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Alex Smith goes for boos in speech to U. of Utah grads

Published May 2, 2014 9:48 am

Commencement • NFL quarterback gets crowd involved; graduates include Vietnam vet, woman whose fiancé has bone cancer.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Graduation speaker Alex Smith brought the University of Utah class of 2014 and their families to their feet Thursday — by asking the crowd to boo him.

While one side of the room yelled, "You're a bust!" the other proclaimed, "You ruined my fantasy football team!'"

Smith, who led the Utes to a 21-1 record as quarterback a decade ago, said it was a dramatization of one of his biggest fears come to life.

"Imagine 80,000 people tearing you apart," he said. "The heartbreak is, this was a home game. These were the very same people I was trying so hard to impress."

In a not-quite-traditional speech, Smith handed out his life prescriptions to the nearly 8,000 graduates after getting an honorary degree that made him "Dr. Smith," a title he joked about putting on the back of his jersey.

He encouraged the graduates to identify their weaknesses, embrace the new and let go of what they can't control.

Smith said his status as the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NFL draft came with some baggage.

"I made it this big shiny trophy I carried around. It had one word engraved on it, and that was 'anxiety,'" he said.

"I became cautious, I was tentative, my entire mind-set became, 'Don't screw up.'"

He encouraged the graduates not to worry about becoming most popular, and also quoted his U. coach, Urban Meyer.

"'If what you want is different from what you have, then you need to change what you are doing,'" Smith said.

The quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs also remembered being benched with a concussion before the Super Bowl.

"We're all going to strive for success … but the truth is at some point you're going to find yourself on the bench," he said. "You're going to have two choices. One, you can sit and sulk and feel sorry for yourself or … you can refocus your energy preparing yourself for the next opportunity life brings you."

One of those graduates has been preparing for while. James Sargent, 69, has been awarded two Purple Hearts and raised a family, but on Thursday he got the one thing he's been missing since graduating from high school in 1963: A college degree.

As a young man, Sargent enlisted in the Army and was shipped off to Vietnam, where he was wounded twice in one day-and-night-long battle.

"I'm finally getting to do the one thing that should have been one of the first things I did," he said. "It's a great day."

Another graduate, student speaker Janine Henry, found her academic goals suddenly looked "out of sync" when her fiance was diagnosed with bone cancer in both hips last October and given three months to live.

"I had four years of straight As under my belt, but was now missing classes to spend an extra 20 minutes with her in the morning and watching her make macaroni," she said. "There were parts of us that said maybe we're not going to get through this, but we have … from what I can see, the sacrifice has always been worth it."

Her fiance was in the crowd.

The U. awarded the $40,000 Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence, the most prestigious faculty honor, to Randall Olson, professor and CEO of the John A. Moran Eye Center.

Olson has taken the school's ophthalmology program from a single faculty member when he started in 1979 to a respected institution with more than 500 employees.

"Dr. Olson has a long, rich history with the University," said U. President David Pershing in a statement. "His forward-thinking leadership has effectively put the Moran Eye Center on the national map."

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst