JJ Birden is a former professional American football player who was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the 8th round of the 1988 NFL Draft. Motivational speaker. Author of “When Opportunity Knocks, 8 Surefire Ways to Take Advantage!”
1:45 – JJ Birden introduction.
4:50 – Played for different teams. Steve Deberg. Cleveland Browns. Kansas City Chiefs. Dallas Cowboys. Atlanta Falcons. Jeff George, quarterback.
5:49 – What are some organizations with good attitudes
6:46 – Oregon National Championship ring for track and field
8:55 – What was it like… Number 1 receiver in the state.
9:59 – Coach Rich Brooks had some attitude thoughts and coaching points? What was his message and what was the impact? Playing big when the game started
11:39 – What did you learn from coaches of Championship Track team? Do your job. If everybody does their job, that’s how you win a championship.
12:26 – The blessing of a large family and the attitude of adoption. Creating the ultimate team
16:02 – When Opportunity Knocks: 8 Surefire Ways to Take Advantage! It’s You vs You. No goal came be accomplished if you don’t make the decision. What you think truly does matter.
18:38 – What was a moment that you took action? Getting cut in Kansas City. A breakthrough moment that changed my life
20:45 – Discipline yourself. Mental and physical preparation.
22:20 – Seek out mentors. Who was JJ Birden’s mentor? Different mentors at different stages of life. Picking the brain of somebody who has already achieved success. One of your best mentors can be the lessons that you learn on your own.
24:04 – Who was your first attitude coach? Mr. Uncle Sonny. Pouring belief and confidence into others.
29:01 – Silence the critics and doubters. Self-sabotage. Not everyone is going to understand your journey
30:13 – Activating a positive mindset. Structure. Wake up and hit the ground running. Get that workout in.
31:00 – The Trust powered by the NFLPA.
32:42 – Knowledge through the decades. What is the attitude lesson from birth? You control your future. No matter what family you were born into and no matter your circumstances.
34:00 – What was the attitude lesson at the age of 10. Having a chip on my shoulder. Giving your best. Spelling be. The 8:46 interviews. Stories of Being Black in America. White people should accept and understand that there is an issue. Examples of racism.
39:28 – What was the attitude lesson at the age of 20. Still figuring things out. Balance. Sports marketing major. Wanted to work in PR marketing and sales for sports agencies.
41:11 – What was the attitude lesson at the age of 30. First year with Atlanta Falcons. Proving to everyone that I can be a big-time wide receiver. Learning from experiences. Not making emotional decisions. Playing against Deon Sanders.
43:47 – Running back Eddie George.
44:23 – What was the attitude lesson at the age of 40. Utilizing all the experiencing that I had learned in the NFL and using it to teach others and impacting them.
45:38 – What was the attitude lesson at the age of 50. Tightening up my game, my brand. Dealing with FASC (Failures, Adversities, Setbacks, and Challenges)
48:09 – Final message of hope. Being bigger, better, faster. When opportunity knocks, knock the door off its hinges.
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We are going to be with former NFL wide receiver JJ Birden. He’s a motivational speaker. He wrote a book called When Opportunity Knocks. If you are somebody that needs to figure out how to motivate yourself, how to discipline yourself, how to stay committed to your goals, and how to seek out positive mentorship, this is an episode you will not want to miss. JJ was dropping bombs. He was pouring out his heart and soul to you. JJ, tell me what else we’re going to learn.
Glenn, we’re going to learn how to help people understand that no matter what happened yesterday, last month, or last year, it does not matter. I want you to take every day with passion, purpose, and power, and seize the opportunities waiting for you.
We have an awesome guest to share with you. This guy was one of my draft picks in my Fantasy Football League team back in the 1980s. He is also a motivational speaker. He is an author of a bestselling book called When Opportunity Knocks, 8 Surefire Ways to Take Advantage. We’re going to bring up a quick little video of this gentleman’s 90-yard touchdown. Welcome, JJ, to the show. It is so good to have you with us.
What’s up, Glen? It’s good to be here. Every time I see those highlights, I still get hyped up.
You certainly cannot ever get tired of watching that 90-yard touchdown for sure.
Not at all. That’s what’s cool about having access to that footage because when I need to get hyped up a little bit, I just watched my highlight tape.
Was that Montana throwing you the touchdown?
That one was Steve DeBerg.
Steve DeBerg is a quality guy. Let’s stay with that. Steve DeBerg was a legend and was around for a long time. What was the one attitude lesson you might have learned from Steve DeBerg?
To relax and have fun. Steve was one of those guys that were relaxed and cracking jokes all the time. He was a journeyman. He came to work. He was a warrior. I can remember one of the years we played with him. He had broke his pinky and he had this pin in his pinky and this cast. He’s playing in the game and throwing touchdowns and all we could look at was his fingers like, “How is he still playing in this game?” He never gave up.
