GILL.I.AM: THE Life Story
Inspirational Speaker, Athlete, Entrepreneur, Real Estate Developer and Dad!
Perseverance Through Adversity... That's the STORY of my life!
It may sound cliché, I know, but this has been my lived experience almost since I was born.
I grew up in a single-parent household in a troubled neighborhood in Harrisburg, PA. Actually, “troubled” doesn’t do the area justice. What do you call a place that suffered more than a century from systemic oppression and racism, which resulted in lack of economic opportunity, shorter lifespans, food deserts and despair?
When I was in third grade, my mom, without me knowing it, enrolled me at the Milton Hershey School, a free private boarding school for kids who couldn’t afford it. Mom gave me a huge break, the most important gift I was ever given. But it sure seemed like adversity to the eight year old me at the time.
You see, mom didn’t tell me she was dropping me off to live at the school! She made up a story that she needed to run some errands while I was playing on the playground. Eventually the houseparent told me, “Hey, Garry it’s time to get ready for bed.” I told him there must’ve been some mistake, that my mom was coming to get me. But instead, she left me there and headed home to Harrisburg.
Before you judge mom, know that she did this out of love, to give me a chance at a better life. Even though it was an opportunity of a lifetime, I had to persevere through adversity at first, to adjust to being on my own at such a young age.
With the help of the staff at the school, persevere I did. I was able to succeed academically as well as in a wide range of artistic pursuits, including ballet, tap, choir and base violin. And I excelled in sports, especially football, earning a scholarship to Penn State as a tight end and defensive end.
Adversity struck me in Happy Valley in the form of a horrific knee injury in which I blew out my ACL, MCL and Meniscus. To make matters worse I developed a staph infection in my bone marrow between surgeries, delaying surgeries, threatening my life and resulting in two missed seasons. The doctors said I had a 10 percent chance of playing again.
At first, my normal “I got this!” attitude kicked in. I told myself, “10 percent sounds good to me. Heck, I had like a ½ percent chance of getting out of the ‘hood!” But I’m not gonna lie to you, my Persevere Through Adversity ethos was put to its greatest test. The rehab was beyond grueling. My grades, which were always stellar, suffered. Just walking, let alone playing football at the highest level, seemed impossible. I thought about giving up.
It was a call to Mrs. Ainsworth, my Junior Chapel leader at the Milton Hershey School, that helped get me back on track, telling me that “God gives the hardest battles to the strongest soldiers”. That flipped the switch for me, and I went back at it, grinding and working, improving my grades and finally making it back onto the field after 18 months.
Thing was, I had lost some of my speed and that was my advantage as a tight end. So I ended up switching positions, going into the NFL Draft as an offensive tackle — I would be considered fast and athletic as an offensive lineman.
Problem was, I had very little experience at that position in college, so I didn’t end up getting drafted. I signed as an undrafted free agent with the Seattle Seahawks. They had just won the Super Bowl and had drafted players at my position. Low man on the totem pole, it was very unlikely that I would make the team as we headed into training camp.
Did I get down? Nope. Compared to the injury and rehab, this was a piece of cake!
I worked and learned, worked and learned, worked and learned. Showed the coaches I was coachable and moldable. Ended up making the team.
That first year, I played in every game, mostly on special teams, and caught a touchdown pass on a fake field goal in the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay that turned the game around and propelled us to Super Bowl XLIX. OK, we lost to the Patriots but again, persevering through adversity paid off.
After playing in the NFL for five seasons, I’ve embarked on my next chapter with the launch of The Bridge Eco-Village, a breakthrough mixed-use development in my hometown of Harrisburg that will provide people of color and other marginalized folks a place to work, eat, live, learn and play. Put another way, The Bridge will offer people who are facing the adversity caused by systemic oppression and racism marginalized an opportunity to persevere.
Talent is evenly distributed but resources and opportunities are NOT!