If Greg Sankey ever pens a book on his professional successes, this story – the one he shared as the guest speaker at Mississippi State University’s commencement Friday night – is likely to be his first chapter. It may even be the title of the book: ‘The Restroom Near Gate A-26.’ Should make for a snazzy cover.
Now the Commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, Sankey was the Commissioner of the Southland Conference back in 1997, and it was then, at the restroom near gate A-26 in the Atlanta-Hartsfield airport, that his life was turned around. In fact, it was quite literally knocked over.
The last thing Sankey remembers was becoming a bit lightheaded while in the restroom. His next memory is waking up on the floor of that restroom. The 32-year-old husband, father and Commissioner had an atrial fibrillation. After a handful of tests and visits with doctors, the reason for Sankey’s sudden collapse was clear.
“I was not living well,” he told the crowd Friday night.
In short, he was over-working himself and stretching himself far too thin, metaphorically, while he was very literally letting his body fall completely out of shape and good health.
In the months following that realization, Sankey began a search for truth that shaped the rest of his life. He met with professional after professional, friend after friend, authority after authority, and he asked them all the same questions about trying to find a balance between work and family.
Nothing clicked. But then Sankey happened across a book appropriately titled, ‘The Life You’ve Always Wanted’ by John Ortberg. A few chapters in, the man in search of answers read the two sentences that form the heart of his message today.
“A balanced lifestyle is not an adequate goal to which to devote our lives,” Sankey quoted the book as saying. “The problem with that goal is not that it is too difficult, but that it is too slight.”
Sankey’s prepared speech continued, “You see, balance implies we are two-dimensional, trying to balance work and family. Or pick two other aspects of your life and think about finding equilibrium between the two.
“But the reality I learned in the Atlanta airport is what Ortberg wrote is exactly right: a balanced lifestyle is not an adequate goal to which to devote my life. Instead, each of us has to recognize our multi-faceted existence.
“For me, I’m a son, a husband, a father. Some of you have watched the officiating in a game and wondered, who is the Commissioner? Well, that’s me. I’m also a friend, a neighbor, a person focused on how faith informs his life. I serve on the board of a non-profit organization working to provide fresh water to people around the globe.
“That’s eight different roles, and I’m just getting started. Balance, from my perspective, is best left to a seesaw on the playground. What then became important is what I valued, and how the values informed the principles by which I live.”
Sankey was speaking to all 1,370 December graduates of MSU on Friday night, and despite his background, his only references to sports were a couple jokes about cowbells I his intro and his self-deprecating crack about officiating. However, a few dozen of those 1,370 were student-athletes at Mississippi State, young men and women who were earning the degrees he was congratulating them on by virtue of the conference he runs.
Those people, perhaps better than many, understood the stress and the need for balance Sankey spoke so passionately about. They relate to the difficulties of trying to balance so many areas of their life at once. They know what it is to spend the same day trying to learn the diagram of a cell and the nuances of a cover two defense.
They know how many different worlds one must live in, trying to earn the approval of coaches, of teachers, of friends and maybe even of that cute guy or girl in their chemistry lab. If there’s time, of course.
They know the pressure of keeping their grades up not just so that they can play their sport, but so they can make their parents proud, so that many of them can be the first in their family to get a college education, so they can get a job when they graduate and so they can prove to themselves that they’re good enough, that they can do it.
This weekend, they did do it. They walked across the stage, they shook the President’s hand and they were given a diploma that’s technically just a piece of paper in a nice leather binder but is symbolic of the time and effort put in to reaching that place and realizing that life achievement.
As students in caps and gowns were walking onto the floor of Humphrey Coliseum as part of the processional Friday night, other students in helmets and shoulder pads were right across the street at MSU’s football facility preparing for State’s bowl game later this month. Head coach Dan Mullen’s team is 5-7, owners of a record not typically seen in the postseason. But for the same reason that 17 of his players were missing from practice to graduate, all 100-some-odd members of his team get to spend a week at the beach in late December.
Because MSU’s APR (Academic Progress Rate) was so high, MSU was one of a select few teams rewarded with the chance to continue their season.
“It teaches young people a lesson in life that football isn’t all we’re here for,” Mullen said. “We’re going to a bowl game because of academics, because of the work our guys have done … We’re getting to go to a bowl game because we had 17 guys graduate today. It’s one of the great lessons that guys in our program will learn in their entire career here. It was academics, it was off-the-field that got them rewarded with this trip this year.”
Their success is exemplary of the standard Sankey charged all 1,370 graduates to strive for – prioritize your life, live by your principles, and most importantly, make good decisions.
The Commissioner pulled out a laminated card on Friday night as he neared the end of his speech. Smaller than a playing card, he showed it to the audience, then read its contents. It’s a simple list of 10 components which guide his decision-making and, thus, guide his life.
- Live honorably
- Live a quiet life
- Live within my means
- Laugh often
- Make each day a masterpiece
- Mind my own business
- Be diligent in my work
- Associate with people who make me better and return the favor
- Order my life to limit exposure to temptation
- Be open to the needs of others
It’s easy for him to rattle off a list – with explanations for each provided – but Sankey knows there is great difficulty in applying any lesson to an indivudal life as it comes in everyday situations. And no matter how hard anyone tries, all are likely to have their own Restroom Near Gate A-26 moment at some point.
“But that’s the great thing about life,” Sankey told the coliseum full of new graduates. “It ought to scare you a little bit. Maybe every day. That’s how you make the masterpiece.”