GASTONIA, N.C. – Linebacker Jon Beason appears to have the world at his feet, but just a few years ago, Beason walked in the same shoes as many of the students he addressed Tuesday morning at Hunter Huss High School.
"I remember being in the same situation as you guys, not too long ago," the 25-year-old Beason told the student body. "My story is very similar to a lot of you guys. I come from a tough upbringing, a tough background."
Beason gave up part of his day off to encourage students at a school where just three out of every five that enter ninth grade graduate. That's well below the state average of three out of four students.
Growing up in inner-city Miami, Beason knows he could have been among the casualties. Instead, he's among the success stories and told those gathered that they can achieve similar success.
"I'm envious of you guys because you have your whole life ahead of you," Beason said. "I want to encourage you guys to find something in yourselves that is going to motivate you to strive for greater things.
"Who's to say you can't be the next professional athlete or next governor or lawyer or teacher?"
Beason received a warm ovation before addressing an auditorium full of students, and afterwards he received a key to the City of Gastonia from Mayor Jennie Stultz, the first "key to the city" he's ever received.
It wasn't that long ago that Beason was looking for the key to escaping the inner city.
"As a little kid, I was very headstrong. I wouldn't say I was bad -- but I was bad. I had the attitude that I had everything figured out," Beason said. "I was very fortunate that I had somebody in my corner. The person in my corner was my mom."
Beason's mother, Terry, raised him and his older brother, Adrian, with a dogged determination to help them avoid the fate that befell her siblings. Her older brother disappeared when she was 19, and her younger brother is in prison.
"For her," Beason said, "it was about doing what she could do to save her kids."
To accomplish that, Beason's mother removed her sons from an unhealthy school situation, driving them to a better school every day before work. The first key to staying in school, as Beason told the students gathered Tuesday, was to physically stay in school.
"I'm not going to sit here and say I was the best student, but my mom made me go every day," Beason said. "I missed one day of school from kindergarten all the way until I graduated from high school. My brother made it all the way through perfect.
"Just showing up is half the battle. If you get up and go every day, your chances of success are far greater."
Then, through the resources of teachers and a free education, Beason encouraged the students to identify their individual skill set and find something – football in his case – that drives them.
Next, with a positive attitude, continued enthusiasm and a desire to do more than is expected, Beason said he believed the students could move mountains – or, in his case, move giants.
"I'm not the biggest person. Offensive linemen in the NFL weigh about 315 pounds. I weigh 230," Beason pointed out, standing beside a similarly sized Hunter Huss student to illustrate his point. "I've got to deal with five of those guys and I've got to deal with a fullback that's 245, and then I've got to find a little running back who is hiding from me.
"I've dealt with struggles. I've dealt with setbacks. That's something that everybody in this room is guaranteed to go through. Everyone in here has had a bad day, but it's how you overcome it."