How I Became an Inspirational Speaker

The Greg Horvath Story? inspiring.

Illustration by Matt Bors"It's hard to believe now," your mind's voice is telling you in a honeyed baritone that sounds like it was lifted from an infomercial, "but Greg Horvath used to be an angry farm kid who grew up hating his dad and drinking so much that he was kicked off his high school football team for bad grades."

That ishard to believe—and not only because your mind's voice is a natural tenor. Greg Horvath, who these days presents a picture of midlife respectability in creased cotton shirts, standard-issue ties, closely cropped hair and puppy-dog eyes, grew up in Canada.

"Just how much would somebody have to drink," your mind's voice is suddenly asking you in a say-whaat that sounds like it was lifted from an OutKast video, "to get kicked off a high school football team for bad grades in Canada?"

Yep, Greg Horvath was a fuckup.

And that was before he became a real estate agent.

But then, in 2000, Greg Horvath became an inspiration, to hear him tell it, anyway, which he is happy to do in a presentation customized for your business association, civic group, high school assembly, whatever. Greg Horvath makes his living as a motivational speaker. He charges about $3,000 a pop, and when he's really rolling he can motivate quite a few people to pony up $20 for his 33-minute motivational video too.

"Since this whole thing took off I've worked hard to develop many revenue sources," Horvath says. He's on the roster of four speakers bureaus. He's formed a film production company. He's pieced together a documentary called UnfinishedBusinessthat was televised nationally by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation a few years ago and got a late-night screening at the New York Independent International Film and Video Festival a couple of weeks ago?. The gawky little flick chronicles the year Horvath packed his bags and left his wife and six-year-old son so he could indulge his undying teenage dream by playing college football.

Okay, so it was junior college football; in 2000, at the age of 38, Horvath came to Orange County to play the 2000 season for Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. And, okay, he actually participated in only about 25 plays all year, usually running up and down the field on kickoffs and punts. But if you're stuck on the fact that Horvath was stuck on the bench for a team that finished the season with a 3-7 record, you're missing his point.

"My goal wasn't to make the starting lineup," he insists. "My goal was to be part of the process, to show up every day and do my best and not to quit. I did this for very personal reasons that were essential to my personal development. I felt the need to prove something to myself, to finally play that football season I missed so long ago."

And he did it.

Done.

. . . not quite.

"That was the event," he clarifies, "but the processhas never really ended."

Going on five years later, Horvath is still replaying that season in his mind, retelling it over and over and over to anyone who will listen. Along the way he has reshaped the story, stretching his personal act of individual fulfillment into a sweeping parable of Everyman redemption. Instead of achieving closure on a lost chance in his distant past, Horvath has swung open the door to a whole new set of lucrative opportunities.

"You know how people look their whole lives to find that thing that completes them?" Horvath asks in that drumroll-before-the-steamroll technique that somehow keeps you from immediately hanging up on telemarketers. "Well, I fell into my thing. I did not set out to do this. It's just that, for whatever reason, I have an ability to connect with people."

Well, Canadianpeople. That limitation kind of chagrins a guy who was born and raised on the prairies of Canada's landlocked state of Saskatchewan, in a little town called Raymore, a few hundred miles east of Saskatoon and northeast of Moose Jaw and who, maybe, always felt a little stifled by the remoteness of those prairies.

"I'm big up in Canada," he says with a tinge of embarrassment, "but I'm nothing down here in Southern California."

That's why Horvath has come back to Orange County, once again leaving his wife and son behind in Canada while periodically shuttling back and forth from Laguna Beach to see them. He's trying to connect with people. The right people. In Hollywood.

"I've always believed that my story would make a fabulousfilm," he says. "Maybe a studio person reads it and maybe that person says, 'Hey, there's something here! We can make something out of this! This guy has something to offer to the world!'"

* * *

So, Greg Horvath is offering . . . his jock to sniff? There's no crime in that, of course. No lack of passion, either. Through several long conversations with Horvath across many months, he was unfailingly enthusiastic, polite, positive and relentlessly adamant that his presentations of UnfinishedBusinesswork like a self-help pheromone.

"I've seen over 100 audiences react to it, and what gets me excited is that people leave not thinking about me and my accomplishments and what I did, they leave thinking about themselves and their lives and what their possibilities are," he says. "I'm talking 100 audiences, and I've never seen a bad reaction. Not one."

So go ahead and take a whiff. If it doesn't smell as bad as you'd think, maybe that's because the aroma is so familiar. Perspiration=Inspirationis a cultural equation at least as ancient as the Greeks, who among other things came up with a Body-building=Character-buildingfestival called the Olympics. During the past century in the United States, tales of athletes overcoming impossible odds to hit home runs or score touchdowns for bedridden kids have evolved from straight-faced accounts on the sports pages to tearjerking late-show movie clichťs to ruthless SaturdayNightLivesatires. Not to mention it's been the basic storyboard of every Sylvester Stallone movie.

