Ken Harvey’s fascinating rags-to-riches journey through football and life is a shining example of the importance of getting the full story before drawing conclusions and acting on them.
The former All-Pro linebacker retired from the NFL in 1999 and was selected in 2002 as one of the 70 all-time greatest Washington Redskins. Harvey currently runs his own sports marketing business, is an accomplished children’s book author who has just completed his first novel (entitled Xavier: A Hero No More), and currently serves as the Washington Redskins’ Director of Responsibility.
But life wasn’t always so charmed for Harvey. If he hadn’t taken a hard look in the mirror during his teen years, the main theme of his life story almost certainly would have been a tale of “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.”
Nowadays, whenever he gets a chance to inspire business clients, current NFL players, or groups of youngsters, Harvey is quick to share the fact that he dropped out of high school at a time in his life when he hadn’t yet discovered anything to be passionate about.
It’s perfect that Harvey’s so willing to share his unpleasant memories along with the pleasant ones, because the lessons he’s learned from seeking the full story about himself and others make him a poster boy for changing our lives against all odds. Along the way, he learned that no positive change can occur in our lives unless we stop running from our personal truths.
“You know, looking at myself in the mirror is still affecting my life,” Harvey told Access Athletes. “I was just telling my business partner the other day that the hardest thing is to look at yourself in the mirror. A lot of times we’re so busy that we run past the mirror without seeing ourselves. It’s hard to look directly at yourself and say ‘This is what I need.’”
Harvey added: “And sometimes we don’t even know. Sometimes it has to be pointed out by somebody else. But when you’re alone and everything else seems to go bad around you, if you can stop and look and say ‘okay, what am I doing, what have I been doing all my life, and why isn’t what I’m doing working?’, then you can start to say ‘well maybe I need to tweak this, and maybe I need to tweak that.’”
Building the courage to face our inner demons and negative feelings is the key for us to learn from Harvey’s example and finally take full control of our lives. It’s also any athlete’s greatest challenge. But he insists that we can succeed in changing our lives simply by using a sensible, systematic approach.
One of the hardest things Harvey says is to identify what you need to work on, or the root of your problem.
“Sometimes we think ‘I don’t have any money’ and that the root of this lack of money is because I can’t get a good job. But the root may be what’s inside of you. Somebody may have told you, ‘Well you need to clean up your resume. It’s okay but it’s not as good as it could be.’ But you say, ‘I don’t need to clean up my resume because it’s about the type of people you know.’ So the root in that example may be pride.
“This can become a real problem when you get so prideful that you can’t listen when somebody’s giving you advice, but you think it’s because there are no jobs out there. You’re claiming that as the root, but the change that may have to come is that you’ve got to work on your pride. You may not think those two things go together, but they may go together.”
After identifying what needs to be changed, Harvey says you must stretch yourself. But he cautions that it isn’t always as simple as it seems because people develop habits along the way that make change more difficult.
“It’s hard to break those habits. But that’s where you’ve got to have people around you that can point out things and help you make adjustments.”
The Anatomy of a Life Decision
Now that he deeply understands the amazing power of self-assessing and listening receptively to truthful feedback about himself, Harvey has also developed a deep appreciation for the healing power of his high school dropout story in athletes’ lives.
Too often, the entire sports infrastructure treats top athletes like child entertainers in the sense that they’re coddled like emotional babies and no one teaches them how to make important life decisions that would enable them to function at a mature adult level. Likewise, these same athletes aren’t always held accountable for the choices they make outside the playing field until they contradict the brand philosophy of their professional team or league.
So Harvey’s story about not listening to anyone at first, but then discovering the life-transforming power of listening carefully, is a lighthouse on the stormy sea for all athletes who may not have been blessed with a positive support network to grow up in.
“For me growing up,” Harvey said, “I think it had a lot to do with that I didn’t feel like I was challenged or I didn’t have a direction. School seemed like it was kind of easy, at least at that level, so I went totally opposite and just didn’t do anything. And because of that, you get frustrated; you get bored.”
Harvey was struggling with school and it got to the point where he was making straight F’s. It was decision time.
“Either you’re going to get straight F’s and quit school, or you’re going to end up just doing some woodwork shop and then say ‘look at me, I graduated high school,’ but you really have no skillset. So for me at that time I chose to say I’ve got to step back and look at life and decide what I really wanted to do.”
Harvey decided to drop out of school in the 11th grade and see what he could do without a high school diploma. Of course, it wasn’t long before that hard dose of reality began to digest in his fertile mind.
He recalled there were limited options for a high school dropout: trade school or the military, both of which Harvey admitted were not desirable to him at the time because he wasn’t prepared to dedicate himself wholeheartedly. After realizing the harsh reality he faced, he decided to return to high school, this time with a better understanding of what he needed to do to move forward.
He was determined to develop and apply principles that would help him succeed. Being humble enough to put yourself in some situations where you may look like a fool, but sometimes it’s the only way to learn. Being focused on a clear direction and purpose. Having the fortitude and perseverance to go through the hard times.
“Everyone thinks there’s success overnight. I went days where I was starving, where I was trying to live on the street just to try to make it.”