Did you ever catch a pass from Joe Montana? You were there when he played.
The two years I got to play with Joe was a thrill. In the first game, I caught a 52-yard post-route touchdown. It was a highlighting auspicious way to get started with Joe Montana.
What was his attitude and mentality that you could relate to our folks?
He was the epitome of leadership. He led by example. He was a complete professional in everything that he did, his preparation and execution. The other thing too that I loved about Joe was that no matter what was happening in the game, he always felt we could win. That attitude was always contagious because you knew that when Joe was in the huddle, we had a chance to win.
That’s cool. You mentioned that Steve DeBerg was a little bit of a journeyman. Not probably as much as him, but you had played for the Browns, the Kansas City, the Dallas, and the Falcons. Are the Falcons where you ended your career?
Yeah, my last two years were in Atlanta.
Who was your quarterback then?
Jeff George and Bobby Hebert.
Jeff George and I played on the North All-Star team in Indiana together. How crazy is that? He was your quarterback and mine for one game. That is some crazy stuff. He could throw well.
Amazing arm. I’ve never seen a quarterback who could flick it like that, 70 yards off his back foot.
When you think about those four different organizations, we’re not going to trash anybody, was there one organization that felt different or did all four have some cool attitudes or auras? I’d love you to give us your thought on the organizations, either all four or just a couple that stuck out that you say, “When I think about that organization, here’s what I think about.”
The Kansas City Chiefs organization was the cream of the crop. They had a winning attitude and it was contagious. It was evident throughout the entire organization. They knew they were going to win at some point and they were putting all the pieces together. I was in Dallas in 1989 during Jimmy Johnson’s first year and we were horrible. We were 1 in 15 and I’m thinking, “This team is never going to win anything. I’m out of here.” Jimmy Johnson got it, figured it out and they went on to win three Super Bowls. Jimmy Johnson knew what he was doing.
I see that you got a beautiful ring on your finger. I’m wondering if that’s from the NCAA champion, Oregon Ducks, or is that from something else?
People know me for football, but I was a track and field athlete at Oregon. That was my passion. In my first year, we won the national championship. I was on this amazing team. It’s interesting because as an athlete, in all my years in athletics, I never won a team championship except for that year. I wore this ring proudly.
Were there any notable folks on that team with you, possibly some Olympians or something like that?
There were a few, but the one that stands out the most is Joaquim Cruz. He won the 800 and the 1500 in the Olympics after he won in the national meet for us.
Do you still get to see him as an Olympic champion?
I was a freshman. I didn’t realize how amazing that team was until later, but there were multiple Olympians on that team that I was a part of.
I’m guessing you had to be a 100 guy?
No. I was a long jumper, high hurdler, and then I ran the 4×1. I was in the first leg of the 4×1 relay.
What was your best event and did any of them win and did the relay win the national title? I’m curious.
Our relay was pretty good but not great. My best event was the long jump. I was the PAC-10 champion. I qualified for the Olympic trials during my senior year. I was a 26-plus long jumper. When I got drafted, I tore up my ACL in Cleveland. There went the track career.
You played at Oregon, did you or did you not?
I walked in my second year and proved to those guys I could make it. When I did, they transferred my scholarship from track to football. I did both sports while I was there.
It’s rare to have a Division II sport athlete. Talk to me about playing football in high school. That track was your passion. How did it set with you when people said, “He’s too small?” I’m guessing they said you were too small. Do you remember how that used to make you feel? Did you receive any D1 offers for football? What was that whole experience like?
I had a chip on my shoulder because in my senior year in high school, Lakers High School, I was the number one wide receiver in the state. I had 15 touchdowns, but they saw a 5’10, 133-pound wide receiver. No Division I. The football program offered to me was D2 or junior college. I felt I was a Division I athlete and I knew I could get a track scholarship. I figured that when they were recruiting me track-wise, I would ask each coach, “What do you think about me trying football?” All the D1 colleges said no, except for Oregon. Oregon said, “You come run for us and if you can convince Head Coach Rich Brooks to let you walk on the second year, you have our blessing.”
Being a part of a national championship in Division I is special and it’s hard to do. My guess is Coach Rich Brooks had some mantras, attitude thoughts, and coaching points. He made an impact on your life. Talk to me a little bit about what his message was and what impact it possibly had on you that maybe still is with you today.
First, I had to convince Rich Brooks that I could play. He finally said, “Okay.” I remember the first day going to training camp and there were fifteen wide receivers. I was number fourteen. I knew they didn’t think I could make it, but all I saw was the opportunity. It was like, “How fast can I move up the depth chart?”