Yet it's worth pointing out that through the long history of uncountable inspirational tales, not one of them dissuaded the teenage Greg Horvath from becoming a fuckup.

"By high school my alcohol problem was already in full swing," he says. "I had a father I didn't really like. I felt life was not fair. But then I started playing football in my senior year and I found it to be a fantastic release for an angry young farm boy—until they suspended me right before the playoffs. The team lost and I realized I was never going to play again. Of course, with my victim mindset, I blamed them."

Taken a little deeper, the second-chance season Horvath finally got to spend at Saddleback College is a quirky-cool footnote to a chemical-dependence comeback story so mundane that even he summarizes it.

"I could go into detail," Horvath says, "but I'm sure that by now everybody knows the basic story of the alcoholic. After I quit high school I went down a path where I bounced around, and by the end of the 1980s I had lost everything. I was financially bankrupt and did a few nights in jail for impaired driving. Then in 1990 I had that moment of clarity, got sick and tired of being sick and tired, went into detox, then a treatment facility and spent most of the 1990s cleaning up the past."

Yep, that's the story, all right.

"But from the day I sobered up, and I don't know where this came from," Horvath winds up, pausing dramatically before his punch line, "I wanted to play football again!"

Not surprisingly, Horvath says the one inspirational story that did touch him was Rudy, the story of Rudy Ruettiger, who in the mid-1970s walked onto the Notre Dame football team at age 24 but didn't see action until the final play of his senior season, when he sacked the quarterback . . . and then went on to become a motivational speaker and the subject and title of a 1993 motion picture.

But by the time Rudyreached the theaters, Horvath was already 31 years old, three years sober and selling real estate. It hardly saved him from the adolescent angst that began his life's downward spiral.

"No," Horvath acknowledges, "but when I was in real estate it really got me fired up to sell."

An important chunk of UnfinishedBusinessconsists of Horvath sitting in front of his speaker phone, pitching his long-shot aspirations to a variety of football coaches, who listen to him politely and then say no. Horvath clearly thinks this is compelling stuff—compelling enough to begin the film with a quote from Thoreau and end it with one from Emerson. But what nags at you is why these conversations are on videotape at all. Same goes for all the footage—recorded up in Canada long before he got the green light from Saddleback—of Horvath sweating through wind sprints in the local park and having heart-to-heart talks with his spiritual adviser. It all seems kind of contrived in a way that tends to undermine the purity of Horvath's personal mission by suggesting that he had an ulterior motive from the get-go. A profit motive, maybe?

"I just wanted to make a video diary for myself," he insists. "It wasn't until later, when I had these 50 hours of tapes, that I showed them to a producer. He told me, 'Your story is not just an addiction story, not just a sports story, it is a feel-good story!'"

Of course, feeling good—simply enjoying what you're doing as you're doing it—is rarely enough anymore. Neither is feeling bad, for that matter. Or anything in between. Our experiences have become commodities that are given their ultimate value by the marketplace. An elaborate system of TV and radio talk shows, tabloid journalism, book deals and magazine profiles, lecture circuits and multimedia merchandising has been set up so that we can sell them to one another.

At the high end we see the status of professional athletes measured by the size of their product-endorsement deals. At the low end we observe Jessica Lynch, the former Army private who in 2003 was "rescued" from a POW situation under suspiciously hyped-up circumstances, landing a $1 million book deal, an NBC movie, a parade of TV talk-show appearances and a string of motivational speaking gigs titled "Survival Is a Choice."

Horvath's story can get lost pretty easily in the dense crowd clamoring for attention on the middle tier. A cursory Internet search of "inspirational sports books" turns up the likes of Sue Bird's Be Yourself, Darrell Waltrip's One on One: The Faith That Took Him to the Finish Line, Chris Klug's TotheEdgeandBack:MyStoryfromOrganTransplantSurvivortoOlympicSnowboarderand Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson's Play with Passion, which came out a few months after he won the Super Bowl and a few months before he lost his starting job. And there's long-ago pitcher Tug McGraw's from-here-to-infinitively titled Ya Gotta Believe!: My Roller Coaster Life as a Screwball Pitcher and Part-Time Father and My Hope-Filled Fight Against Brain Cancer. McGraw wrote that book after his cancer went into remission but eventually ended up dying from it.

Meanwhile, somebody named Bob Cowser Jr. recently wrote a book called Dream Season: A Professor Joins America's Oldest Semi-Pro Football Team. Its storyline sounds very familiar—a 30-year-old husband, father and English professor from upstate New York gets the hesitant blessing of his wife to pursue his high school football dream by playing for the Watertown Red & Black. Cowser even got to play in a lot of his team's games. Horvath may or may not draw inspiration from that.

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