This week, the Special Olympics is taking place in Los Angeles, and I am honored to be part of it.
A lot of people may not be familiar with my story, but it’s important for me to tell it and to keep telling it. There may be kids out there who have to face a lot of the same challenges that I had to face growing up, and I want to help them.
I had a learning disability, but no one else knew about it. So I struggled early on in the classroom. Math I had no problem with, it came easy to me. But I had trouble focusing and a tough time trying to go over words and read them. When I was in the fifth grade, I was still only reading at a second grade level.
People teased me about it all the time. Every time I had to stand up in front of the class and read, people would laugh. “He can’t read,” they would say. “He don’t know how to pronounce his words.” It hurt.
I was put in the special education program at my school. In special ed, we didn’t get to take field trips like the rest of the kids. The one field trip our class did get to take each year was to a Special Olympics event. It was there that I got my first chance to seriously compete in sports.
I want everyone — and especially those who participate in Special Olympics — to know this: I was you. My dreams came true because I worked hard, and hard work pays off.
I know this from my own life, and not just on the football field. In the classroom, it took a long time for me to learn how to study. I had to put in a lot of hard work. It wasn’t until I got to college that I had the right resources and the right people to help me get past the learning challenges I had.
Just because you’ve got a learning disability, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. If somebody talks badly about you, block them out and ignore them. You have to understand that everyone is different. Everybody learns in a different way. You’ve just got to find what works for you and don’t be discouraged by what people say. We’re all different. God made you that way, and you’re special.
There’s a lot of people in special ed classes who get down on themselves and get mad, and give up. I’ve seen it. Some people shy away from their dreams, and shy away from themselves. That’s what I wanted to do a lot of the time when I was a young kid. I am here to tell you not to do that. You’re better than that, and I believe in you. Don’t be discouraged, don’t get down, follow your dreams and never give up.
I was raised in the church, and I know we don’t all have the same religion, but everybody should live by certain principles, like treating people kindly. To all the bullies out there: Don’t disrespect anyone. Always respect the other person in front of you or behind you. Treat everybody with kindness. Improve the world around you.
Being a part of the Special Olympics again is truly special to me. To talk with the athletes and to encourage and hopefully inspire them means the world to me. Maybe I can help someone find some courage or talent they didn’t know they had, just like Special Olympics did for me almost 20 years ago.
I have my own kids now, and I know every parent feels the same way about their children that I feel about mine. They are the future, and my goal is to make their lives better. That’s what I want to accomplish. It’s a hard road, and I know for kids like me, it’s extra hard. Everybody should have a chance to be happy, to be successful, and Special Olympics gives a lot of people that chance for the first time, just like it did for me.