A San Clemente resident and current NFL player was one of multiple speakers who advised students about staying on the right path and avoiding the dangers of addiction at Aliso Niguel High School on Thursday morning, March 30.
Organized by Danny Murphy, another San Clemente resident and former operator of the Stop Before You Start program, Miami Dolphins cornerback Nik Needham spoke along with best friend Jaylinn Hawkins, a safety for the Atlanta Falcons.
Murphy has volunteered his time with students for 24 years, always recruiting people of different backgrounds to share their stories.
Hawkins shared his story of attending Buena Park High School and then playing at the University of California, Berkeley before being drafted by the Falcons in 2020.
His message was for students to remain focused in the classroom and in extracurricular activities, avoid participating in activities that lead people down the wrong path, and not to be afraid to hold close friends accountable.
“Whether it’s football, day-to-day life decisions or stuff like that, having real friends and people around helps,” said Hawkins.
Needham spoke about his childhood, during which he moved around frequently and struggled with making friends and being bullied. He started his high school years at San Clemente, where he attended as a freshman and sophomore, then transferred to Servite, and eventually Buena Park, where he met Hawkins and created a lasting bond.
After finally seeing consistent playing time on varsity his senior season, he took the only scholarship opportunity available at the University of Texas, El Paso, still working to find solid friendships.
“I relied on my mom, called Jaylinn all the time, I was just trying to keep that support system going,” Needham said. “But I think the main thing was I never really gave up.”
He continued to work hard all the way through college, going undrafted and eventually landing with the Dolphins in 2019. Needham encouraged the students to find a passion and stick with it, try their best in school, and understand that their parents have their best interests at heart.
The two then took questions from Murphy, Aliso Niguel staff, and students.
They explained that school was important because it teaches concepts that translate to everyday adult life. In addition to varying subjects, they learned about time management, mental discipline, and how to make connections for the future.
“I know it’s not the most interesting thing … but it’s going to help you in the long run,” Hawkins said. “If you can think about it as a 40-year decision, keep that mindset.”
Besides school, Hawkins said students should continue to have fun when spending time with friends but not overdo anything or let certain activities become a negative distraction.
Losing focus can still happen to adults, Needham referenced in speaking about players that make it to the NFL but fall out of the league quickly. He advised students not to forget the effort and struggles they endured to reach success when they start to see progress.
When it comes to health and maintaining a proper diet, Needham said he didn’t realize how poorly he ate until he began to play in the NFL. Nutrition experts told him that he wasn’t in the best possible shape, which he called an “eye-opener.”
Tearing his Achilles served as another wake-up call.
“It was like, ‘Damn, what did I do wrong last year that could have led to that?” Needham recalled. “So, I just focus on trying to be as disciplined as I can in my eating and trying to stay focused.”
Hawkins said he dealt with similar experiences in relation to suffering injuries. He is currently in the infant stages of prioritizing his health more, which he acknowledged may not matter or be significant to all high school students at their age, but makes the body feel better than eating fatty foods all the time.
They also told the students about the differences between football at the high school, college and professional levels, and how being detail-oriented can lead to success.
Needham’s mother, Shannon, also shared her life experience. As someone who loved to party starting in high school, her involvement eventually evolved into alcoholism and an addiction to painkiller medication that nearly cost her life all while being a single mother.
During a decades-long period, she experienced numerous medical problems that required surgery and other programs to keep her alive. Worst of all, she said, her addiction got in the way of fulfilling her biggest goal of being a mother to Needham, who remained by her side and is her best friend.
“He was so supportive of me, regardless of how badly I hurt him,” said Shannon, who is now more than five months sober. “You guys, when you get involved and if it becomes a problem for any of you, your friends or your family, you end up hurting so many people that you love.”
“It can catch up with you,” she continued.
Afterwards, Needham and Hawkins took pictures with students and chatted with them before speaking with San Clemente Times.
Both said they would have appreciated more experiences in their younger years in which a role model could’ve spoken to them about taking the right path in life. They said they wanted to speak as a means of inspiring students.
Needham added that it was important to show their authentic selves during the event.
“You don’t have to put on a certain image to show that you’re successful, it doesn’t matter how you act,” he said. “The more genuine you are, the more stuff pays off.”
Danny Murphy will make an appearance at San Clemente High School for another speaking engagement in April.