From an NFL coach to a school principal, Naperville Central High School seniors on Friday got a glimpse of the possibilities ahead of them as they prepare to graduate.
The school awarded four former Redhawks with Alumni Recognition Awards - Sean Payton (1982), Phil Avila (1974), John Spinner (1958) and Robert Schillerstrom (1970).
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The four spoke to students about their experiences at Central and their advice for being successful after high school.
"Our hope for you is that you are inspired by the stories of today's alumni and that you will pursue your talent and create your own stories wherever you go, whatever you do," said Lynne Nolan, dean of student activities.
Payton is the head coach of the New Orleans Saints football team that won the 2010 Super Bowl. While at Central he was an all-state quarterback and went on to play at Eastern Illinois University and briefly for the Chicago Bears.
Payton was not able to attend the ceremony Friday but sent a video message to students telling them they have a "great foundation coming from Naperville Central."
He said what matters is how people handle the hurdles they face.
"How you handle those things and your ability to persevere and your ability to look forward to the next challenge and really get back up off the mat every time," he said.
Avila knows a thing or two about hurdles. Both an athlete and writer in high school, he went on to pursue a career in journalism. As a reporter, he worked for several newspapers, traveled overseas and was a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal. He won one of the profession's top honors, the Pulitzer Prize, as part of The Wall Street Journal staff covering the Sept. 11 attacks.
Avila was thrown for a loop when his son was diagnosed with schizophrenia but developed an interest in mental health issues and is now a mental health professional. He encouraged Central students Friday to take the less traveled path and be open to the opportunities life presents.
"Sometimes it can bring you much joy and happiness," he said.
Another alumni receiving honors Friday was DuPage County Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom. The attorney has served on numerous boards over the years serving Naperville Park District and the DuPage County Forest Preserve. He also ran unsuccessfully for governor.
Schillerstrom's political involvement began when he came home from college to find that trees in Naperville were being cut down to make room for new subdivisions, leading to a run for park board to help preserve open space.
Friday, he encouraged students to give back to the community, be flexible but not afraid of failure and to pursue their passions.
"If you want to be a professional baseball player or coach, go for it," he said. "If you want to be an astronaut, go for it. If you want to be the governor of Illinois, go for it. We need one, so don't be shy."
Like his fellow honorees, Spinner was a star athlete while at Central playing baseball and football. He spent a long and distinguished career in education in Ohio as a guidance counselor and later principal at several schools.
He said he is grateful for the guidance he received from Central staff during his time in Naperville and imparted some wisdom from his parent and grandparents.
"Twenty years from now few people remember your grade-point average," he said. "What they remember is this - it's that you tried your best, were dependable, honest and trustworthy. They will remember if you were a hard worker and a person who cherished his family and friends."