Been meaning to do this for a while, but here’s a transcript (lightly edited) of the talk I gave to the incoming freshman class at my alma mater, Barton College. (There’s a video of the talk itself at the end of if you’d rather just skip ahead and watch that.)
There’s some advice in here that I hope is good and that I wish I would take more often myself.
It tells a short version of how I got the Urban Meyer story from last year — still need to write a post about that since ya’ll keep emailing me asking about it — and about the time I ran into a bear in the woods two miles from civilization while researching my story “What Killed the Bear Lady?” for Outside.
The two stories are more related than you’d think.
I wanted to come and like, say all the normal stuff you might usually expect to hear at convocation. Work hard, have a little fun, not too much fun, work smart, not hard, all the time.
All of which I have failed at completely over the course of not just college but life.
But then I remembered that I don’t remember my convocation at all, much less who spoke or what they said, so I could say whatever I felt like and it probably wouldn’t matter.
So what I wanna talk about instead is what I really do remember from then, which is—sorry that sounded really bad. This is awesome, you guys are great.
But the main thing I remember, and the main thing I want to talk about, is the main thing that drove so much of that (my old English professor just said too much nice stuff about me including how my Urban Meyer story “I’m Not the Lone Wolf” was a 2017 Livingston Finalist) and so many terrible days in between, which nobody tells you about, which is fear.
I was terrified my freshman year.
I was terrified yesterday.
I was terrified this morning, waking up late, thinking I wasn’t going to make it here in time, with a screaming seven-week-old and a three-year-old, and a grandma visiting who’s been staying with us what feels like a hundred years. Love you Gram, four days is just a long time when your wife is dealing with post-birth stuff.
And it’s all just nuts, life’s nuts.
And it’s great.
And I always forget that, because I let fear get the better of me.
So I just want to talk about that for a minute.
There’s been a lot that’s helped me along the way, and a lot that hasn’t helped me.
The main things that have helped me are—there are two things.
Remembering one that everybody is scared of stuff, and two, everybody is a human being, meaning they’re all scared of stuff.
So when somebody is scary or comes off as angry or hateful or whatever, that’s all rooted in fear.
I spent the last three years of my life studying—or trying to study, it’s very difficult, but learning from much more smart people than myself—about the brain and how it works, and how it causes this fear.
And so much of life’s damaging things that you see in this world—or at least this is how it looks to me right now—are rooted in fear, and the response to fear.
Our fear makes us react like we’re getting attacked by a bear.
If someone says something to us that we don’t like — like if somebody on twitter is like oh you’re stupid — we respond to that like if there’s a bear coming at us ready to kill us in our brains. It’s the exact same response.
Which reminds me—in a minute I will tell you about the time not too long ago when I was in the middle of the woods two miles from any human civilization, and a bear walked out right in front of me.
So hold that thought, because that was fun.
But before I get to that, I want to tell you about when actually treating people like human beings and remembering that they are actually human beings actually helped me tremendously, which is about how that Urban Meyer story happened.
That story—I don’t know if you know Urban Meyer, but Urban Meyer is a legendary college football coach, he’s the guy who made Tim Tebow TIM TEBOW at the University of Florida, he won national championships there, he was great.
And then he had a mental breakdown a few years ago to the degree that, at the peak of his coaching powers, he quit coaching. He left. He went to get help. He finally listened to this wife who is a nurse psychologist and has been for a long time.
He got some help, came back, and began coaching again at Ohio State, his alma mater, and won a national championship there.
So I wanted to write about all that.
Not the only one in the country wanting to write about all that.
Lots of people have tried.
Reached out several times to the sports information director who works directly with him—his name is jerry—over the course of last summer. And Jerry basically said there is no way in heck I am bringing this to him, I know he doesn’t want to talk about this, I don’t want to make him mad, please just let this go.
And I didn’t, because as you just heard from Jim, I’m not not stubborn.
