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.” ••