When I made it Rich told me, “I’m going to give you a tip because you surprised us. You might appear to be small, but you play big in every way. Keep doing that and people will ignore your size and be more focused on what you can do in the game.” I always had that mentality that I was a little receiver by stats, but I was going to play big when the game started.
One of the greatest messages my friend Tony Robbins always say is, “You got to play big.” For our GAPers out there, I don’t know what you’re facing right now. I know that you’re going, “Maybe I don’t think of myself as being big,” but you are hearing it first from the wonderful JJ Birden, motivational speaker and author, that the key to his success was to see things better than they are and to see things bigger than they are for your life. Rich was your football coach, so I made a mistake. Tell me who your track coach was because I bet he had some pretty interesting philosophies. He was the one that was the national championship coach. What did you learn from him?
Coach Bill Dillinger and Coach John Gillespie preached about teams. They emphasize the fact of not focusing on yourself, “Don’t focus so much on being individuals but remember, your team and the way you help the team by doing your job. You show up and do your job on the long jump or the arena, whatever it is. If everybody does their job, eventually in the end, we’re going to win.” That’s how we won the championship. We took points from here and there. Everybody did their job and the rest was history.When you’re part of a team, don’t focus so much on being individuals. If everybody does their jobs, you will win. Click To Tweet
When I think of a team, it’s so beautiful and I want to talk a little bit about this. Your ultimate team is your wife and your eight children. You had 3 with her and then you adopted 5. Tell me about the blessing of having that big of a family and the attitude of adoption. There are people tuning in to us that are looking at it. Maybe they have been adopted or are in the middle of adoption. Talk to me about that whole experience of creating your ultimate team which is your family.
That was a curve ball. That was something we weren’t expecting because we had this perfect little family of 5 with our 3 children. In 2007, I got a call from my nephew who was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was like “Uncle, please come check on us. There’s craziness going on out here.” I flew out to Tulsa the next day and 24 hours later after that, I’m in a courthouse standing in front of a judge. The judge was like, “We’re going to take your five nieces and nephews and place them in five separate foster homes. You are the next of kin. What do you want to do?”
It was one of those, “Whoa,” but I did what any smart husband would do. I was like, “Judge, let me call my wife first.” I took something I learned from the NFL. In the NFL, you always had to deal with change. There were so many things happening. You had to have the ability to adapt on the fly and pivot or make an adjustment. I use this three-step process of processing information, making a decision, and then committing to the decision.
That’s what we did. It was like, “What are we dealing with here? What are the options here?” We made a decision and then we committed to it. When we committed to it, we committed full speed. We’re going to take all five of the children and merge them with our children and become one big family. That’s what we did. It was a lot of work. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.
What’s your wife’s name? Tell me what she has taught you about attitude.
My wife’s name is Raina which means queen, which I’m reminded of all the time. My wife has been a great balance because we’ve been together for years. I met her in college. When I first met her, she didn’t even know I played football. She was like, “You don’t play football. You’re too small.” I was like, “Come to the game Sunday or Saturday. You’re going to see me.” She has been my best coach. She’s my most honest critic because when I’m giving a presentation or doing something, I want honest feedback. Feedback is the breakfast of champions. That’s how we get better. That’s how she helps me because she tells me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear.
My wife does the same thing when I speak. She sits in the back. She’s got a notebook and she’s like, “Not funny. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” We enjoy that. Does she come with you on your keynotes and stuff then?
She does. She comes to pretty much all of them now. Like your wife, she sits in the back because we’re trying to perfect our craft. We don’t want to get complacent. We’re trying to get better and better. We know this is a process. It’s always nice to have her there. When you think you’re bringing you’re A-game, she’ll see a couple of things you need to work on.
Let’s talk about the three things that you learned in the NFL, which I thought was great. You turned those into eight things about opportunity. Let’s touch a little bit about the book. Why did you write the book? What’s the point of the book? Maybe we can hit on a couple of your favorite eight points and learn what is in this book. Hopefully, you guys can all hit Amazon. You can go to JJBirden.com if you’re interested in hiring a keynote speaker. I’ve seen JJ and his videos. I’ve seen him on stage. I’m sure you can get a feel for how good he is. If you’re a business owner, give JJ a ring. Most importantly, take a look at this book. JJ, tell us about this great book When Opportunity Knocks.
I always had a goal of being an author. I thought it was cool to write your own book. I thought I would write some little, “Here’s what it’s like to play in the NFL.” Everybody has done that. As I continue to understand and appreciate the journey I was on and what I accomplished, I know a lot of people struggle with achieving their goals. I wrote this book When Opportunity Knocks, 8 Surefire Ways to Take Advantage to show, “Here’s a blueprint of achieving that goal, that dream, or whatever you want.” I’ve walked the walk and I’ve walked that road. I came up with some points that helped me. The goal is to encourage others to use these action steps as well.
