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2007 Student Commencement Speech

David Schmidt talks about lessons learned in his secret life as the Blue Devil mascot

Sadly, I think that the crowd in the football stadium is bigger for today's graduation ceremony than it ever was for a football game.

Distinguished guests, Family, and Friends; Indistinguishable mass of students: Good morning. I see before me over 3,000 friends and classmates. Together, we represent more than 10,000 cumulative years of experience at this school—which puts us right between John Hope Franklin and Reynolds Price in terms of tenure at this University. Think about that. Think about all the memories we've had here at Duke. We've taken great classes, gone to great parties, seen some great games, and watched a bus spontaneously erupt in flames. We'll all take away countless stories from our time here at Duke. I, for one, will never forget the day I went to Rufus the Lynx's birthday party.

Now, Rufus the Lynx is the mascot for the Charlotte Bobcats. And Rufus didn't exactly invite me, he invited the Blue Devil. But I was one of the select few students that played the Blue Devil. And so I got to go to his birthday party. So did NC State's Mr. Wuf, South Carolina's Cocky the Gamecock, and the Elon Phoenix, among others.

As two other students among the sea of mortar boards I see in front of me might attest, mascotting isn't as easy as it looks. I had to sit on the floor in Cameron for dozens of home games and put in long, wonderful hours with the cheerleaders. Not just anyone can jump around in front of a crowd and call it mascotting.

All right, so the tryouts were open. So in fact, anyone could do it, it was just a matter of being selected.

But there is an art to it. The mascot is one of the most conspicuous figures at a game. Some people (my mom) watch games just for the mascot. I think it is safe to say that the mascot is up there in importance with the coaches and the players at any game. And maybe I am pushing it, but answer me this: If the mascot ever tripped and fell and lost his head at a game, wouldn't you notice? I bet you would.

Anyway, I didn't come here to tell you stories about sweating in a large blue suit—and believe me, sweat I did. I came to give a meaningful speech. And I think that my experience as a mascot is a unique vehicle for delivering that speech. So now, without further ado, "Lessons I Learned From Mascotting".

The First Lesson: Not every game is played at home.

Consider the mascots. The mascot at an away game is like the old, sick gazelle on the savannah: it's a target. At an away game, many vile and demeaning comments that would otherwise be directed at players are directed at the mascot. I was given suggestions about what I should do with a football more often than I care to remember. The wrath of the opposition was rarely restrained. Were it not for my thick foam skin and permanent smile, things could have gotten ugly.

So most of the people that I met on the road were rooting against me. I could have returned their jeers in kind, but that wouldn't have left time to root for Duke. So I didn't worry about them because who cares—adversity is the spice of life. Some games were at home; other games were away. Some days I was the lion; other days I was the gazelle. But by treating every game the same, by always keeping my eyes on the donut, and not the hole, everything went a lot smoother for me.

The Second Lesson: Celebrate. But keep it in perspective.

The Blue Devil always smiles. This isn't because everything goes his way; if any group of students can appreciate how much hasn't gone Duke's way recently—it's us. He smiles because the costume makers know that if the mouth closes, I suffocate. Games and seasons came and went, and the mascot smiled on.

I felt a certain morality in all of this. When you think about the truly sad things happening all over the world—even right here at Duke—it doesn't matter how our ACC record looks. Of course the mascot should smile at a game. But life is serious, and these recent months have been a powerful reminder of that. What does matter is that we are mindful of those less fortunate than us, those for whom life is an uphill climb, and fellow students who have had to deal with more than just losing a game.

I'm not saying that I no longer take sides when we play UNC, but that I try to think twice before considering a bad game cause for "a bad day."

The Third Lesson: Be Bold. Take action.

The Blue Devil doesn't talk. It never does. When we win, I do this (point a finger in the air, "number one"). When we lose, I do this (same gesture). When asked to explain how Duke aims to contain Ivory Latta, I do this (same finger-pointing gesture). You get the idea. To say that I had a limited vocabulary would be an understatement.

Even with everything that I couldn't say, there was still a lot that I could do. As Gandhi said, I had to use my actions to be the change I wished to see in the world. Now, my world was Cameron. And "change" usually meant noise. So at every game, I did what I could do to keep things noisy. I quickly discovered that if I needed support, I had to ask for it. If I wanted attention, I had to go get it. And if I cared about anything, I had to protect it. What will be important for us is what we do with our lives.

And now, the Fourth and Final Lesson: It's Time To Make Something Of Myself.

My memories of traveling with the football team can be summed up in three words: Steak and cheese. When I got on the plane for our game at Boston College, I was given a steak and cheese sub. And another. Then, the plane took off. The steak and cheese kept coming, so I took a bottled water break. Upon landing, I took another steak and cheese to my hotel room for later, and I changed into a looser pair of pants. At that point, the cheerleaders and I went to dinner on Duke's tab in downtown Boston. We found time for a football game, too, before flying home.

My lesson here was that Duke gave me a lot of these metaphoric sandwiches -- Just as Duke takes care to feed its student-athletes, Duke has helped us all immeasurably along the way. In a couple of hours, I'll have a Duke degree. That degree will open doors and unlock first floor windows for the rest of my life. Some of you are now preparing for a life in academia; others will soon be moving to K Street or Wall Street or Teaching for America.

Or you're that one person that isn't doing one of those four things.

But we can all remember each other and remember this University later on in life. I'll never forget the people I've met here. Make sure that all those who helped you along the way know how much you appreciate them. Thank housekeeping. Thank your professors. I, for one, would like to thank the people at the Bryan Center McDonalds.

Imagine all the great things that we will make happen in our lives. Just look around you and think about the extraordinary minds assembled here today. You may be sitting next to a future Nobel laureate or the first pick in the WNBA Draft. Harry Potter fans will be happy to know that we Dukies are developing an invisibility cloak at this very moment. And I'm told that some day soon, great things will happen on the Plaza.

I had the privilege of serving as the embodiment of all the great things that Duke stands for during my time here. On and off campus, I was given the charge of representing our extraordinary university. But I wasn't the only one. Duke is the sum of its parts, and we have all played different roles as ambassadors of our university. Whether it is on the floor in Cameron or at Carter Elementary, volunteering in Durham or in Tanzania, Duke is what it is because of all of us. As a prominent symbol of all that Duke is and does, I was able to benefit enormously from your noble efforts. My experience has made me feel humbled to consider myself in your company. Thank you.