INDIANAPOLIS — Gary Brackett knows a little something about dreaming big and succeeding. The former Indianapolis Colts linebacker will share his experiences as the keynote speaker for Thursday's 22nd annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Indiana Holiday Celebration at the Statehouse.
"We are honored to have Gary at the program to share the influence Dr. King has had on his life," Jamal Smith, Indiana Civil Rights Commission's executive director, said in a statement. "His rise to one of the best defensive players in the NFL is truly inspiring."
Brackett added, "I'm excited. I do a lot of speaking around town. I especially like the opportunity to speak with youth, give them some motivation."
He plans to talk about the importance of service, something Brackett does through his IMPACT Foundation, as well as aspiring to have a dream and seeing it through. Several Indianapolis school children will be in attendance for the program.
"Hopefully, I can inspire them," Brackett said.
He had plenty of his own afflatus growing up in Glassboro, N.J. It came from his brothers, who pushed him in football ("we were always playing in the yard") to a gym teacher who saw his potential ("she always talked with me about the importance of being a leader and having a proper image").
So when Brackett had to walk on Rutgers University's football team and was undrafted by the National Football League, it just motivated him to work harder.
"It's funny, when I initially was a walk-on I had a chip on my shoulder," Brackett said. "I wanted to go out and prove everyone wrong."
That meant staying longer in the weight room and outplaying everyone else on the field. As is well known now, that ethic paid off. Brackett was Rutgers' defensive captain and MVP his senior year. After signing with the Colts in 2003 as an undrafted free agent, he was named defensive captain in '06 and won the Super Bowl with the team that same year.
"Eventually that became a part of my identity," Brackett said of his dedication. "When I got a scholarship, I continued to do the same things. By the time I got to the NFL, it was the same story. Nothing had changed for me as far as my work ethic. I never took on a victim mentality, but saw everything as an opportunity to go out and prove myself."
His biggest challenge was at the beginning of his pro career. His parents and older brother all died within a 16-month span starting in 2003. Instead of lamenting his losses, though, Brackett considered himself blessed to have had these people in his life for as long as he did.
"Football was kind of my escape," he said of that time period. "When you're on the field, you don't have the luxury to think about day-to-day activities when you have 300-pounders coming after you."
Brackett, who lives in Zionsville, was released by the Colts last off-season. He hasn't officially retired yet, but is undecided on whether he'll try to play again. He's still nursing a shoulder injury that hasn't fully healed.
"Either way, I'm happy where I'm at now," said Brackett, who is a partner in a new restaurant opening this week in Carmel.
As for Super Bowl predictions, he'd like to see Baltimore make it to the big game, but remembers how tough the New England Patriots are on their home field. Ultimately, Brackett expects the San Francisco 49ers to hoist their first championship banner since 1995.
"Hopefully, San Fran can get them," he said.