Ex-NFL player Bodden raps memorable graduation message

Defensive back Leigh Bodden went undrafted but broke into the NFL with the Cleveland Browns and made his mark.

The night after he got the call to be the graduation speaker at his high school alma mater, former NFL defensive back Leigh Bodden put on his headphones, "zoned out" on a flight home and started writing.

It was January. He was ready.

"What an honor," Bodden said of the chance to speak to graduating seniors at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland. "I was going to be prepared."

Five months later, just one night before the ceremony at the University of Maryland’s Comcast Center last week, Bodden got another call.

He was only being allotted six minutes for his speech. He’d been planning on 10.

"I had so much I wanted to say," Bodden said. "Then I felt like I was on Twitter, like they were holding me to 140 characters."

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He laughed.

The reduction of time forced Bodden to reassess and rearrange his words. He read over what he’d written and shortened it, but just slightly.

He decided it wasn’t enough.

"I just wanted to tell my story," Bodden said.

Restrictions and suggestions be damned, he decided he would. And that he’d do it his way.

"Music has always inspired me," Bodden said. "I also thought that a rapping graduation speech had probably never been done, so that’s one way to reach them. I thought they’d listen.

"I couldn’t lie and say I remembered who spoke at my graduation (in 1999), because I don’t. But I remember that when he . . . didn’t acknowledge our football team that had made the state semifinals, that fueled me. I felt overlooked. So I decided I’d talk to the kids about being overlooked, or dismissed, and just believing in themselves.

"I knew some of the kids were going to listen or look up to me just because I made a lot of money in the NFL. I also knew that some kids wouldn’t care one bit about football. But sports is like the universal language, and music is that way, too. I thought I could say something that mattered."

When Bodden’s time came, he delivered a message that covered about six minutes, telling the graduates that they didn’t need to make the NFL or make $20 million to be successful. That they shouldn’t worry about past failures, labels or long odds as they prepared to turn the page on their high school days. That inspiration can be found in lots of places, from lots of people. That Michael Jordan once got cut from his high school varsity team, then still went on to become Michael Jordan.

"Me not being valedictorian or voted most likely to succeed, I never saw myself being asked to come back and do something like this," Bodden said. "I wasn’t even team captain in football."

When his pre-written and late-edited speech was over, Bodden decided to share the rap he’d written the previous night. He didn’t anticipate needing to fight back tears on his first verse.

"I really thought I was going to get up there and kill it like a rapper at a concert," Bodden said. "But then I was about to break down. I stopped. I had to."

He composed himself and let it fly. Four minutes later, no one seemed to care he’d exceeded the time limit in rhyming his story and his message.

Bodden, 32, went from Northwestern High to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, a I-AA non-scholarship football program. He ended up playing nine NFL seasons after breaking into the NFL as an undrafted rookie with the Cleveland Browns in 2003. Bodden had 12 of his 18 career interceptions with the Browns, with whom he started when healthy from 2005-07. He then played one season in Detroit, and had one very good season in New England before injuries ended his career in 2010.

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Last year, he used more than $1 million of his own money to open a Retro Fitness gym near his hometown, where he still lives with his longtime girlfriend and two sons.

"I’m like an undrafted free agent all over again in the gym business," Bodden said. "I believe in myself, but I know I have a lot to learn."

Hesitant to even buy a bed for the apartment he rented when he first made the Browns for fear he’d be cut and have to move across the country — or home for good — Bodden said he was always "fueled" by being overlooked or dismissed. When the Browns went to Pittsburgh each year, he’d sit in his hotel room alone and look toward the Duquesne campus, thinking about how grateful he was for the chance to play there and how far he’d come since.

All of that came back through the phone calls, the writing process and ultimately the delivery of a graduation speech to remember he delivered last week.

"That’s the most powerful thing I’ve ever done," he said. "Being held in that regard, being asked to come back and talk to those kids, that’s the ultimate honor to me. I had a great career, made great friends, got to the playoffs once. But this takes the cake, man. I mean that."