How I Became an Inspirational Speaker

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.


. . . 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 clichs 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 N Black. Cowser even got to play in a lot of his team's games. Horvath may or may not draw inspiration from that.


* * *

Rhonda and Greg Horvath were high school sweethearts, which means she's been with him on the whole roller-coaster ride. She was there before he played six-man football for the Raymore High School Rebels in 1978, and she's still there five years after he played for the Saddleback College Gauchos. She's been there for everything—the drinking, the desperation, the sobering up, the moving ahead—that's come in between. “Greg and I laugh about it sometimes,” says Rhonda, “but it's definitely had its ups and downs.”

Originally, Rhonda was down on the idea of her husband leaving the family thousands of miles behind to play a season of junior college football. “I wasn't happy. I didn't understand,” she admits. “We had a very young child at the time—Zach was only 6 years old. I thought it was quite selfish.”

Rhonda never kept her feelings a secret, and they are expressed quite emphatically in Horvath's documentary. Not that it changed anything.

“It was clear that this was something Greg felt he had to do, that I couldn't hold him back,” she says. “So I went through it with him, although it had its challenges. Eventually, my anger faded and I came to understand a little better. I'm a high school guidance counselor, and I talk to students all the time about setting goals, reaching for their dreams, all those things. Greg had such a passion, I had to let him go.”

But he's never really returned.

“After Greg finished with the football, he started the motivational speaking,” says Rhonda. “Since then he's been chasing a whole new set of dreams.”

The chase doesn't just take Horvath between his home in Canada and his place in Laguna Beach. Horvath travels extensively and seemingly unceasingly. When the subject of his home life was broached for this story, he was on the telephone from New England, where he'd spent the previous six weeks. You could almost hear him cringe. He didn't dodge the issue, but neither did he really explain how . . . that is, why . . . or . . . hmmm.

“I'd like to say it's all well and good,” Horvath said. “But I've been on the road virtually since the middle of October. What is it now? The end of March? I know Zach misses me. He's 10 and a half now. It frustrates Rhonda sometimes. The only positive is, well, I guess you could say, we had all been apart a lot before this. If you see what I mean? It's not unusual.”

He paused.

“Would I do this continually, for years and years and years? I don't think I could,” Horvath said. “But if I am strategic, if I do this properly, things will happen. I'm still excited about the film side. I think it's a matter of having the right person see it. The right person, meaning a studio. What I am doing now is big, and I am becoming bigger. But if I get a movie, it goes to a whole new level.”

He paused again.

“But the goal, in terms of time away from my family, is to scale that back. I wouldn't want to do this for a three-to-five-year period.”

He paused for the last time.

“Well,” Horvath said, realizing, “I guess it has already been that long.”

Meanwhile, Rhonda anticipates the question before you can ask it.

“Am I used to it now? Yes. My son and I have our routine. We're used to Greg sort of coming and going. It's difficult, him coming in and out of our lives. But we realize that he has a passion.”


* * *

What makes Greg Horvath think he could be our hero? What makes him believe he should be our role model? What makes him work at these things so desperately? What makes him get so quiet when you ask him these questions?

“I'm real uncomfortable with the 'hero' one,” he finally responds. “Even the 'role model' one. I don't feel like I'm anything special. I'm not looking for people to leave my presentations thinking, 'This Greg Horvath is all that.' If they don't remember my name, I'm fine with it.”

This doesn't quite square with the Horvath you've been talking to. It's also kind of at odds with the intense focus on All Things Greg Horvath in his motivational film/video/speech, to say nothing of his thick marketing packet, which includes page after page of reference letters from high schools, colleges, corporations, coaches and athletes, along with news releases, press clippings, awards and e-mails from students, all topped by a cover sheet that features categories titled “Greg's Achievements and Awards” and “What They're Saying About Greg.”

What they're saying—whether they are from the Saskatchewan Association of Automotive Repairers, the annual convention of the Canadian Institute of Steel Construction, a sales rally of Re/Max agents at the Best Western Otonabee Inn in Peterborough, Ontario, or a showroom full of car salesmen at David Dedman Pontiac/Buick/GMC in Yorktown, Saskatchewan—invariably gushes with positivity.

“It is a tribute to your drawing power that you are able to fill a room with busy realtors from a wide area of Eastern Ontario on the Friday morning before a long holiday weekend,” wrote John Bowes, Broker/Owner of Eastern Realty Inc., of Peterborough.

“It is with renewed determination and focus that I now move forward on goals I have forth,” wrote Steven Howard, Project Manager eBusiness, of MassMutual Life in Springfield, MA.

“I also want to thank you for the emotional and inspiring talk you gave to our Provincial Auto Body Association at our winter conference,” wrote Tom Bissonnette, the group's president. “This is the first time in our 10 years of existence that I have ever seen our people give a speaker a standing ovation.”

Horvath pumps his profile even higher in UnfinishedBusinessand basically paints himself into a corner. Rather than being able to tell his simple story, Horvath must now try to convince us that it rises to the level of those great philosophers and is left trying to wring significance out of the most humdrum of events. And because Horvath didn't play much, instead we get practice footage and shots of him watching from the sidelines or slow-motion segments of him pouring water over his head.

“You have to thump your chest to promote yourself,” Horvath explains. “That's awkward for me, where I come from.”

Granted, the first job of the professional motivational speaker is to motivate people to pay him to speak. But again: Why has Horvath chosen this path, put himself in this position, especially if it makes him so uncomfortable?

“There really is no greater gift than to get another person excited about their own life,” he says, regaining his traction. “I've watched people be moved by some aspect of my story, whether it is my battle with addiction or just living a dream. I've been able to talk to a 15-year-old student. An old farmer came up to me. Business people. For whatever reason, I have the ability to inspire people.”

In fact, Horvath was voted the Most Inspirational Player on Saddleback's team after the 2000 season.

“He received the award because of everything he overcame,” recalls Don Butcher, the team's 73-year-old defensive coordinator, “but also because he worked his butt off and never missed a day of practice. I mean, how many people can do what he did at his age without getting killed? The kids saw him and thought, 'If he can do it, we can do it.'”

Maybe they did. But the players didn't vote Horvath as their most inspirational teammate. The coaching staff gave him the award.

“Look, I don't kid myself that I am going to change everybody's lives,” Horvath says, maybe a little exasperated. “I'm nobody special. I want people to realize that. That's the point.All that they want from their lives, they can have too. It lies within them. Just like me.”?

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