Words of wisdom

Chica­go Bears front of­fice ex­ec­ut­ive Cliff Stein gives com­mence­ment speech at George Wash­ing­ton 28 years after gradu­at­ing.

  • From G.W. to the NFL: Cliff Stein currently serves as the Vice President of Football Administration and General Counsel for the Chicago Bears. He graduated from Washington in 1985. PHOTOS COURTESY OF CLIFF STEIN

  • Stein can be seen in his high school football photo.

  • Cliff Stein poses in the principal’s office before delivering Washington’s commencement address.

Cliff Stein had a simple mes­sage for the 2013 gradu­at­ing class of George Wash­ing­ton High School:

Don’t let them see you com­ing.

Those six words are ones Stein has lived by since gradu­at­ing from Wash­ing­ton in 1985. When he com­pleted his stud­ies as a high school­er, Stein didn’t have much go­ing for him.

He was an av­er­age stu­dent and an OK foot­ball play­er, but he left the school without much of a plan for his fu­ture, be it col­lege or something else.

Twenty-eight years later, Stein was on a plane from Chica­go to Phil­adelphia to share words of wis­dom and his own im­prob­able tale of suc­cess with hun­dreds of gradu­at­ing seni­ors.

“I wanted to give them my story,” Stein said. “Be­cause I was the guy no one saw com­ing.”

For the last 11 years, Stein has been em­ployed by the Chica­go Bears of the Na­tion­al Foot­ball League. In 2011, he was ap­poin­ted Vice Pres­id­ent of Foot­ball Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Gen­er­al Coun­sel. In this role, Stein is Chica­go’s lead ne­go­ti­at­or for all play­er con­tracts, as well as as­sist­ing gen­er­al man­ager Phil Emery in plan­ning and man­aging the team’s salary cap, ac­cord­ing to his pro­file on the Bears’ web­site. 

To un­der­stand how Stein got to where he is, one must un­der­stand his re­la­tion­ship with Ron Co­hen, Wash­ing­ton’s le­gendary long­time head foot­ball coach. Co­hen ar­rived at the school as an as­sist­ant to­ward the end of Stein’s high school ca­reer, so he only played un­der Co­hen for a short time.

But Stein kept Co­hen close as an ad­viser and ment­or as he tried to fig­ure out his next step after high school. Ul­ti­mately it led Stein to Temple Uni­versity, where he com­pleted his un­der­gradu­ate and law school stud­ies in six years. As a young law­yer and sports agent, one of Stein’s first foot­ball job op­por­tun­it­ies was presen­ted by Co­hen, who put Stein on the board of the Phil­adelphia City All-Star Game.

“Ron is an amaz­ing per­son, and I made sure to tell the kids to stay with this guy, be­cause he can really help your life,” Stein said. “I kept Ron in my net­work of people, and that nev­er stopped. When I was a young law­yer and agent, he helped me with all of his foot­ball con­nec­tions. I al­ways saw him as more of a ment­or than a coach be­cause of what he does for kids from a char­ac­ter stand­point off the field. If he tells me some­body is a good guy, I trust him.”

Not long ago, Co­hen re­com­men­ded Stein take a look at An­dre Odom, one of count­less dis­ciples who the vet­er­an coach has transitioned from a troubled back­ground to a lim­it­less fu­ture. Odom had served as an as­sist­ant foot­ball coach at Temple for two years, and was also a ment­or to Shar­rif Floyd, the 2010 Wash­ing­ton grad who was just se­lec­ted in the first round of April’s NFL Draft by the Min­nesota Vik­ings.

Co­hen vouched for Odom, and Stein re­spon­ded by help­ing Odom land a job with the Bears as a scout­ing as­sist­ant for the com­ing sea­son. The hir­ing of Odom is proof that even 30 years later, Stein hasn’t for­got­ten what Co­hen did for him. Now, he says, it’s his turn to give back.

“Back then, I had no plan for life … I had no job and I wasn’t en­rolled in col­lege,” Stein said. “Truth was, I didn’t know what to do. I got my act to­geth­er, but it took me time. Things happened for me be­cause there were people who be­lieved in me, which in turn helped me be­lieve in my­self.”

Stein’s mes­sage to Wash­ing­ton’s seni­ors was simple: 1) Be­lieve in your­self, which is how you get oth­ers to be­lieve in you; 2) Have hu­mil­ity, for someone who does spe­cial things in life does not need to brag, and 3) Hard work is the found­a­tion for every suc­cess­ful per­son. As a gradu­ate of George Wash­ing­ton, Stein told the stu­dents, “You’ll be the un­der­dog. You’ll be un­der­rated and un­der­es­tim­ated, and people will doubt you.”

“I told them to keep their ment­ors in their life forever,” Stein said. “When you go to G.W., kids ap­pre­ci­ate everything they re­ceive, be­cause every level of suc­cess is un­ex­pec­ted. I spoke to those kids, 25 per­cent of whom wer­en’t en­rolled in col­lege yet, to give them hope. That’s who I was. I let them know every one of them can do something spe­cial with their lives.

“If you be­lieve in your­self, then you can chal­lenge your­self to do something really good. Be proud of where you come from, and be will­ing to work harder than the guy next to you. Use where you came from as an in­spir­a­tion to do great things. I wanted to give them something to strive for.”

In fact, Wash­ing­ton holds such a spe­cial place in Stein’s heart, that when Floyd couldn’t speak at the com­mence­ment due to a pri­or com­mit­ment with the Vik­ings, Co­hen picked up the phone and called Stein. 

Stein didn’t hes­it­ate for a second. Des­pite the fact that he has pro­gress­ively climbed the pro­fes­sion­al lad­der with­in the Bears’ or­gan­iz­a­tion for more than a dec­ade, Stein hasn’t for­got­ten the 18-year-old ver­sion of him­self, the same jokester who packed a wa­ter pis­tol un­der his gradu­ation gown in 1985.

“I wanted to teach the kids to do the right thing by show­ing, not telling,” Stein said. “Be first class, wherever you are. Treat all people with the same amount of re­spect, no mat­ter what your title or po­s­i­tion is. That’s what Ron does, and that’s what I want to do by giv­ing back.

“I haven’t for­got­ten who I am, nor that this place was a part of my life. I want to help oth­ers from Wash­ing­ton, to give them an un­der­stand­ing where I came from so they can try and walk in my shoes. They won’t see us com­ing, but we can do great things. It’s a part of me, and I’m really honored.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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