I became involved in IDEA (the Information Display & Entertainment Association) back in 1994, seven months prior to the unveiling of the HuskerVision screens at the University of Nebraska. IDEA is an organization that is made up of big screen operators from the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, and Universities. In 1994, BYU and Nebraska were the only Colleges involved in IDEA. Now, Universities are the largest group represented and more than 400 people attend the annual conference.
For someone who grew up in Grand Island, Nebraska, it was quite a thrill to rub shoulders with colleagues who worked for the New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Dodgers…and so many of the other top sports organizations.
I got very involved with IDEA and even served as its President in 1999 and 2000. Two weeks ago, I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the 32nd annual IDEA conference held in Dallas.
I began my talk by asking the audience what they thought were the most famous speeches in sports history. In my opinion, number one is Lou Gehrig’s “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth” as he announced his retirement from the Yankees because of the ALS disease that would take his life two years later and is now commonly called “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
Not far behind is Jim Valvano’s “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up” speech in 2004. The North Carolina State basketball coach passed away from cancer just one month later but his legacy and the Jimmy V Foundation just keep getting stronger.
I told the audience that I can relate to those speeches now more than ever before, and then I went on to talk about my own personal life philosophy which is “always strive to get better.”
Growing up, sports was where I would strive the hardest. Basketball and baseball were my favorites, and I was considered one of the better athletes in town for my age group. But I was young for my age and late to mature. In 9th grade, I was just 5 feet tall and weighed a mere 95 pounds. So when the new junior high coach cut me from the basketball team, I was devastated.
Prior to my sophomore year in high school, dad said I should try another sport just in case basketball was not in my future. We decided on tennis and I talked my best friend, Mike Myers in to start playing. We both tried out for the high school team and despite the fact that we had been playing for less than a month, both Mike and I made varsity…mostly due to the fact that Grand Island had a very bad team.
As a sophomore in 1971, I had a 1-9 record at No. 5 singles and a 2-21 record at No. 3 doubles.
But despite my record, I was bitten by the tennis bug and started playing all the time. When our team added four good sophomores the next season, including Kerry McDermott who has been the University of Nebraska men’s tennis coach the last 33 years, things started looking up for the G.I. tennis team. In my junior year, we had a 4-5 dual match record which was the team’s best in over 10 years. I moved up to No. 1 singles and played against some of the top players in the state.
In October of 1972, we hosted Lincoln Southeast in a dual match. On the way out of the locker room, assistant football coach Rich Osentowski wished me good luck. I told him I’d need it as my opponent was the No. 1 player in the state, a big hard-serving lefthander named John Duncan.
Coach Osentowski was one of the best athletes in Nebraska high school and college history and I had tremendous respect and admiration for him. When I returned to the locker room after the match, he was waiting to see how I had fared. Although I lost 6-0, 6-1 to John Duncan, I was kind of pleased with myself for at least getting a game off him. But Coach Osentowski didn’t see it that way, he pulled me in his office and chewed me out saying, “I’m disappointed in you Schmahl, you were beat before you even took the court. If you don’t think you can win, then you shouldn’t even bother playing.”
His words hurt, but I took them to heart and started working even harder to become a better tennis player.
In 1973, as a senior in high school, I was ranked 4th in Nebraska and our team finished 2nd at state…an amazing turnaround in just two years. Jim Porter, the University of Nebraska coach, took notice and asked me to walk-on to the Husker tennis team.
In tennis, you play a lot of head-to-head “challenge” matches to determine your spot on the team. In October 1974 of my freshmen year, I played a challenge match against none other than John Duncan, who had been the Huskers No. 1 player the previous season. The score was again 6-0, 6-1…only this time…I was the winner. When I came off the court, Coach Porter had scholarship papers for me to sign and I spent the majority of my four-year career at Nebraska playing No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles.
Improving that much in just two years almost sounds impossible…but it happened because of my “always strive to get better” attitude.
From Lou Gehrig, we learn to count your blessings. From Jim Valvano, don’t ever give up.
From Jeff Schmahl, I hope you learn to always strive to get better. Be a better husband, wife, father, or mother. Be a better son or daughter…be a better friend. Be better at your job, your hobby…be a better person. That’s what makes life rewarding and that’s what you will be remembered for.
I don’t believe it is possible to just “coast in life.” You’re either working to get better…or you are going in the opposite direction. Even when faced with a terminal disease, you can still strive to get better in almost every area of your life.
At the end of each IDEA conference, they hold an awards ceremony and two weeks ago it was held at Cowboys Stadium. In the final award of the night, former HuskerVision student Brandon Meier who is now the Director of SoonerVision, announced that IDEA was going to start awarding a college student each year with free attendance to the IDEA conference. They are calling it the “Inspire the Passion Award” and it will be given each year in my honor.
Here is what the inscription says on the trophy I was given: “On July 16, 2014, IDEA proudly unveiled the Inspire the Passion Award to be given annually to deserving students and interns in the game entertainment industry. The award is inspired by Jeff Schmahl who mentored so much young talent in his career.”
Receiving the award surrounded by a dozen current and former HuskerVision employees was one of the greatest honors of my life.
Counting my blessings and not giving up.
Jeff Schmahl’s 2014 IDEA keynote speech.
Jeff Schmahl receiving the “Inspire the Passion” award at the 2014 IDEA conference
Next Stop: Consequences…you can’t escape them.