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Retired NFL wide receiver Ricardo Lockette speaks at the 2016 GeekWire Summit. Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire.

For Ricardo Lockette, overcoming adversity started long before the former NFL wide receiver and special teams stud nearly died on the field last year in Dallas.

It starts in Albany, Ga., where the 30-year-old first developed the grit and determination that helped Lockette push through obstacle after obstacle before eventually making it to the NFL and winning a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks.

It goes from ending up at a Division II college after poor academics prevented him from at playing at a top school; to not being selected in the 2011 NFL Draft; to bouncing around NFL practice squads.

Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire.

Throughout his life, Lockette’s grit — a personality trait regarded by some researchers as an indicator of success — has carried him through adversity, which included the scary moment this past November when Lockette had his skull disconnected from his spinal cord after taking a big hit while on punt coverage for the Seahawks.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Lockette on stage at the 2016 GeekWire Summit, where he shared his inspiring life story and talked about how he’s now committed his life to helping others in need after retiring from the NFL in May. Lockette is now partnering with the Seattle Science Foundation to support spinal cord research, helping feed the homeless, and recently launched the Ricardo Lockette Foundation.

You can watch the interview here, or read the transcript below.

GeekWire’s Taylor Soper: “Most people here probably know you because of your time in the league, but your journey starts in Albany, Georgia, where you were born and raised. Let’s start with how you grew up and what your childhood was like.”

Ricardo Lockette: “First of all, thank you guys for having me. It’s pleasure to be here. I always feel at home when I’m in Seattle. Growing up in Albany, Georgia is a little different than Washington. Really hot, as you can imagine, gnats everywhere. But my dad, he was a major influence in my life. He was my first football coach at the age of seven. He was always hard on me, harder than everyone else. So I had to run extra laps, had to be at practice early because obviously, he was the coach. I had to do all these things that he made me do, that I felt was unfair. I think that was the first lesson, as far as my life, as far as grit, and being resilient. I felt like stuff was harder, but I was still a kid, and I somehow still had to overcome those obstacles, because my love for my dad was greater than the effort it took to do the work that he was asking me to do.”

GeekWire: You didn’t really get into football until high school, junior year. I read somewhere that you were jumping over cars and someone was like, ‘You need to go play football.'”

Lockette: “No, no, I’d been playing football for awhile. But I started running track in my sophomore year, and it was just basically off the fact that some guy didn’t show up one day, and the track coach asked me to run a lap in the 4×4. We ended up winning. That year I set three school records.”

Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire.

GeekWire: “Not bad — you were fast, even back then. You eventually played college ball at Fort Valley State. You didn’t get a whole bunch of attention from NFL scouts, but you did win the Division II 200-meter NCAA Championship. What was going through your mind? Was the NFL what you wanted to do? Or maybe the Olympics?”

Lockette: “In high school, I was kind of the big guy on campus, and teachers kind of helped me along. They kind of passed me, because I was kind of the nice guy who was great at sports. But that ultimately affected my college career because I had offers from major D1 schools, but because of the lack of attention I paid to my education in high school, it caused me to go to a Division II. Everyone was just like, ‘Hey, now he’s going Division II, he’s not going D1, he can’t go to the NFL, what is he going to do now?’ Everyone’s asking me this, and it was just aggravating, so much. They were asking, ‘What are you going to do now?’ Like, okay, so you’re giving up on me. You don’t believe I can do it. You don’t believe I can do it.

Everyone would ask me that, so I said to myself that no matter what school I go to, I’m going to be the best, every day, no matter what. But first of all, I’m not supposed to be here. I’m bigger than this. I felt like I was bigger than every situation. I felt like I was better than every person that was next to me, and I felt like there was no goal that was unobtainable.

So being in that environment, I think I brought my teammates along, I brought my coaches along, and I brought my family along with the drive that I had. And I made it work out of Fort Valley State, I think.”

GeekWire: “At such a young age, I mean, you’re only a college kid. Where did that drive come from? Was it your father? Was it the way you were brought up? Was it the small community? That doesn’t just come.”

Lockette: “People always ask, ‘Where does that drive come from?’ Coach [Pete] Carroll, we have talks around the locker room and meetings about, where does grit come from? What is it? Like I said before, I think it’s when your passion, or when your purpose, is greater than the work, like I said. A lot of people have plans of doing this, and they have plans of being great, and coming up with the next this and the next that. But sometimes, there are bumps in the road that you didn’t plan on. And sometimes people derail from their plans.

I talk to my kids, and I talk to other people, and I say, ‘Look at it this way. If you went to the kitchen, and you were fixing a sandwich, and you were really hungry, and you dropped your sandwich — that doesn’t stop your hunger. So do you go to lay down, and say I dropped my sandwich, or do you fix another sandwich, or do you find something else to eat?’