We got them right here. Motivate yourself to change and set goals for your life. What’s the message there for our people?
The main thing is that first, you have to understand it’s you versus you every day. It’s not you versus your neighbor, friends, or confidantes. It’s you versus you. You have to have that desire first to want to change because no goal can be accomplished if you don’t make the decision and you make the decision first. That all has to do with mindset. How you think and what you think truly does matter. I always start there because one small idea or one small thought can take you up or down. There is no in-between. The encouragement is let’s make the decision. Let’s get your mindset right first as you begin this new journey.
Thoughts are things. For those of you tuning in, you may have a thought in your brain. You may have an emotion tied to that thought in your heart, and then it takes some guts to make that decision and that massive action. When you think about your life, maybe you’ve already hit on it, what’s the one time where you said, “I need to take action,” and then you did it? How did you leverage yourself to do that?
It was my third year in the NFL because I bounced around the first two years. Eventually, Cleveland cut me and the Cowboys didn’t sign me back. That third year was that third critical pivotal year. If you don’t make it by your third year, you get labeled. You’re not going to get anymore shots. I go into Kansas City in tip-top shape and the best condition of my life. I was running super-fast and had this great camp, and then they cut me. That was one of those moments where you’re at that crossroads. You’re like, “JJ, either you need to come up with a plan B or you got to step up your game.”
That was my breakthrough moment because I made a decision right then that I was going to do whatever I could to take my career to the next level. That’s when my career took off. It started me making a decision and putting in the work, but it was that breakthrough moment that changed my career after that. It was because my back was against the wall. We just got married. My wife was three months pregnant. We had $250 in our bank account. At a moment like that, you either got to rise to the occasion or go figure out something else.
Without those moments, maybe things never change. If you’re tuning in to this and you have been cut by your employer, your wife, or your husband in a marriage, I want you to think about what JJ said. As college stars, we got big egos. Rarely do we get turned down. When you’re used to winning after winning after personal wins, and then people say, “You are not good enough,” who in your life, GAPers, is telling you, “You’re not good enough?”
Here’s my point. I want you to listen to what this man is saying because he’s been through it. He lived it. That’s a great story. Discipline yourself physically and mentally to take action when the opportunity knocks. You’ve touched on it, but is there anything you want to say about mental and physical preparation for our GAPers that will help them increase what they’re trying to do?
If you were to ask me what’s that success tip, that word, or that quality anyone who’s trying to teach something needs, it is discipline. If the doorway here leads to opportunity, discipline is the master key. Here’s how I describe it. It’s the ability to do what you need to do when you need to do it while no one is watching. Think about that definition.
In business, sports, personal goals, or whatever, there are things that we have to do. We have to have the ability to motivate ourselves to do them. If we can’t self-coach ourselves, we’re eliminating a chance for success. As a pro athlete, it was automatic. I didn’t need someone reminding me to study my plays, catch balls, and watch films. That’s what you do automatically to be the best. It’s a quality that you don’t have to be a professional athlete to be able to demonstrate that. We all have the ability to be disciplined.
GAPers, if you’re sitting there, you know as well as me and probably as well as JJ still, there are things that we’re not doing. There are disciplines that we are not practicing that we are not embracing that we need to do. I hope you make a commitment to whatever discipline that is. Seek out positive mentorships and learn success from others. That’s Attitude Booster #5 for us. Have a mentor and copy them. The truest quickest way to success and to launch any success in your life is to find somebody who’s doing it already. Let’s talk about maybe who was your mentor and what else you’d like to share about that point.
That’s another one of the successes. I’m a big fan of having a mentor, a coach, or a teacher. Someone who’s already walked the road that you’re traveling on. Throughout my life, I’ve always had different mentors at different stages of my life, whether it was football-related, academics, or business-wise. I feel that there’s an advantage when you can pick the brain of someone who has already achieved success and who’s already gone through that road. They can help you cut down on an inevitable learning curve.
One of the things I tell people is that you look at all the best athletes in the world who’ve ever played the game. What do they all have in common? Coaches, mentors, and teachers. Don’t ever think you’re too cool, too smart, too successful, or not successful enough to have a mentor that you can go to. The other thing I would say is this. Besides having a mentor, one of your best mentors can be the lessons and experiences we deal with. It’s the failures and adversities. There are so many great opportunities there to learn as well. Have a mentor, but also be able to embrace the mentoring moments that are available through our own personal experiences.
