When Derrick Edwards was a senior at John F. Kennedy High School in 1989, he suffered a catastrophic injury while playing football. Doctors told him he was paralyzed forever from the neck down because of a spinal cord injury that required six months of hospital care.
Edwards still managed to graduate from high school on time and to receive a business degree from Tulane University’s A.B. Freeman School of Business in 1997, a master’s degree in accounting from the same school in 1998 and a law degree from Loyola University in 2003.
Today, he is running for a U.S. Senate seat.
On Saturday morning, Edwards was one of many people highlighted as an outstanding example of Tulane’s success during the university’s 2016 commencement ceremony before a packed audience in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“Remember how I told you that this is like your second home, that you’re always going to be home?” Hoda Kotb, the “Today” show host and 2016 commencement speaker, asked the graduating class. “New Orleans is home. It is your second home forever. It’s your house.”
Kotb — a former WWL-TV anchor who has covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as well as engaging in lighthearted banter with Kathie Lee Gifford during the “Today” show’s fourth hour each weekday morning — used Edwards’ story as one of 10 lessons she sought to impart to the new graduates.
In addition to encouraging them to have the courage to move forward despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, as Edwards did, Kotb also advised the students to remember those who help them along the way to success and to choose friends wisely.
She highlighted her own trials and tribulations, including a public battle against breast cancer, a divorce and a rocky start to her career when she was rejected by 27 stations before being hired as a reporter in Greenville, Mississippi.
“You don’t need everybody to like you,” Kotb advised the graduates, especially those who haven’t yet secured a job. “You just need one.”
The announcement that Kotb would be Tulane’s commencement speaker stirred a minor controversy when some students protested that she isn’t a sufficiently serious figure. She ended up getting multiple rounds of applause during an emotional and often sentimental speech, but she wasn’t the only speaker Saturday to impart words of wisdom to the graduating class.
So did Carlos Wilson II, a member of the Green Wave football team and a finance major who graduated from the Freeman School’s five-year joint Bachelor of Science in management/Master of Accounting program.
As the chosen student commencement speaker for this year, Wilson, like Kotb, highlighted a Tulane graduate who inspired him. And his inspiration happened to be another former football player who is moving on after a debilitating injury.
Devon Walker was injured as a senior at Tulane in 2012 during a football game against Tulsa when he collided with a teammate and injured his vertebrae. He was paralyzed from the neck down.
He was nonetheless signed to an honorary contract by the New Orleans Saints in 2014.
“He is an outstanding young man who is not only an inspiration to his coaches and teammates at Tulane but to all of us,” coach Sean Payton told People magazine after the signing.
Using Walker’s story as an example, Wilson had a simple but, as he described it, challenging message for the Class of 2016: to “trust the process.”
“Although I learned this phrase from my father, I didn’t learn to truly appreciate it until I met and was able to play with one of football’s greatest players and most respected leaders and ambassadors of the game: number 18, Devon Walker,” Wilson said. “People always ask him: ‘Do you think you’ll ever walk again?’
“Being the strong, resilient guy he is, he’ll tell you: He doesn’t know if it’s going to happen tomorrow. He’s not sure when he’s going to walk again. However, he trusts the doctors. He trusts the nurses. He trusts miracles, and every day, he trusts the process.”
Although the two-hour ceremony had a fair share of emotional moments, underscored by stories about Walker and Edwards, Tulane University President Michael Fitts made sure to lighten the mood at points, too.
He joked about ankle-deep mud at Jazz Fest, learning the technical skills behind peeling crawfish and even the art behind tailgating on weekends.
But jokes and sentimental moments aside, all the speakers underscored one theme: Tulane University, like New Orleans, creates a sense of community perhaps unparalleled anywhere else.
“People will know that the education you received was like no other, in a city like no other,” Fitts said about having the words “Tulane University” on a résumé or degree. They will know the lessons you learned to help rebuild New Orleans are the very ones you will use to help change the world.”
“New Orleans is a living and breathing place,” she said. “When the city celebrates, you celebrate. When the city hurts, you hurt. And today, the city is celebrating the Tulane graduating class of 2016.”