That’s pretty much what I think life’s about. I’m no philosopher or anything, but I think it’s about feeding your hunger. That sandwich didn’t stop your life, it didn’t ruin your plans for being great at anything. It was a small obstacle that you didn’t plan on that happened — and that is grit. That’s where it comes from. It comes from being great, being resilient.”

Day 1 of the GeekWire Summit 2016 at the Seattle Sheraton, October 4, 2016. Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire
Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire.

GeekWire: So you made it through school, but you didn’t get drafted. You did get an invitation to the NFL Combine, where all the scouts address your skills, but the draft went by in 2011 and you didn’t get drafted. Was that the end? Were you just like, ‘Okay, I’ll go find something else,’ or was the fire still in you to make it?”

Lockette: “The longer I sit here, the more and more stuff that you bring up, it’s like, wow. All these doors have been closed in my life. This is really the first time that I’ve heard all these things back to back to back.”

GeekWire: “We’re just getting started here.”

Lockette: “So coming out of Fort Valley State, like I said, I had the drive and I’m telling everyone that you can do it, you can make it, you can make it. And here we go over again, here’s the draft and everybody is like, ‘OK, hardly anybody comes out of a Division II school, so this is our guy, he’s going to make it.’ And it doesn’t happen.

So this happens again. ‘What are you going to do now? Well, you know, I have a mechanics shop where you can do this…’ I’m not doing that. I have a goal. I have a purpose, and this is what I’m going to do.

So time goes by, a couple teams call, and Coach Carroll gives me the call. He says, ‘Hey, I read up on you. I know who you are. I’m just going to give you an opportunity.’ At that time, when I told my family, and I told my friends, the look in their eyes, the way my grandparents cried, the way my dad smiled, just out of pure happiness … it’s something that I knew I couldn’t let die. The only way I would let that die is if I come to Seattle and waste the opportunity that I had.

I think every day we wake up, we have an opportunity to do something. Obviously, everyone in here realizes that. If there’s anything you can take from this and take from me, don’t ever give up on your dreams, because there’s someone older, younger, next door that’s watching you, and they are going to reap the benefits from what we do in this room. I think this is an amazing group, and I think this is an amazing meeting. GeekWire — it’s something that’s going to change the world, and I’m pleased to be a part of it.”

GeekWire: “So you made the team, but you didn’t actually play your first game until about four months later in December. It’s a home game, CenturyLink Field, it’s electric, and on the first play, Seahawks have the ball, Tavaris Jackson drops back, 44 yards, you’re right there. You make the catch. You’re right on the Seahawks sideline. Everyone’s going crazy. That’s got to be an amazing feeling.”

Lockette: “That was actually one of the best days of my career, because my dad’s favorite team, coincidentally, is the 49ers. So my first play was Christmas Eve and we played the 49ers. I told my dad, I said, ‘Hey, watch the game today. I got something to show you.’ He doesn’t know that I’m active. He just thinks that I’m going to sitting on the sideline in a sweatsuit, and hopes that I don’t run across the field and do something crazy.

So the very first play of the game, Christmas Eve, my dad’s favorite team, his son that he coached his entire life is walking out on the field. He’s like, ‘I was watching it and I thought that was you but I wasn’t quite sure. Next thing I knew, they hiked the ball and they threw you the ball and I was just hoping that you caught it, just hoping that you caught it, and when you caught it, I couldn’t stop the tears from my eyes, because that was everything I wanted you to experience. I wanted you to know that you were great, and that anything was possible.’ So that Christmas Eve was one of the best Christmas Eves, one of the best gifts I probably could have given my dad.”

GeekWire: “That’s an amazing moment. Fast forward to 2014, one of my favorite Ricardo plays is during ‘Beast Quake 2.’ This is Marshawn’s second epic run, at Arizona, a division rival. We have the video here, so let’s just watch that play.

Marshawn scored the touchdown, but if you guys noticed, No. 83 took out not one, not two, not three, probably four times there. On that 30 yard line, without you there, that play wouldn’t have been possible. What goes through your mind watching that play again?”

Lockette: “I think, on a team, everyone has a job. Everyone has a position. The better you are at your position, the stronger the team is. But just because you’ve done your job, doesn’t mean there isn’t anything else to do. Obviously, my guy, he was a backside, he wasn’t in that play. When I’m watching this play, I’m watching the teammate, I’m watching the family member, and I’m watching the brother that has the same goal, the same purpose that I have. It’s not about the X’s and the O’s, it’s not about ‘I did my part, you did your part.’ It’s about giving your all. It’s about, there is no limit. If there is a team, if you have a team full of guys or women that has no limit, the sky’s the limit for that team.

