John O’Leary | Be the Everyday Hero
John O’Leary – Do More For Others
Growing up, John O’Leary suffered a tragic accident that left him with burns on 100% of his body. In this powerful speech he recounts recovering from such a life-changing experience and the man, the hero, that made it all worthwhile.
Have you ever done anything that you now realize was a big mistake?
When I was a kid, I saw little boys in my neighborhood playing with fire and gasoline. What these little boys would do is they would sprinkle some gasoline on a sidewalk. They would strike a match. Throw the match on top, and the gasoline would dance to life. And when you’re nine, and you’re a boy, this is fun. This is awesome. Mom and dad are gone. The house is mine. I walk into the garage, light a piece of cardboard on fire, bend down next a five gallon container of gasoline. Nobody’s watching. Before the liquid comes of out it, what shows up first? The vapor. The fumes. The invisible stuff.
In life, my friends, it’s very seldom what we see coming that burns us. That day, those fumes raced out, grabbed that little flame, pulled it back into that container, created a massive explosion, picked me up and launched me 20 feet against the far side of the garage. As a little boy, I got scared. I panicked. I ran on fire through the flames back into my mom and dad’s house. A decision that changed my world. One moment, I’m a perfectly happy and healthy little fella, and then it changes.
I found myself as a nine year old on my back with burns on 100% of my body. I am dying. I’m laying there. I’m scared and afraid, and mad and sad, and looking up at the ceiling and all I could think about as a child was “Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh. My dad is going to kill me when he finds out.” He walks over to me, points down, “John, look at me when I’m talking to you.” So, I look up at my mean dad, and he says, “I have never been so proud.” And then my dad said, “I love you.” “I love you. I love you.” Hearing all of this, I’m nine, I cross my arms, shut my eyes, and thought, “Oh, my gosh, nobody told my dad what happened.”
I had months to reflect, and to listen, and to pause. I hear my door open up. Somebody walks in. I hear footsteps, and then this voice speaks light into the darkness. And the voice says loud and clear, “Kid, wake up! Wake up!” Jack Buck was my childhood hero. I listened to him all nine years of my life. Loved him. When he walked away, he moved his way down three doorways, leaned his head against a glass door, and just started weeping. One of nurses walks over to him, kneels down in front of him, looks up and says, “Mr. Buck, are you okay?” And the announcer looks down and says, “I’m not sure. That little boy won’t make it, will he?” The expert looks up and says, “Mr. Buck, there is absolutely not a chance. It’s just his time.”
What Jack Buck does, it’s a great example. He takes it home. He cries. He prays. He reflects, and he journals on one question: What more can I do? The following day, a little boy named John O’Leary is hanging out in darkness. I’m stretched out in this bed, tied down, can’t move. I hear footsteps. A chair, a cough and then a voice, “Kid. Wake up. I’m back. You are going to live. You are going to survive. Keep fighting.” Gets up, walks out, leaves me tied down still.
Is in eight-second increments, the man changed my world. What I learned years later, and this is cool news for all of us in this room, it also changed his life. It always changes the life of the giver. He encouraged a little boy to fight on, which allowed me to endure five months in the hospital. Which allowed this little boy, miraculously, to come home.
And then, a month later, he sends me this baseball. Ozzie Smith was a shortstop for the Cardinals. He became a Hall of Famer. He was one of my boyhood idols. Below that ball was a note from Jack, and the note read, “Kid. If you want a second baseball, all you have to do is send a thank you letter to the guy who signed the first one.” Just one problem, Jack. What’s the problem? Dude, you can’t write.
So, why would he make me do something, my friends, that he knew ahead of time that I can’t do? To show you you could. To make you. My mom and dad were trying to show me that I could, and they were trying to inspire me and make me. What my mother used to do, she would try to hand it to me, and she would say, “Baby, when you learn how to write again, you get to go back to school.” Does a little boy want to go back to grade school? Probably not. Does a little boy want a second baseball, yes or no?
Good leadership is about rising up and coming on to the stage and saying, “People, rise up.” But, great leadership and great mentoring. Great love is always, not sometimes, always about coming down. It’s about meeting people where they are in their struggles, in their challenges, in their adversity. Jack came all the way down to the level of a nine year old. I wrote the note, mailed it off, and two days later I got a second baseball with a second note that read, “Kid. If you want a third baseball…”
1987, a busy announcer sends a little boy 60 baseballs. 60. Jack taught a little boy how to write, which allowed that little boy to go back to grade school. Somehow, through God’s grace, man, you graduated. Who knows how? You graduate. Graduation night, who shows up right on time is this leader that I have looked up to my entire life. My mentor, my hero, my buddy, Jack Buck. He shows up with a package and a note. I open up the letter. Then, I open up the box: “Kid, this means a lot to me. I hope it means a lot to you, too. This is the baseball that I received when I went into the Hall of Fame. There’s only one like it in the entire world. It’s yours.”
My mentor gave me this priceless gift that changed me from the inside out because finally I could start believing in my dreams and the ability to build something even bigger than myself. With hands that you may think look broken. But, they are not broken. They’re just different. And different is not bad. I think different is good. We are part of something in this room, I think, that is global changing. It’s not just about one. It’s about many. It’s about the world, and you are a part of it.
If you can leave with one takeaway. One. To change your business. To elevate your relationships. To inspire you in the community. What’s one more thing you can do to live each day in pure joy?