In My Opinion: On Winning

In My Opinion: On Winning

Nonprofit founder and former NFL linebacker Riki Ellison ’83 finds diversity and culture are key to winning.
ByRiki Ellison

Life is competitive — it is not fair, and not everyone is a winner.

Winning requires building trust to enable diverse minds to reach beyond their limits and achieve exceptional feats. With increasing trust, varied experiences, skills and knowledge can coalesce to produce a winning culture that supports courageous decisions based on values — in other words, winning leadership.

Strong leaders were an important presence in my life, starting with my mother, who in 1968 left New Zealand as a single parent with my sister and me on a teaching scholarship to USC. A diverse array of American leaders followed, including war veterans, employers, coaches and teachers, who took leadership roles in my life and showed me that resilience, determination and faith — not entitlement or material wealth — were the source of character, of honor. It had to be earned.

For me, the world-class USC Dornsife School of International Relations and Joint Educational Project (JEP), along with the USC football program, were “competitive cauldrons” that imparted in me, my classmates and my teammates a culture of winning leadership. USC embodies a successful culture of diversity that develops winners in life. The deans and professors, head and assistant coaches, and teaching and graduate assistants framed and shaped this remarkable culture as living examples.

“We as a community, as a nation and as Trojans have a responsibility to enable winning.”

These programs lit in me a passion to take a leadership role in making the world a safer place, both locally and globally. My studies with exceptional leaders in international relations led me into a second career (following 10 years in the NFL) advocating missile defense to defend over a billion people in 41 countries around the world.

My JEP experience motivated me to work with the USC Dornsife program in 2004 to create Youth Impact Program, a collaboration that has changed thousands of inner-city children’s lives throughout the United States. With hundreds of student athletes, teachers and Marines as trusted leaders, the program has raised average grade-school test scores by more than 20 percent in math, English composition, reading and vocabulary, and science. And although test results are important, the trust, relationship building and leadership development that are fostered through the program are far more valuable in changing lives and making a global impact.

We will fight on to expand our Youth Impact Program, building on the lessons learned from its beginnings at USC.

We as a community, as a nation and as Trojans have a responsibility to enable winning. With our love of USC — for what it is, what it has done, and what it must continue to do to keep producing winners — we share an enduring responsibility to cherish and protect the university’s exceptional culture.

“Our Alma Mater dear, looks up to you. Fight On and win for ol’ SC!”

Riki Ellison’s football career includes two Rose Bowls and a national championship with the USC Trojans, and three Super Bowl wins as an NFL linebacker. He founded two nonprofit organizations, the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance and the Youth Impact Program, after retiring from football. He earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations from USC Dornsife in 1983.

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine’s Spring-Summer 2018 issue >>