An audience filled with hundreds of college students and faculty members listened as Sam Bracken talked about overcoming obstacles, specifically being abused by his stepfather, drinking at the age of 9 and being abandoned by his mother at the age of 15.
A large video screen displayed shocking words, like “born the product of rape,” “unwanted,” “always hungry,” to portray the instability Bracken faced.
Running was the only thing that took Bracken away from the turmoil, until he found a purpose and a place where he belonged, Bracken said.
Despite being homeless throughout most of his high school years, Bracken earned a full scholarship to play football at Georgia Tech, where he held a starting position and graduated with honors.
Bracken said the greatest achievements in a person’s life come from having someone believe in you.
“I am not a legend in my own mind,” Bracken said. “To think you can succeed in life alone is an error.”
Dreams are hard work
Bracken said success is not just having a dream, but working hard. Coaches, on and off the field, taught Bracken discipline and focus, he told Tuesday’s crowd.
Bracken said he learned to make better decisions to stop his downward spiral.
“It is natural to feel really sorry for yourself, just do it quickly,” he said. “Change starts with personal initiative. Be better instead of bitter.”
Laura Saunders, 22, who is a nursing student and part of the KSU Dance Team, said she attended the convocation after receiving an email as part of a blast sent out to anyone tied to KSU’s athletics department.
“I think it is amazing to see how far he came,” Saunders said.
Saunders said it is always good to get advice on how to improve yourself.
Bracken said his advice to the students is “have a bold vision for yourself, surround yourself with positive people and get to work accomplishing your goals.”
An inspirational gift
When he arrived in Georgia from his hometown of Las Vegas, Bracken carried everything he owned in an orange duffel bag, which he showed to the audience 40 years later.
The symbol of his humble beginnings is also highlighted in his book, “My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change.”
Bracken said it was a struggle to put into writing, “the evidence of what happened to me.”
Copies of the book were given for free to KSU students and Bracken signed copies after the convocation.
Jon Fortner, 22, who plays club sports like paint ball and studies criminal justice, made sure to get a book.
Fortner said Bracken’s story shows there can be success after a childhood spent struggling, and reading the book is a chance to learn more about his life.
“It helps put things in perspective,” Fortner said. “No matter how you start, you can really elevate yourself and achieve something.”
Bracken said a horrific past can often lead to lifelong path of destruction. That is why Bracken has co-founded the Atlanta-based Orange Duffel Bag Foundation, which mentors at-risk youth with a focus on foster care children.
“We all suffer, we all have pain” no matter a person’s race or wealth, Bracken said.
Bracken told the students that even if they are not in need, each person knows someone that needs help.
Bracken called on the audience to sacrifice their time, reputation and money, even if it is “messy.”