Last weekend, Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis did a good deed.
He delivered a powerful message, too.
Around 150 of Ohio’s top football players in the high school class of 2013 were in Dayton for the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association North-South All-Star Games, and on the morning of the games Green-Ellis spent over an hour addressing them all in a speech and question-and-answer session that wasn’t totally impromptu but wasn’t scripted, either.
Green-Ellis knew what he wanted to say, but he also wanted to see in the players’ faces which parts of his story and his message drew a reaction. He wanted to hand out some college advice “without getting too preachy,” and he wanted to make sure none of the young men in the room were taking their opportunities for granted.
He drew — and kept the attention of the young players.
“I was supposed to take questions for 20 minutes after I talked,” Green-Ellis said in a phone interview this week. “I know I was up there for 30 more minutes and maybe an hour. That was my favorite part.”
Green-Ellis discussed not only just his college football career at Indiana and Ole Miss but his college experience in general. He told the players how his family “basically lost everything” to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and how he’d returned to college for his final football season despite having a high-round NFL draft grade because he promised his mother he’d complete his degree.
He went undrafted the next year.
“These guys are on the cusp of something totally different than anything they know,” Green-Ellis said. “Even the ones going to the Ohio States and Michigans aren’t guaranteed a thing. Some of them think they have it all figured out.
“I got up there and talked about transferring, working with new coaches, seeing the business side of football but also about being open to the world. When I showed up at Indiana, there were 50,000 students there and I had never been in a class with a white student or Asian student before, ever. And here in Ohio, these guys have great stadiums and great facilities to play football.
“When I was growing up in New Orleans, we’d have to catch the bus to get to practice. If we had a grass field, we were lucky.”
There were more than a few times the room went silent.
“We had a big group in that room, and when he was talking it was dead quiet,” Massillon quarterback Kyle Kempt said. “Guys were impressed with his stories, what he’s overcome and how willing he was to share everything with us.”
The National Guard is the presenting sponsor of the North-South games. All Green-Ellis knows is someone from the National Guard got in touch with his agent about speaking to the players, and he was glad to accept the invitation.
“I was excited about it,” Green-Ellis said. “I like telling my story and sharing my experiences from college and trying to make it in the NFL, but it’s not just about making a speech. It’s talking to them about real issues and experiences they’re going to have and seeing how they relate. When you hit home or make them think, you can tell.
“I lot of kids get caught up in themselves and their own little worlds. I wanted to remind them to cherish the good moments like getting to play in an all-star game and to make sure they’re always thanking their parents, coaches, family members, whoever it is that’s helping them. Everybody gets help. Everybody needs help.
“There were a lot of really talented football players in that room. The ones that stay grounded have the best chance to maximize that talent.”
Said longtime Akron Manchester coach and coaches association member Jim France: “It was probably the best speech I’ve ever heard a pro athlete give. He was very honest, very open and the kids were hanging on every word.”
Green-Ellis posed for pictures afterwards and was able to talk privately with a few players after his speech. He said he could tell the young players had a real appreciation for his words.
“I hope I opened a few eyes,” Green-Ellis said. “Culture shock is real. Not having things go your way all the time in football is real. These guys all have an opportunity to go to college and better themselves, and I hope they all go with the attitude that they’ve been blessed.”