself of what I wanted to do.
“Another thing is, ‘Know why you’re working.’ It’s hard for people to get up in the morning and come to school. Understand that the reason you’re going to school is to get an education and to better yourself to become a better person and become successful in life. Know why you’re working. Don’t just get up and do things that you don’t understand. And if you don’t know, ask someone else.
“Another thing is, ‘Know you can be great.’ You don’t have to listen to any limitations. Sports-wise, ‘Oh, you’re too small,’ or academically, ‘Oh, you’re not smart enough.’ Don’t listen to that. Know that you can be as great as you want to be. That’s something that I pride myself on. I always told myself that I would be great, no matter what anyone else told me.
“And don’t quit. People that quit, that’s the easy way out. When things get tough, see the things out. When you start sweeping the stage, sweep the whole stage. Don’t quit. If you practice that over and over, it will carry over into your life.
“Lastly, understand that nothing is easy, nobody is perfect, and we always mess up. Understand that things aren’t going to be easy. If they were, everybody would have it. But it’s not. So you have to work, be dedicated and put hours and hours of work into whatever it is. You’re going to mess up. If you fail a test, understand what you did wrong and focus on studying harder. Don’t get too down on yourself. Nobody is perfect.”
Ayers stressed the importance of taking advantage of what a program like YESS offers.
“This is a great program,” he told them. “Continue to push each other, continue to be mentors, continue to work for each other, continue the love and to be there through tough times. I look at myself as a guy who has been in a lot of your shoes. If I can make it, there’s no reason why you can’t either. In whatever profession it is. Whatever you want to be, there’s no reason why you can’t.
Keep fighting, keep working, keep seeing your mentors, your parents and everyone here and I’m pretty sure you’re going to be successful.”
Ayers closed his speech by sharing an inspirational quote that he has tattooed on his arm.
“It’s a quote by Martin Luther King,” he said. “‘The ultimate measure of a (person) is not where you stand at times of comfort and convenience, it is where you stand at times of challenge and controversy.’ What that means is that anybody can be tough when times are easy. But when it gets hard, what are you going to stand for. My mother told me that a long time ago. When her back was against the wall and we didn’t have something to eat or the heat was off in the winter she could have easily gave up, but she kept fighting. Since then, that’s been a quote that I’ve always lived by and I want to leave that with you guys.”