While this year hasn’t gone the way any of us planned I want you to know that I have missed this place and I have missed each of you. I have missed the hugs and the fist bumps, classes, practices and games.
I am honored that you asked me to share my thoughts today. I hope that they inspire you. Coach Burns is going to read the speech that I have written. I love you and I am always here for you. Refuse to lose!
From Coach Rienks~
While the circumstances today are unique, I am proud to be here to share this day with you. I am sorry that you couldn’t have a traditional ceremony, with more guests and loved ones in attendance, but know that your family, friends, teachers, administrators, school staff, and your community share in your joy and celebration. We are all proud of the time and effort you have put into your achievements. When it is safe, I hope that we can be together, reminisce and make new memories!
As I think back on other speeches I have given, I realize that the most heartfelt ones tended to be somewhat off the cuff...pregame pep talks, time out strategies, halftime adjustments, sports banquets. These were times I could share my own words, my point of view, and felt confident in the message that needed to be shared. Thinking of other speeches I have given, I feel that I often relied on the words of others. I tended to try to find someone “worth” quoting. Believe me Coach K., John Madden, Jimmy Valvano, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, etc. are all worthy of being quoted, but today my message is simply my own words. As I look back on my life, my career, and my experiences, the advice I want to give you hasn’t really changed, it has just come more clearly into focus as I have faced the challenges that I encountered this year.
First, do not underestimate the importance of “your people”. Your circle begins with your family, and naturally expands into your school and community. Be proud of your roots here in your small town and never doubt how strong they are. Kelly, Dagan, Jordyn, and I were blessed with visitors during my hospital stay from each of our graduating high school classes. Your classmates are part of your circle, and you never know what circumstances may bring you together again.
The weekend following my cancer surgery in September, per doctor’s orders I was not allowed to go to Chadron, Nebraska to watch my son, Dagan, play football. I insisted that Kelly not miss the game, so she and her sister drove to Chadron and my brother-in-law came to Paonia to take care of the technology so that we could watch the game. I knew that Kelly would have a hard time leaving so soon after surgery, but I also was confident that the time with her sister was important. I even called her sister and asked her to be sure that they had fun and didn’t focus on my diagnosis the whole time. When Kelly got home, one thing she shared with me was a discussion that helped her focus on some positive aspects of the trials we were facing. Her sister pointed out that, too often, we lose loved ones in an instant and, not only do we not have the chance to say good-bye, but they don’t get to see the impact they have had on their friends, their family, their community. My diagnosis and the complications that followed my surgery have been an overwhelming, humbling blessing as I have been fortunate to hear from so many people and to see how big my circle truly is. Kelly and Jordyn moved cards, posters, and pictures to at least 4 different hospital rooms, adding to the collection almost every day of my stay. Countless doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff members commented on the love they felt in my room. One even said that, “You must be from a small town. This doesn’t happen for people who aren’t from small towns.”
As you move on from high school choose carefully when it comes to your circle of friends. Never be afraid to let that circle grow, but grow it in ways that are supportive and positive. The people that you spend the most time with are generally those that will have the biggest influence on the choices and decisions you make. Choose people who respect you, who will hold you accountable and who you look up to. We tend to want to “fit in” so we often lower our own standards of behavior and our own expectations so that we “fit in” with a given group, when in fact, we deserve so much better. Choose a circle that supports each others’ dreams and cheers each others’ successes.
Second, always be competitive. Focus on becoming your best self. Set lofty goals. Your end goals should be big enough to scare you, to make you question if you can truly accomplish them. Obviously my “big” goal is getting back to “normal”, back to teaching, and back to pacing the sidelines. But set yourself up for success by breaking these goals up into smaller objectives. Give yourself a timeline and share your plans with others. Sharing your goals helps you be accountable. My “small” steps include walking a mile by the middle of June and jogging in the gym by July 1.