You have a lot of people that just play their position, and just kind of fit into the typical, this is what I’m supposed to do. It doesn’t work. That makes you normal. That makes you generic. There’s nothing generic about greatness. Everyone creates their own path, and I think everything I been through, all the doors that have been closed have created resilience, and I think that’s what that was. I don’t like talking about myself, because it’s not about me. It’s about the team, it’s about my family, it’s about my community, it’s about helping others, it’s about the greater cause for life itself. I was just doing my part, and I don’t take any extra credit. He would do the same for me.

GeekWire: “You say he would do the same for you. I feel like the Seahawks are special. Since Coach Carroll came in, he’s helped create this culture. You talk about brotherhood, LOB, teamwork, determination, helping your brother out, it’s not about you. How did that happen? As you were on the team, how did he instill that in you guys, and what was that like, having that bond with your brothers out there?

Lockette: “It’s more of a family environment, and it’s the way he incorporates family into business. A lot of times, you know, we’re at work and you’re away from your family, you’re away from your husband, you’re away from your kids. But what Coach Carroll does, he brings your family in. He makes it real. He says, ‘hey Ricardo, these are Russell Okung’s kids, this is his wife, this is so-and-so.’ Then, you understand, they have to get back to these people. We kind of look at this kind of like a war zone, kind of like a military thing. It’s like, I’m blocking for Marshawn so that he can get there and hug his mom. I’m blocking for Russell Wilson so that he can get back and hug Ciara.

It’s bigger than us, is what I’m saying. You understand the purpose. The purpose isn’t just to get a touchdown. The purpose is to do everything right so that certain people don’t get hurt, and so forth and so on. Obviously, certain things happen, but that’s how it goes.”

GeekWire: “Let’s jump to last November, almost a year ago now. You’re in Dallas, you’re sprinting down as fast as you can on punt coverage, and bam. You get hit, you fall. You’re not moving. What was going on in your mind?”

Lockette: “We’re running down, and Coach Carroll, he’s like, ‘Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. Rocket, we need you. Let’s go. Let’s roll, let’s roll.’ He’s really high-energy like this. We get ready to roll, and the ball is snapped, and I give a move, and I’m running down the field, and then I check to see the flight of the ball, because I’m going to fight for the return, no brakes. I’m running right for him, and I see him, I see him, and I’m pushing this guy off.

Then, all of a sudden I hear a boom. It’s like a loud crack, right there. It’s kind of the sound if you were to hit a fork on the side of a glass. I’m just laying there, and the only thing I can move is my eyes. I’m looking around. I can’t hear anything. That was a moment where a lot of things changed in my life.

I look at myself as a warrior. I look at myself as someone that can’t be stopped. I look at someone that has an unbreakable personality, and that moment, I was extremely vulnerable. I wasn’t a warrior. There was nothing that I could do for myself.

So I’m laying there, and I’m just asking God to just give me the opportunity to get up and walk again. Give me the opportunity to hug my mom again. Give me the opportunity to at least tell my daughter that I love her, and I want her to be great in life. At that point, I’m laying on the ground, and touchdowns and X’s and O’s and Super Bowls don’t matter anymore. That’s when you realize what’s really important in life. What’s really important in life is affecting others in a positive way. How do they feel about you? If you leave today, what did you do to help mankind, your family, your brothers, your sisters? That’s what’s important to me now.

I had great doctors and a great training staff. They helped me out. I’m laying there and pretty much my skull is disconnected from my spinal cord. If my teammates were to come over and say, ‘hey, get up,’ and pull my hand or move my arm, I would have died. If the play would have extended a couple more seconds, and the guy would have ran the ball and fell on top of me or whatever, I would have died. If the training staff had came over and just tried to pick me up or put me on the cart some kind of way, I probably would have died.

But I’m thankful to be here. I’m thankful to God that I’m here. Because their training, their studying, their passion for what they want to do, what they wanted to do and be, saved my life. I dare not take that for granted. There’s a lot of people that are in the hospital right now that are fighting for their lives, and a lot of people that’s not here today. I dare not waste another day not giving my all to be the best I can be, giving my all to help others complete their dreams and their goals in life.”

GeekWire: “What were those couple weeks, maybe months after … I know you had some conversations. Marshawn visited you in your hospital room. I’m sure some of these thoughts that you have now, you had then. And your daughter came. What were those conversations like? Was your perspective already changing at that point?

Lockette: “Yeah. It had definitely changed. Maybe an hour after the hit happened, it took my daughter and my family a little while to get to the hospital. My mom and the doctor says, ‘hey, your daughter is outside.’ November 1st is actually her birthday, so she came to that game as a birthday gift from me. She’s outside, she’s ten years old. She’s at the door. They’re like, ‘Do you want her to come in?’

At this point, I have to think about — I’m the hero, I’m the warrior, and my daughter’s like, she’s my little girl, she’s my angel. Do I want her to see me like this? Daddy’s all bandaged up, stuff’s all on his neck, wires and stuff everywhere. Do I want her to see me like this? Do I want to see her at my weakest point?