That is a point that not many make. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody make that point, but it’s so true about our experiences. Was there a mentor besides your wife in your life who gave you your attitude? How do you define attitude? Define attitude, then I want to know who was your first attitude mentor or coach?
Attitude to me is your whole mindset, thought process, beliefs, and how you view anything in life. Our attitude can change. It’s all about having to deal with the situation and how you think. The first mentor who launched me was my uncle. I called him Mr. Uncle Sonny. He was a good athlete growing up, but let’s say he got distracted. He was always my biggest fan.
I’ll tell you the turning point for me from a confidence belief standpoint and from an attitude standpoint. In my senior in high school, I had this game. I had four touchdowns. I had a great game. My uncle goes, “You’re going to play in the NFL someday.” That was the first time I heard my name and the NFL in the same sentence. I was, “No, Uncle, I’m not.” He goes, “You are.” I go, “I’m not.” He goes, “I believe in you so much that I want you to promise me your first NFL touchdown.” I said, “You’re crazy.” He goes, “Just say it.” “Okay, whatever. You can have my first NFL touchdown.”
Fast forward to 1990, we’re playing against Seattle, my first game. I scored my first touchdown. My uncle was there. I leave the locker room and I see him down here about 30 yards standing all proud. Here’s the teaching point. I go, “Uncle, how did you know?” He goes, “Nephew, I believed in you, but you didn’t believe in yourself. I had to pour enough belief into you until you got your own belief that you could ride off into the sunset.” I never forgot that because I had to borrow his belief until I got my own. He was the first biggest influencer that was helping establish the foundation mentally that I needed to take myself to the next level.
That’s such a beautiful story. My guess is you’ve mentored not only your children and others. Is there a player perhaps that maybe has reached out to you? Have you poured that confidence into somebody that’s manifested in your life so far? Are they still in progress or has it not happened yet?
I’ve done it to so many because so many veterans helped me. In Cleveland, Dallas, and every team where there was a veteran wide receiver I would gravitate to and I would pick their brain. The ones that I worked with were so generous. I said, “When I’m in that position,” when I got to Atlanta, I was the veteran, so I helped all the young wide receivers. When I see a lot of these guys in KC, in Atlanta, they’re telling me about how much I impacted them and how generous I was with my knowledge and experience. I didn’t think much about it, but I guess I did make an impact. Even to this day, I’m constantly being contacted by different people. I have a busy schedule, but I’m always willing to offer some tips and advice to those who are looking for it.
I’d love to know a couple of the whiteouts that you went to if you could who you said you touched and said, “You got it in you. You got it. You can do it.” Give me some of the names. I’m curious.
In Cleveland, it was Webster Slaughter, Brian Brennan, and Reggie Langhorne. They were all the three top veteran wide receivers. They took me under their wings. In Kansas City, it was Stephone Paige and Emile Harry. Stephone Paige was great. He was such a great mentor. When he left and I became the veteran, guys like Lake Dawson came in from Notre Dame. Chris Penn went to Penn State. I gave these guys everything I had and they were two of the guys who, over the last couple of years, have reached out to me and personally thanked me for helping them back in the day when they were rookies.
That’s so cool. I’m sure you were overjoyed with the Kansas City Super Bowl. Tyreek Hill reminds me a lot of you. Could you beat Tyreek in a 40?
Even on my best day of running a 4-3-3, I could not beat Tyreek. He’s next level. He’s fast. I could not beat him. He’s run four-twos and I’ve never run a four-two. I was a low four-two guy.
That dude is incredibly fun to watch. Do you get to go back and watch some games in Kansas City?
I try to go back once a year or every other year for the Chief’s alumni event. They do a good job of welcoming back the alumni.
One of the final points I want to hit is to silence the critics and ignore the doubters. As in our opening, we talk about self-sabotage. Talk to me a little bit about those talking points and what our GAPers need to be thinking about as you talk about these three.
I’ve had my share of doubters, dream stealers, and people who didn’t believe in me along the way. One thing I learned early on was that not everyone is going to understand your journey. Not everyone is going to understand the choices you make. That’s okay. The key is you have to understand your journey and believe it, and you have to commit to it. That’s where it starts.
As you said, self-doubt, negative thinking, excuses, fear, and self-limiting beliefs can easily creep up into our minds and take us out of the game. You have to mentally take charge right away. One of the things I say is, “Adopt a positive mindset.” When you got to a positive mindset, you wake up every day with the right attitude. You’re ready to go. You don’t care what other people think. People who have a positive mindset separate the best from the rest.When you have a positive mindset, you wake up every day with the right attitude. You're ready to go and don't care what other people think. Click To Tweet
Do you do anything to activate your positive mindset? Do you have a routine in the morning? If so, what is it that sets the tone for you?