But for Harvey, even experiencing extreme hardships wasn’t enough by itself to change his mind or blur his newfound vision. He told Access Athletes that this was really meaningful to him because it showed him that a big change doesn’t have to happen all at once. And it’s okay to chip away at change.
In fact, as Harvey chipped away at his life change, he realized that it almost always happens in small steps anyway. We take one step and then another, and finally we reach a threshold where the next step appears to change everything. That’s what happened to Harvey. When he least expected it, he got a little help from an unlikely friend.
In a Fox News interview, Harvey recounts a compelling story about how he was deeply inspired to change his life direction after talking with a guy whose own self-destructive life choices had killed his dreams.
“The story I told was about a guy who was a janitor, and there’s nothing wrong with sweeping floors and cleaning up if you do the best you can at it and that’s your job. There are a lot of great men and women who’ve gotten no notoriety but work a hard job and support their families and do well, so I’m not knocking it.”
But this particular janitor was far from complacent with his job. He was deeply regretful about the bad decisions he made in life and hung up on the great football player he could have been. According to Harvey, the janitor told him that he squandered a promising football career by partying too much, letting his initial successes go to his head, and not listening to his coaches.
“So here he is in the position where he’s at, and as I looked at it I said to myself ‘man, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life being in the position where I’m saying ‘I should’ve been, I could’ve been, or I wish I would’ve been.’
“So at that moment, looking at it, a seed was planted. It didn’t hit me right away and make me say ‘wow, I’ve got to just change my life!’ But it was a seed that was planted and I always remembered it. I thought, ‘I don’t want to do that with myself,’ so that’s why I started moving on to the direction I was moving.”
One of the more subtle, but powerful nuggets of wisdom that Harvey has plucked from his transformative experiences is that although people often think that they only need examples of what to do, we actually need examples of both what to do and what not to do. That’s because having both enables us to compare the outcomes to see which path we want to take.
“Some people don’t want to hear it,” Harvey said, “but the Bible has plenty of stories about what not to do and also about what to do, and you’ve got to have a little bit of both so you can learn. You know, some of the best lessons are from people who’ve made the worst mistakes. If you can learn to say okay, this is where you steered wrong, then you know not to step in that direction [and you] step in another direction."
Harvey’s own willingness to learn from others’ mistakes had nothing to do with being blessed with special talents or anything of that sort. It was simply a matter of changing his own mind about what he deserved and wanted in his life. So just by choosing to do everything in his power to be the best Ken Harvey that he could be, his entire life changed forever.
He went on to get his high school diploma. He then starred in football at (and graduated from) the prestigious University of California, Berkeley. From there he began a storied NFL career that has resulted in him being an NFL icon.
Transitioning to Life After Football
Since being named Director of Responsibility for the Redskins in 2008, the main focus of Harvey’s direct work with NFL players has been to encourage those who drink alcohol to do so responsibly. However, he said that because of the strong need for players and everyone else to behave responsibly in all areas of our lives, he has been looking for ways to expand the scope of his role in that position.
The bottom line, Harvey said, is for players to continually develop their important relationships and their God-given talents outside of football so that they can transition smoothly into other professions after their playing days end.
“I always tell people that the same thing that makes you great in football and other sports is the same thing that can destroy you post-career. As a football player, for example, you’ve got to be prideful. You’re taught all your life to overcome any obstacle. If you get hurt, you keep going. If you get knocked down, you get back up. You keep going.”
As a former NFL player, Harvey said he understands how a professional athlete’s pride can cause them not to acknowledge a lost cause. In his opinion, that never-give-up, I-can-do-it-myself approach may work best for the gridiron, but off the field it has the potential to hinder an athlete’s decision-making skills and lead to disastrous situations.
To illustrate the point, Harvey explains that successful business people move on if a business isn’t going well and showing signs of improvement.
“They say ‘we’ve got to try something new,’” Harvey said, as opposed to some athletes who think they have to keep doing something and keep sinking their money in a venture, even though it may not be the right thing for them.
“So that athlete pride makes you say, ‘I can do this on my own. I have to force myself and push myself because this is about me.’ But that’s the thing that can destroy you because if you look beyond football and you’re still thinking ‘it’s all about me,’ you stop asking for help. You don’t say, ‘What can I do?’ That feeling of thinking that you’re on top of the world is the same thing that can destroy you because once you get out of football, you just become the average person. And people may still pat you on the back, but the reality is that you become that average person. It’s a hard fall from the top of the hill if you haven’t prepared yourself going down.
“So you’ve got to constantly keep trying to grow while you’re playing football so that when you stop playing, the transition is not up a hill and then all of a sudden you’re at the bottom of a hill. The ideal transition is when you’re at the top of the football hill and now you’re going to the top of the real world hill, you know?”
Unfortunately, though, the pro athlete’s reality is that the social pressures placed on his shoulders (by the media, the league, and fans) to act as a model citizen and hero is probably much greater than he’s been trained to handle. So unless someone points his thoughts to the questions he needs to continually ask in order to keep growing as a whole person, he’s constantly flirting with public relations/brand image disasters that can end his playing career before he’s prepared to transition to another arena where he can also succeed. That’s why it’s so important for players to surround themselves with people who add real positive value to their lives.