My answer was yes, because I wanted her to feel okay. I didn’t want her to go to sleep not knowing what happened to daddy, or not knowing this, not knowing that. I wanted to deal with that void in her brain. Once she got in, all my tears went away. All my pain went away, because, like I say, my purpose was bigger than the effort or the work it took to get the job done. The job that I had to get done was to show my daughter that no matter what happens, you can always win. There’s always another day. Hey, daddy’s going to be okay. You know, don’t cry. It’s OK, it’s football, you know? This is not … we’re going to have a birthday party tomorrow.

At this point, I don’t know if my neck’s broken, I don’t know if I’ll ever walk again. I have no idea. All I know is that I have two to three minutes with my daughter that thinks I’m the greatest thing that ever happened to life, and I have to make her happy. That’s what I did, and I’m glad that I chose to let her come in the room.”

GeekWire: “You decided to retire earlier this year. As we talk about how your perspective has changed, it’s tough to hang up the cleats, but you dedicated your life to helping others in need. Why?”

Lockette: “Because others helped me when I was at the lowest point, or the worst point in my life. Coming out of the hospital, I would say, maybe like an hour after that, I saw a group of homeless people on the corner. It had to be at least 100 of them. I couldn’t believe that this many homeless people were on the street. In Georgia you don’t see that many. In Seattle, you see it here or there, but Dallas, it was more people on the street than there probably is here. I was wondering, what could I do, what could I do, what could I do? An hour after surgery, obviously I can’t do much, I can barely move.

I tell the driver to turn around and go by the burger place. We bought a hundred burgers. Ever since that day, trying to help homeless and just giving back has been a snowball effect for me, and I’m excited about everything that I’m going to be doing, and doing in the future.”

Today a team was made to help those that thought they’d never walk again, Walk Again?? #Rockette #seattlesciencefoundation

A photo posted by Ricardo Lockette (@ricardolockette) on

GeekWire: “Speaking of helping others, you are helping out the Seattle Science Foundation with some pretty cool work they’re doing with spinal injuries. Can you talk a little bit about that?”

Lockette: “These guys are amazing. The Seattle Science Foundation and Dr. Shane Tubbs and Dr. Rod Oskouian. They’re great. We’re trying to raise awareness for spinal cord injury. We want to raise awareness that there’s actually 17,000 spinal cord injuries that happen every year. Our plan is to do, actually, the first 3D mapping of the spinal cord, so that we have a better understanding of how it works, the different intricacies of the brain and how it works with the spinal cord, to one day make the wheelchair a thing of the past. There’s a lot of people that need our help. We’re going to raise money for those that can’t afford insurance — those that need surgeries and just don’t have the money to do it.

We’re actually planning a trip in a couple months. We’re going to Africa for ten days. We’re taking over 200 doctors with us. There are people there that have been in wheelchairs, there’s people that have been bedridden for the last year. There’s kids with deformities. These guys are going to teach the doctors new techniques of spinal cord research, and also help these people walk that had no chance or no thought of thinking about walking, or holding their kids or walking or whatever with their kids, or just being a father, holding his child. We’re going to change that for them, and I’m excited about the opportunity. I’m excited to see where it will go. I look forward to making wheelchairs a thing of the past with the Seattle Science Foundation.”

GeekWire: “From growing up in Albany, to Fort Valley State, to not being drafted, to bouncing around practice squads — you went to three Super Bowls in a row and you won one. Your story is so full of perseverance and grit. For people out there, whether it’s an entrepreneur, or a kid studying for his math test — there’s been studies done that perseverance and grit can trump IQ or intelligence almost every time. What advice would you give to that person, in terms of them asking you, ‘How do I get more grit? How do I get more confidence in myself?’ What would you tell them?”

Lockette: “You find the purpose. If you’re creating something that’s going to stop paralysis or you talk to people that are in wheelchairs, or you talk to people that are on crutches, or you talk to people that are going through spinal cord injury. You talk to someone in that area. If you’re dealing with a math test, ‘Hey mom, what happens if I don’t pass this? What happen if I do pass this?’ It’s up to your parents, I think, to instill that.

But if you’re at an our age now and you’re wondering, ‘Hey, I’m trying to do this, I’m trying to do that. It just seems like every door’s being closed on me. What do I do?’

Dig down deep and say, ‘Why am I here? Am I going to waste this day, or am I going to make it great? Am I going to change my family’s life? Am I going to change my kids’ life? Do I want to live here forever? Do I want my kids to live this type of way?’ Or whatever your purpose is. You find a new purpose. You can’t do anything without purpose. You don’t just get in the car and drive. You have somewhere you’re going. Wherever you’re going, if it’s that important to you, no matter how many red lights or how many stop signs you go through, you’ll get there.”

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