LEE — When Richie Contartesi was an 11-year-old living in Palm Beach, Florida in 1998, his parents’ divorce sent him into a depressive spiral so severe that he flunked fifth-grade and then nearly took his own life.
The inspiring true story of how only a decade later that lost young man went on to earn a football scholarship from the University of Mississippi was the tale that Lee students heard from Contartesi himself during a recent motivational speech.
Contartesi gave back-to-back speeches to two separate groups at Lee Middle and High School auditorium on Wednesday, March 11 — first to an audience that included students in fifth-grade through ninth-grade, followed by a presentation to a group of several hundred in grades 10 through 12.
“I thought it was really interesting and cool,” said junior Lydia Simone following the speech. “I thought it was something that everybody needed to hear.”
Contartesi’s story of earning a full Division I football scholarship was made all the more improbable by the fact that he stands just 5-foot, 7-inches and weighs 150 pounds, he said. Contartesi shared his story of perseverance with students as part of the district’s health and wellness speaker series.
In 2011, the district formed a wellness committee and decided to launch a speaker series to inform and inspire students, according to Lee Elementary Physical Education teacher Jennifer Carlino.
“Every year we like to host somebody to touch upon a different aspect of wellness,” said Carlino. “We’ve had people talk about substance abuse in the past. Last year, we had Craig Scott, who was a Columbine shooting survivor. This year, the kids said they wanted somebody who was motivational and uplifting.”
The district contacted the Las Vegas-based speaker one year ago to arrange for him to speak, and the event finally came to fruition this month. Sponsorships were secured from businesses including Lee Bank, Cintas and Adams Community Bank to fund Contartesi’s appearance fee.
We work with local businesses that donate money to the wellness committee so we can bring these amazing speakers here with no cost to the district,” Carlino said.
Contartesi said he gives roughly 100 motivational speeches per year, including a recent appearance in Kuwait and at a corporate event for IBM in front of 7,000 attendees.
Contartesi is the author of the 2015 book: “In Spite of the Odds: A True Inspirational Journey from Walk-on to Full Scholarship at Ole Miss.”
He shared that journey with students, stressing the importance of writing life goals down every morning and reviewing their progress each day.
Contartesi said that at the depths of his despair after failing fifth-grade, he went online and found the academic requirements for playing college football and began obsessively aiming for that goal every day.
“My definition of success is having something that you’re shooting for and being one percent better every day,” he told the students.
When Contartesi asked the high school students how many of them studied life goals each day, only three students in the auditorium raised their hands.
High school junior Camden Redstone said Contartesi’s message had made an impact on him.
“I’ll write down a couple of goals, definitely,” he said after the speech. “I do that for the baseball team as well.”
After breaking his leg during his senior year at Palm Beach Central High School, Contartesi’s dream of playing Division I college football seemed over.
But a former coach had an in at the University of Mississippi, also known as “Ole Miss,” and Contartesi earned a one-shot tryout for the team.
Contartesi told students that he practiced football drills he knew he would be required to perform at the tryout for weeks on end.
While he didn’t earn a spot on the team in his freshman year, Contartesi jumped at the chance to become a walk-on player for the practice squad, a role he served for three full years before then-head coach Houston Nutt offered him a scholarship for his senior season.
He then went on to start all 12 games in his senior season at the University of Mississippi.
Contartesi, 32, is the co-owner of Las Vegas gym Dream Builder Fitness, which he told students was set to be franchised into a national chain.
He said that despite having a busy schedule, he feels compelled to travel the country spreading his message to young people.
“I need to do it because I know exactly what it feels like to be anxious, nervous and depressed,” he said following the event. “I know what it’s like to have something that you’re shooting for and having negative people trying to pull you down. I also had the right people in my life, so I could get what I ultimately wanted to achieve and get through all of those things. So now I feel like it’s part of my calling and purpose to share these things with others. I want to make the world a better place and inspire students to get what they want in their lives.”
Throughout his speech, Contartesi stressed the importance of avoiding negativity and disregarding the opinions of others by responding with positivity. To demonstrate, he asked for a volunteer from the student body who was skilled at roasting his classmates.
Junior Gabe Kelley took on the challenge and Contartesi instructed Kelley to insult him. When Kelley poked fun at Contartesi’s height, the motivational speaker thanked him for pointing that out and explained all of the ways his diminutive stature actually benefited him on the football field.
After Kelley needled Contartesi’s stylized haircut, Contartesi said that remark gave him a great excuse to wear his new baseball cap, deflecting the negative comment.
After the conclusion of the speech, a group of students lined up to take pictures with Contartesi and share personal stories with him.
Contartesi noted that a rural area like south county is fertile ground to plant the seed for young people to dream big.
“I think a lot of people from small towns will blame the fact that they’re from a small town for why they don’t have success,” he said. “They might say ‘How can someone from Lee do XYZ?’ But they can. It doesn’t really matter. We’re in the United States. It’s about opening their minds up and giving them some perspective on that.”
Carlino said that she hopes students emerged from the speech knowing that they can achieve their goals if they set their minds to it.
“He was very engaging and upbeat,” she said. “Then you see kids lingering around afterward to meet him, so I think he really has a good way to connect with students.”
Simone said she thinks her fellow students will absorb Contartesi’s message and apply it to their own lives.
“I think a lot of people will,” she said. “I think people will take it to heart and make a change.”