I have a routine and it starts the night before because I always look at my schedule and plan it out. I love structure as an NFL player and I’ve tried to maintain that. I have the attitude that I’m going to wake up and hit the ground running. I want to control the day instead of the day controlling me. Once I’ve looked at my schedule, I got to get that workout in. It is something about getting that workout in and getting the endorphins pumping. You got that energy. It helps you deal with stress and attack the day. That’s the first thing I love to do in the morning. It’s balls to the wall for the rest of the day.
You’re wearing a shirt called The Trust with a football on it. I’m wondering. I love the logo. Is this something that is what you do? Tell us a little bit about that.
This is for former NFL players. The NFLPA formed a division called The Trust. The Trust’s main job is to provide services or needs for former players. They do a good job. There are a lot of different things that are available. I use the ones that I need. There are guys that can go back to school and do other things. I love the fact that we finally have an organization that’s taking care of the former players because it hasn’t been like that for a while.
As a speaker, are you in their orientation program in the NFL or are you actively involved in speaking, teaching, mentoring, or leading any of these folks?
No. I know they have a program. I tried to get to it but I didn’t. To be honest, I didn’t want to go as a participant. I wanted to go as a speaker, as a trainer, as a presenter, because I’ve been doing this for so long. I felt that I had something to offer the up-and-coming players. We’ll see how that goes. The beauty of what I do and as you know is I don’t have to rely on this to be able to create the opportunities that I have in speaking in the corporate industry. That’s what I love to do.
That’s good. I’m going to plan to help you. JJ is dropping bombs on us. JJ, thanks for everything. We are now going to enter phase two, the second half of the show with Knowledge Through the Decades. Are you ready to go, JJ?
Let’s make it happen.
Through the decades, we like to walk people through their life to understand the attitude lessons. There’s no wrong answer, so just free form and go. What do you believe the attitude lesson is of childbirth or starting at zero? You have three by natural. I’m sure you may or may not remember your childbirth, but what do you think the attitude lesson of a newborn baby is?
The attitude lesson is that you control your future. No matter what family you’ve been born into or what the circumstances are around you, you have the ability to control your future. Even if it was a weird crazy situation, you can break the cycle. That was my mentality at a young age, “This is nice living in the hood and struggling. I want something different. I’m changing my circumstances.”
When we get to age ten, maybe talk to us about the hood. What hood did you grow up in? Do you remember being ten? That puts you in third or fourth grade. I can imagine being a little guy, probably getting picked on and some bullying. Talk to me about age ten. What was your attitude lesson? What did you take from that?
I had a major chip on my shoulder. I had a little man’s complex. I was the smallest guy and I was always fighting. I was getting in fights. I was in trouble all the time, but I had this tenacity or this internal drive that no matter what I was doing, that could be taking a test or having races in recess, I would always give my best. I didn’t have to win. I just always wanted to give my best. You could feel that this ten-year-old had a little fire or a little spark inside of him. You could tell that he was probably going to go on and do something special.
Did you grow up in public schools? Was it primarily a Black neighborhood? Was it mixed? Talk to me a little bit about that structure.
I was raised in Northeast Portland, predominantly an African-American community. We struggled growing up. In sixth grade, my mom found out about a busing program where they were busing African-Americans through this rich suburban school in Lake Oswego where it was the wealthy. In sixth grade, I was like, “I don’t want to go there.”
The first day I got there was on a Friday. They were taking a spelling test. Mr. Barker, the teacher, said, “You don’t have to take the test.” I was like, “I got pretty good grades in the hood. I’m taking the test.” They had fifteen words. I got 8 out of 15 and I was feeling pretty good about it. I saw all the other children had either 100% or they missed one. At that moment, I said, “I’m going to catch these kids academically.” That was a spark that drove me to do better as a student. That helped me. That was one of the best things my mom could have done because I would’ve not challenged myself if I had stayed in the school system I was in.
You ended up going to this, is that correct?
I went to Lake Oswego schools from 6th grade to 12th grade. Here’s what’s interesting. I didn’t do any sports until tenth grade because of the buses. If I played sports, there was no way of getting home. I’d have to walk an hour to the TriMet bus and take it downtown and I’d get home at 8:00 or 8:30. Up until tenth grade, it wasn’t important to me enough to do it.
We’re similar in age and I grew up through busing. The Black kids came into our school, which was cool. I was a minority in our school. I’ve always been committed to African-American causes. If you guys pull up our 8:46 Interviews – Stories of Black America, we did that the week George Floyd was murdered. Give me your thought. We don’t need to get political.
I want to hear from you because telling the Black story is important and it’s something I’ve dedicated my show to. Talk to me about your feelings on where we are, where we’ve been, and what’s the hope for the future. I’ve always asked about that. What do White people need to know or what do they need to ask to bridge the gap between the races?