So I kept going because I really wanted to know, and I knew it could help some people.
So Jerry finally said look, you can come to Chicago, where they have this big media days get together for their conference before every season at the end of July—early August, one of those—and try to ask him a couple questions there.
So I did.
And a buddy of mine who works for Bleacher Report said try to find him in the morning—they do these interviews all day around this gigantic conference center, they start at like five in the morning, going from radio station to radio station on and on and on and they’re walking all around. So he, the year before had found a coach, and did that with him, just asked some questions as they went.
So I got there at like 5 a.m., figure out where he’s going to be. Jerry’s there, I introduce myself.
And his eyes go wide. Just sheer panic.
And he more or less tells me get the hell out of here.
Like, I have not brought this to him, there’s no way I’m letting you just bring this to him right now.
He’s angry. He’s like you can ask him questions in the big group thing at the end of the day, that’s it, go away.
And, I saw a bear.
Like, in my brain, I was freaking out, because in my mind I’m like okay, I’ve been sent here, to do my job, thousands of dollars have been paid to get me here, and this guy just told me to go away. I easily could have panicked.
In the past I probably would have.
But this time, I was remembering that people are actually human beings, and so he was freaking out.
He saw a bear when I walked up to him.
And was freaking out trying to keep his job, keep himself safe, all that.
So I said all right, I apologized profusely, I thanked him for not having security escort me out of the building.
Then I went to the group setting that afternoon, which is like a hundred reporters all gathered around these coaches and players asking what I felt like were really stupid questions all the time—and look, not that they are all dumb questions, but just a lot of them are dumb sometimes. Like why didn’t you recruit this guy instead of this guy?
And look, it’s football, it’s fine—I’m just sitting here stewing because I’m like, I want to ask all these super cool and not stupid questions about how he has survived and didn’t die when he—and all this.
So anyway, by the end of this—it’s an hour-long session—and at the end I asked one or two questions about it, and when it was over, Jerry came up to me and apologized to me.
And he said you can try to go talk to him as he’s leaving today.
And I did.
Urban Meyer said he appreciated the questions, and asked what I was working on.
And I just told him, look, I think your story can actually help a lot of people.
And I told him the story of how, when I was at Barton here, trying to play baseball, I was so freaked out, my coach—Todd Wilkinson, sitting right here—might remember this vividly: I tried and tried and tried, and I couldn’t break out of it for a million reasons why, but I was so freaked out.
I worked out hard, did everything right in the weight room, and could hit the ball 450 feet in batting practice, and had the team’s strongest arm and was a good athletic catcher, but I could not—among other things I eventually also panicked myself out of being able to do—I could not make a throw 60 feet 6 inches back to the pitcher.
If any of you have seen Major League II, it’s an older movie now, but there’s a catcher in it, Rube Baker, same thing.
You try to throw, and your arm locks up. It’s like there’s cement or something poured over your arm and in your shoulder, and you try to throw and you can’t, and you can’t, and you can’t.
And I would end up just trying to like, flip it, like this. (Here I pantomime a super impressive flicky-throw with my wrist basically stuck to my chest.)
And it looked incredibly manly and cool, and it was not frustrating at all for the pitchers or the coaches or myself.
And as you can imagine I didn’t play as much as I might’ve liked, and never really understood it until many years later.
Then I learned the stuff about the bears in your brain that your brain thinks it’s having to fight.
And you know, it sucked.
So basically I told Urban Meyer that, more or less, and it got his attention.
Because I was just sitting there thinking, he’s just another human being and he has reporters coming up to him and coming after him all the time, and just wanted to show him, look, you can trust me and this is why.
And it worked. And I went to Columbus, Ohio, spent a few days talking with him and his wife and all the people around him. And it was amazing. And it felt like dumb luck, but I really think—not that you should necessarily think like this, like, what can I get out of people and how can I manipulate them, oh I can treat them like a human being—but we all have to deal with each other in life.
