Buffalo Bills wide receiver Robert Woods returned to USC this spring to complete his degree in policy, planning and development. He graduated Friday, a little over three years after he left school and was selected by the Bills in the second round of the 2013 draft.
Woods, 24, delivered a speech during USC's commencement ceremony, remembering the final words of his sister, Olivia, who died of cancer in 2007 at the age of 17.
"As a freshman in high school, after just having my 15th birthday, I had to face the biggest challenge of my life -- the loss of my sister, Olivia Woods," he told the crowd Friday. "This was very challenging for me. With her being two years older than me, I was attached to her hip. In our younger years, when I was struggling in baseball, it was her who taught me how to hit. When I was struggling in school with math problems, it was her who was there to help me. She was someone I could always count on to be there for me."
Olivia Woods was diagnosed with sarcoma cancer at the age of 13 but was later able to attend Serra (Calif.) High School. Her younger brother joined her at the school as a freshman when her cancer returned during her junior year. She died Apr. 19, 2007.
"Before she left, she left me with something I would never forget," Robert Woods recalled Friday. "It was her last words to me. I came home that day after school and went straight to her room, as I always did, and she said to me, 'I thought you were going to model.' Slightly confused, believing it was the medicine that was talking, she said again, 'You have to be a model.' Olivia left us that night in the early morning, however these words have never left me.
"It later hit me what she was talking about, what she was asking of me. She wanted me to be a role model. Living in a spotlight of being a top recruit, playing under the bright lights at the [Los Angeles] Coliseum or constantly being watched by those following our footsteps, she wanted me to know, for us all to know, to be an example and a leader for those who are next."
Wanting to be a role model, Woods returned to USC to attend classes each spring after entering the NFL, despite some questions from his peers.
"I chose to forgo my senior year and decided to pursue my dreams and enter the NFL draft, but I never once wavered with the thought of not completing my education," he said. "Once I got to the NFL, I would always hear people say, 'What you going back to school for? Ain't you in the NFL?' Yes, but I had other dreams to fulfill, and that was ensuring I received my degree. After my football career, my education would carry me throughout. I made a requirement to come back every spring and finish what I started."
With his degree in hand, Woods left his fellow graduates with a message formed from his sister's final words.
"Every model does not look the same, every model is not on TV, every model does not have the spotlight, and the best part of it all, every model isn't perfect," he said. "We are all capable of being a model daily: to our friends, to our siblings and even our children and our future children.
"So I ask you today: Are you going to model?"