They need to be honest with themselves and recognize there is a problem. Even someone like me, I’m one of the good guys. I’ve always done everything I’m supposed to do. I’ve been kind and nice to everyone. I’ve tried to set an example. Even still, I dealt with a lot of things like that growing up and I’ve continued to. It’s first accepting the fact that there is a problem. If they don’t accept that, there’s never going to be a change because some people are going to be in denial. There is an issue that needs to be corrected.The first step to solve racism is to accept the fact that there is a problem. Otherwise, there's never going to be a change because some people are going to be in denial. Click To Tweet
What was your first experience of racism when you said, “I can’t believe that happened to me?”
I was in high school playing football. It was two games. One game, I was playing against a school called Clackamas High School. I was balling. I had scored two touchdowns and the guys told me that they were going to kill me if I scored another touchdown during the game. I scored another touchdown. They called me the N-word. I scored another touchdown and I went like this. At that point, they couldn’t do anything. I remember how the whole team had to protect me while walking to the bus because these kids were going to come after me after the game.
The other example is when we made it to the playoffs in my junior year. I wasn’t a star player then. We went to this one school that they decided that I could not travel. Potentially too many problems and they didn’t want to put me in a bad situation. I couldn’t even go to the game because of that. I experienced that and a lot of others. Those are the ones that stood out because a lot of the kids did not know I was dealing with that. I kept it to myself and tried to keep moving forward.
That was the 1980s and that was happening. That’s what’s crazy. Thank you for that. I know that’s not necessarily an easy question, but I believe it’s important that more of these stories get put out so we can help people say, “There’s a problem.” Let’s go to twenty years old. You’re in Oregon. You’re balling. You probably look good. You got the gear and things are probably fun. Talk to me about the attitude lesson at age twenty.
At age twenty, I was still trying to figure it out. By this time, I’m doing both sports and as you already mentioned earlier, being a college athlete has its challenges. To be a college athlete and do two sports, you talk about a learning curve, you have to understand how to balance your time and create a schedule. I had no free time. It was football season, practice, academics, going to the library, and when football was over, you went right on the track. That was that first full year of doing both. I was trying to figure out how to balance them both. It took another year to figure that out. The key for me was I wanted to graduate because no one in my family had graduated. That was always a priority. I’m going to graduate. It was learning how to balance all three.
It certainly seems that goal of graduating propelled you to some great things. What was your major? I’m curious.
I was a Sports Marketing major. I wanted to work in the PR and marketing departments of sports organizations. My thing is if I couldn’t play sports, I wanted to be behind the scenes. What was cool is when I got drafted by Cleveland, I had to finish my internship. I got to do my internship with the Cleveland Browns PR marketing and sales departments for me to complete my degree. That was a cool experience.
That is neat. I love that story. Let’s go to 30. My guess is the career is over or close to over. What was the attitude lesson? You remember your 30th birthday. Where were you and what was going on? What did you learn?
The 30th was that first year with Atlanta. This was when I left Kansas City and first time, I got a decent size contract and I knew how important this contract was because it was the most I had ever made. It was like, “How can we invest it? How can we save it?” I was going into Atlanta to prove to everyone I could be a big-time wide receiver because I went from the Chief’s offense to the Atlanta offense where they had the run and shoot. To my disappointment, I had two of the worst years because I kept pulling my hamstring because we ran so much. That was at year 30 and I thought I was going to be a Pro Bowl player, but it didn’t work out those last two years in Atlanta.
That is love adversity or deal with adversity. What was the attitude lesson that pushed you through? What were you saying to yourself? What was your mantra? People are pulling hamstrings in their lives and their relationships. What did you keep telling yourself to make yourself feel better to continue on?
One thing I said to myself was, “I’m going to learn from this experience.” What I learned was to not make emotional business decisions. I was being sought out by the Falcons and the Bears. I wanted to live in Atlanta so badly. I wanted to be in this cool offense, but the smart choice was the Bears because I was used to that type of offense.
I made an emotional decision that I paid the price for. When I retired as a JJ in the business world, I don’t make emotional decisions. Make the smart decision because it’ll benefit you later. That’s one of the lessons that I’ll probably share in book number two because I should have signed with the Bears. Had I done that, I probably would’ve had a much longer and better career.
You would’ve probably pulled the hamstrings. Did you play with Deion Sanders or did you know him?
I played against him.
Did you torture him?
He was by far the best corner I ever went against. Athletically, he was on another level. I can remember studying films as much as I could to spot a weakness in his game. You identify the weakness, but when you got in the game, you thought you had Deion beat, but he would bait the quarterbacks and he had this amazing closing speed. He was the best.