We need each other to do what we need to do.
And it’s really easy to forget that we’re all scared of stuff.
Urban Meyer is scared of reporters coming up to him all the time trying to get some kind of dirt on him.
Because those were really terrible years in his life. And he’s been manipulated before. And he’s been wronged by reporters.
He had no motivation to talk to me other than he wanted to help people.
So that was my lesson in dealing with human beings, and how remembering how they are human beings when you are scared helps you get through the fear.
And then the story about the bear, and I’m done.
I was told to keep this short and sweet and I feel like I’m not.
But you get to hear about bears now.
A couple years ago, I was working on a story for Outside magazine about this woman named Kay Grayson who lived in the woods of Tyrrell County, North Carolina. Not too far from here actually. And I spent a long time on it.
Because she was known as The Bear Lady—not because she was a bear, but because she lived in this trailer, in these woods two miles from civilization like a mile off the road, and she had at different times as many as a dozen or more bears, who were more or less her pets.
These were wild black bears that lived in these woods.
She lived in that trailer with no electricity, no running water, no heat, the last 20, 25 years of her life.
She was found dead at 73 out there in the woods, kind of in pieces.
She had spent her life fighting for these bears against this band of, like, rabid poachers.
There is a hunting season and that is all fine and good, and she hated it, and these guys would come back into her territory and onto her property and terrorize her and her bears, because she was constantly fighting against the hunting, and all this that and the other.
So she was found dead back there.
The hunters say they think the bears killed her.
The sheriff says he has no idea.
And frankly nobody knows. She would go into town, she had some friends around there and people she wrote to all the time.
But based on what other people knew about her, odds are she froze to death out there one night after getting sick.
She would write about how these bears would come to her in the cold cold nights in the North Carolina winter and find their way into her trailer and snuggle up beside her as though they knew she needed heat.
The bears probably didn’t kill her. They probably were trying to help her.
And well then she died, and your pet dog will eat you if you lay dead long enough in your house, so then the bears did what animals do.
But the reason I tell that terrible story is to tell you another part of it—because of what made her so beautiful, which was, people would come to see these bears, and see her interact with them, and she would put on this show for people who would come out to her land.
She would walk out into this clearing with peanuts in her hands and she would hold her arms out to her sides and the bears would come out to her like these gigantic furry toddlers. They would walk out on their back feet.
People have this on video, it’s incredible.
And they would walk up to her and eat these peanuts out of her hands.
I say all that to say that sometimes, fear actually is a bear, like when the bear stepped out in front of me on her trail.
I was going out there after she had died, and you know, I want to tell this story like the bear stood up and we faced each other, like this epic movie moment.
Sadly, that didn’t happen.
The bear sniffed and I was downwind and the bear never even saw me, which, thank God, because I would have, who knows, anyway … he walked off.
But it was terrifying.
And that really drove home to me, like, Oh my god. She lived with these.
Like, I have my bear spray and my machete, and I think I’m all manly, and then you see this thing walk out in front of you, and you’re like nope, nope, nope, please walk the other way, thank God you did, ok bye.
But she would deal with them by dealing with their fear.
Because she knew they were scared of people.
She knew they were scared of these hunters after them all the time.
So she would walk out there with these peanuts, and she would sing to them something that I try to tell myself now on the days that are bad, and I can’t remember that people are people, and I can’t remember I’m just a person, and you know, I just gotta try to find a way through the fear.
And she would sing this little two-word phrase, just saying, it’s OK, it’s OK.
And they would move on and they would have a good time.
So I wanna leave you on that.
Some days it’ll be good, and you won’t be afraid.
Some days it’ll be bad, and you’ll be afraid, and then you’ll remember you’re a person, and people are people.
And then other days, it’s just gonna be bad. And that’s all right. It’s OK.
So, have a good college, four, five six years, and have some fun. And just remember. We’re all people. And it’s OK.