Miami Dolphins cornerback R.J. Stanford doesn’t believe in quitting, though he had plenty of chances to in his life.
“No white flags,” he said to a crowd of teenagers at Gardena High School on Wednesday. “Don’t surrender.”
Not the fastest or the biggest, the 25-year-old from Chino didn’t make it to the NFL just because of the number of eye-popping big plays he made during his time at the University of Utah.
No, it was old fashioned perseverance that carried the one-time D student through college and to professional football.
“Failure doesn’t exist when you don’t quit,” Stanford said to the more than 500 at-risk students from the Gardena Global Leadership Academy at Gardena High School.
The academy prepares students for careers in international trade. Many who attend the school come from low-income families and are considered at-risk teens. Each month, speakers from the world of business, politics and entertainment lecture the students on how to push through to success.
Stanford’s “never-quit” mantra was born out of struggle, and in some cases self-imposed obstacles that tripped him up on the way to the NFL.
A natural athlete, Stanford wasn’t nearly as committed to his studies. “I wasn’t dumb, but I was a little lazy,” he told the students.
Early on at Chino High School, Stanford scored poor marks on his report card, began running with the wrong crowd and partied a little too hard. “I was that kid sleeping in the back of the classroom,” he said.
Colleges that initially showed some interest in Stanford began to have second thoughts about offering him a football scholarship. That’s when his mother, LaShawn Stanford, didn’t quit on her son. She decided to show up to school and sat in his first-period class.
“R.J. showed up to first period 20 minutes late with a bag of McDonalds,” she said.
He got the message from his mom. After that, his grades improved and he was offered a scholarship to the University of Utah.
In 2010, he was selected by the Carolina Panthers in the seventh round of the NFL draft. He played two years with the Panthers before signing with the Dolphins in 2012.
With a week off from NFL action, Stanford flew back across the country to spend time with his mother, who still lives in Chino but serves on the board of directors of the Gardena Global Leadership Academy.
“The kids are constantly looking for role models and inspiration,” said Rob Vickery, chairman of the Gardena Global Leadership Academy board. “R.J. had some challenges and I thought he was a good person for kids to meet.”
Stanford’s talk with the students was anything but the typical lecture to at-risk kids. For example, he quizzed the students on how they plan to attain their goals.
“What does it mean to be a professional?” he asked.
The students’ hands flew up.
Most said being a professional means getting paid for your work rather than doing it for free.
Stanford agreed but added a little more detail to what being a professional truly means to him.
“A professional does something until they can’t get it wrong; an amateur does it until they get it right.”
Even with his success on the gridiron, Stanford told the students that football has never been the ultimate measure of his success.
“Football is only a platform. How well you do in school will decide how well you will do in life,” he said.
As her son stood on the stage talking to the students, LaShawn Stanford was beaming with pride.
“I am so glad to see R.J. go in the direction I had hoped he would go in,” she said. “He’s very involved with the community, very involved with his church. He goes to Chino High School in the offseason and trains with the players.”
Perhaps explaining why it’s important for him to give back, Stanford told the students about a gift, a tool set, his grandfather willed to him. The gesture was both touching and served as a lesson for him.
“Let me not wait till I am on my death bed to leave people my tools.”
View more event photos on the ITEP Facebook Page.
A heartfelt thank you to GGLA students, faculty and advisory board members for organizing this special event, especially La Shawn Stanford (UPS), Rob Vickery (BNY Mellon) and the rest of the Stanford family.