Who is the biggest freak or the most unreal? It could have been Dionne, but when you saw them in person or whatever, you went, “This is amazing.” Who was that person?
It was running back Eddie George. When I looked at him in the huddle, he was 6’3, 6’4, 270. I’m like, “He’s a running back?” He was huge. I couldn’t believe how big he was.
Your linebackers were like, “I don’t want to have to tackle him?” I can only imagine. Now you’re 40. That’s probably when this book started manifesting and you have your speaking career. Do you remember 40? What’s your attitude lesson at 40?
I do remember 40 because when I first retired, I got involved in a couple of businesses and I ran a couple of those companies. I wasn’t passionate about it. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I wanted to figure out a way that I could utilize my experiences and all the lessons I learned in this incredible world. I was part of the football NFL and how could I teach those lessons to other people?
I got involved with direct sales first and I was doing that. They kept putting me on the stage and I’m speaking in front of thousands and thousands of people. I thought, “I can speak. Now let’s create our own content and tailor it to impact people’s lives.” That was right around those years when I was thinking about, “How do I do this?”
I’m guessing you got some speakers bureaus, but you got a gift. You got a message. I’d love you to be a part of my speaker’s bureau. I’ll follow up with you on that. We’ll maybe see if you’d be interested in coming in there if you don’t have an exclusive with anybody else. Let’s talk about 50. I think you’re 55 or 56, correct?
Tell me the attitude lesson of 50. Do you remember your 50th birthday? What was going on and what have these past six years been teaching you?
These past six years have taught me to refine my game, tighten up my message, and solidify my brand. What’s helped me is over these last couple of years, I heard a speaker coach say this once. He said, “JJ, you got to make sure as a speaker, you know what makes you the first, the best, and the only.” As a speaker, I started doing some research over the last five years. There are a lot of speakers out there. There are a lot of athletic speakers and a lot of former NFL players, but there is no NFL football player in the last 30 years who played longer than me that weighed under 160.
I have started using that in the underdog, dealing with the odds, and knowing what it’s like to have to deal with what I call FASC, Failures, Adversities, Setbacks, and Challenges. I’ve tried to help companies understand that if you want a message about overcoming the odds, what it’s like to be the underdog, and how to prove people wrong, I’m your guy. I’ve stayed in that lane because that’s me. That’s my life. That’s what I live. I can pretty much tell you what it’s like.
I think a second book called Under 160 is a good title. Just saying.
That’s good because I’m playing around with titles right now.
Under 160: A Hundred and Sixty Messages To Overcome The Under whatever. I like it. Use it and it’s all good. I’m telling you UnderOneSixty.com. Hello? Can you say internet course?
You’re all right because I have been brainstorming titles. I like that one.
God works in funny ways. Fate is a funny thing, JJ.
UnderOneSixty.com is not taken.
Get that. We won’t buy it even. JJ, one of the best things you could do in your business is to have a GoDaddy on your phone when these million-dollar ideas come to your brain. See how quickly Jason had it because he knows. I got five people. When I think of stuff, I call them. I say, “Check GoDaddy by the domain right now.” UnderOneSixty is a killer idea.
You’ve been wonderful. God bless you. God bless your family. JJ, what I want you to do is talk to my GAPers from your heart. It’s a crazy time with the pandemic and everything that’s going on in the world. It is a challenging time. Everybody is an underdog right now. Tell us your message of hope to our GAPers and we’re going to let you go. It’s been such a pleasure. What would you like to tell our audience about what they need to be thinking about their life and their attitude?
The past year has been pretty crazy. We’ve all been dealing with uncertainty and this, that and the other but the worst is over. We need to be focusing on how we can be bigger, better, faster, more bolder, and more productive. Here’s one of my favorite JJ-isms. I want everybody to write this down. You’ve heard the saying, “When opportunity knocks, you answer the door.” I want you to do it this way. When opportunity knocks, you don’t answer the door. You rip the door off the hinges and you make the opportunity stay. That means you get after it every single day and you do whatever it takes to achieve the goals that are important to you.When opportunity knocks, you don't answer the door. You rip the door off the hinges and make the opportunity stay. Click To Tweet
Spoken from the true man under 160. He may be under 160, but he plays like he’s 360, like a big old technique in the middle of a 50 defense. JJ Birden, it was an honor to speak to you. Thank you so much for giving to our people.
It was a pleasure. I appreciate the opportunity you’ve given me to be able to share a message. Keep up the good work because a lot of people need to hear positive and empowering content like this.
All you got to do is subscribe, like, and share. We are on every podcast platform. Please subscribe, share, like, and follow us wherever you can. JJ Birden, God bless. We will talk to you in the future.