Being competitive also means “showing up”. Believe me, since I “woke up” and realized what type of rehabilitation lay before me, relearning how to walk, how to talk, how to brush my teeth and feed myself, I have had days I didn’t want to get up, days I didn’t necessarily want to do my rehab; but, to be honest, some of those days were the days I made the biggest achievements. Not only did I possibly walk further than the day before, or do the stairs a few seconds quicker; more importantly, I overcame my inner voice that was questioning my focus, my ability, and my determination.
Third, do not be afraid to say I love you and to let people know you care about them. While hugs and handshakes are off limits for the time being, greet others and share a smile. Your kindness may be the best part of their day. I have had messages from many students that simply said they missed our daily first bump, hug, or chat. Make time for other people and let them know that they matter to you; trust me, it does make a difference. Also, remember that it is ok to disagree with someone’s opinions, yet still care about and respect the other person. Sadly, I feel that it has become commonplace for people to take offense to anything that they don’t agree with. Don’t let these differences of opinion become divisions, relationships are far too valuable to be lost or damaged over conflicting perspectives.
Next, share your story with others, chances are someone will find inspiration in the path you have walked. As is evident in the #Rienksstrong journal of my journey, my family has placed a huge value on faith. Being on the receiving end of literally thousands of prayers has been humbling.
I am so thankful that Kelly and the kids found comfort in faith. As they were waited on multiple test results during my hospitalization, they reminded each other that since my original diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer, every single test had come back with more positive results than the one before. It went from a report of lesions across my liver and a possible spot on my lung, to no spot on my lung and all the lesions being on one side so that taking out half of my liver to remove the cancer would be a possibility. The next test showed that, not only were the lesions on one side, but they were grouped together in such a way that they could be removed in wedges, meaning I would lose much less of my liver. The same thing happened after I stabilized post surgery. Brain scans and MRI’s showed no permanent damage and the prognosis of a full recovery. My cancer scans and tumor marker blood work show the same improvement and, right now, it is possible that I may not have to undergo any more cancer treatments. I truly believe that these increasingly optimistic test results are answered prayers.
Kelly also told me many times that she got through the weeks prior to me truly waking up and showing consistent, positive responses, by focusing on faith. She said that she understood early on that she didn’t have the time or energy to focus on questioning or blaming anyone or anything for the circumstances that we were facing. Instead, she let her faith be bigger than her fear. No matter where you are on your journey of faith, I would just ask one thing...that you keep your eyes open for miracles. They do happen.
Finally, try your best to maintain a positive attitude. Since my diagnosis, one thing I am proud to say, is that I have never asked “Why me?” I guess this is because I know the answer is “Why not you?” Cancer doesn’t pick and choose, it isn’t something that anyone deserves or that anyone is too good for. By making the conscious choice to avoid asking “why me?” I feel that I am keeping myself from focusing on the past, something that I cannot change. Instead, I choose to focus on my future. A future that deserves to be faced, every day, with a positive, can-do, no excuses attitude. This is my chance to walk the talk that I have been giving for 29 years.
In summary, chances are, you may never know the impact you have on others, but know that there are always people looking up to you. Honor them, by making the right choice so that they can see the value of integrity. I can guarantee that your circle of influence will be bigger than you realize.
Remember, you owe it to yourself to be competitive. Set lofty goals, work hard, and to be proud of your accomplishments.
Never be afraid to share your feelings. Tell people that you love them, apologize when necessary, forgive when you can, share celebrations, and don’t be afraid to ask for support.
In times of trouble, you will find peace in faith. Faith is the opposite of worry. Faith is what will let you sleep at night when your world feels out of control.
And lastly, you can reach every goal you have set for yourself if you stay positive and focus on making the next right choice.
While it is obvious that, throughout my ordeal, I lost and am working hard to regain many skills, one thing I am very thankful for is that I did not lose any of my memory! Seniors, I am so thankful that I have shared so many memories with you throughout your junior high and high school years and I will always be here to “coach” you if you need encouragement. I will also be here to cheer you on as you strive to reach your dreams. I am always just a phone call or a text away. REFUSE TO LOSE!