In that light, Harvey’s main practical advice to young pro players about how they can more effectively handle the social pressures of playing in the NFL is surrounding themselves around people who are not just “yes men.”
“You know as a pro athlete you have this entourage, and it’s easy to just have everybody that says 'yes' and always tell you, ‘You’re the man,’ and they beat you in your chest and tell you how great you are.”
While Harvey believes it’s okay to have some people like that in your inner circle, he stresses that “you also need to have people who’ll get in your face and say, ‘You know what? Your breath stinks! You’ve got something on your nose.’ You need to have some of those people that are honest with you and are going to say, ‘Look, you’re not as good as you think you are,’ or, ‘Man, you’re playing great, but have you thought about this?’”
In addition to having people in your inner circle who aren’t afraid of dishing out real talk, Harvey says that athletes must understand the value of their gifts and what they can do with them.
“You have this value that comes from having publicity, notoriety, having an opportunity to meet people, and getting into places that other people may not be able to get into. Now, I’ve been blessed enough to still have some notoriety and some name, so I’m realizing, ‘Okay, I’m Ken Harvey. Here’s what I do. This is what I can do.’ And then I say, ‘Okay, if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it well.’ That’s what you have; you have a gift, so use it as a gift. You have to be a steward over what was given to you. It’s just like everything else. If you don’t realize the value of your gift, you don’t take it seriously.”
Look Below the Surface, Be Willing to Grow, and Finish What You Start
By accepting stewardship over their gifts, Harvey said that NFL players can find fulfillment on and off the field. His three keys to fulfillment are to look beyond the obvious in order to honor their other gifts beyond football, to always be willing to learn new things, and to finish what they start.
On the matter of honoring one’s multi-dimensional gifts, Harvey shared an example of how he honors his.
“What I’m trying to do with my sports marketing company is to make my clients and associates feel like they’re part of a family and that they’re getting more than what they thought they could get,” he said.
As a motivational speaker, Harvey wants people to know that regardless of where you’ve been or where you’re at, it’s all about what you do right now. “It’s not too late to start changing or doing anything; just start right now. Other people have been there, and other people are going through it. I think that’s what we do in life: we need to look at it, identify it, and try to work on it so we can get better from it. So that would be my message to everybody.”
On being willing to learn, Harvey recommended four things. First, he recommends reading books because they can provide guidance and be your example. Second, he says you have to be humble enough to ask people for advice in order to figure out what you can do and then improve. Next, he says not to look too much at the big picture, but take the small steps and be good at those small steps. Finally, he says you have to keep believing.
“Even when things knock you down, understand the value of yourself—and that you are worth something, that you have a purpose in life,” said Harvey. “It may not show itself right away, but if you keep working and keep doing some of the good stuff, things will happen. You may not be on American Idol and you may not be the top singer, but good things will happen to you, and you’ll find peace in that.”
Lastly, on finishing what you start, Harvey talked about how he ventured to broaden his horizons by writing books and how painstaking the process can be.
“So I wrote some books because the challenge is actually doing it and completing it. We talk about writing and so many people say, ‘I want to write a book but I don’t want to sit down and do it; I don’t want to do whatever it takes.’ You have to actually sit down and do it. Even if it’s a bad book, you have to sit down and do it.”
Harvey said that completing his first novel, Xavier: A Hero No More, after having already published a number of children’s books, was the biggest thrill of all for him. While he’s clearly also pleased with the book’s quality and with the fact that he was able to create a main character in Xavier who’s a football player but who is also nothing like his creator, Harvey said the ultimate significance of his new book is its overall theme about not being satisfied with what’s on the surface.
“You know, the main gist of Xavier: A Hero No More is that people look at athletes as heroes, and sometimes they are, and sometimes they’re not,” said Harvey.
The take-away from this story in Harvey’s eyes is that Xavier isn’t actually a bad guy; there are just a lot of complicating circumstances surrounding him. Sometimes on TV, Harvey mentions that people will see that some person made a mistake or did something that they don’t agree with and trash the person. He points out that you can condemn a person all you want, but in most cases, you don’t know the full story.
“So if there’s anything to learn from this book, it’s that we don’t know the full story until we read the book. When you do, you just might say, ‘Well, maybe it wasn’t what I thought it was.’”
To Harvey, it’s those little things that make a big difference. You have to think about those little steps in order to get to the big steps. To find true personal success, Harvey emphasizes that you need to create a plan that covers what you want, where you want to go, and what you want to do.
So the full story here is that any pro athlete who views Ken Harvey as a role model or a hero and applies his wise suggestions will almost certainly be able to transition seamlessly out of playing into something else that’s highly fulfilling. As Harvey put it, “It’s all about just going from glory to glory, as they say!”
Visit Ken Harvey's website at www.transition57.com. Email questions or comments to Dr. Tim Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org
Excellent Story. Filled with wisdom. Beautifully written. Ken Harvey is a magnificent role model.