On the first weekend of August, fans and NFL greats gathered in Canton, Ohio to welcome the newest class of inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Nine new names joined the Hall. One of them was legendary linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
Ahead of his induction on August 5, Ware delivered what might have been the day’s most emotional – and uplifting – speech. In a 17-minute address heavy on the faith (and sometimes interrupted by tears), he reflected on his life and career.
“From the moment I was born, God put me on a path to this jacket, on a path to Canton,” he began. “People say that you’re a product of your environment, but that doesn’t have to be true.” He added: “I was blinded by my environment as a child – domestic violence, drugs, gangs. But my surroundings taught me how to be relentless, limitless, and resilient. The reality is: you’re a product of your own thinking, your own mind, and you must learn how to persevere.”
Born in 1982 in Auburn, Alabama, Ware was raised by a single mother. In his speech, he paid tribute to Brenda Ware: “I learned how to dream big by watching you, Mom. Somehow you always managed to tuck me in at 2:00 in the morning after working three jobs, shielding me from worrying. While I knew I wasn’t going to see you before I went to school in the morning, I knew I’d see you every single day working in the school cafeteria in elementary school, middle school and even high school. We always exchanged that big smile that Grandma gave us. You showed me how to serve and smile through anything,” he said. Ware summed up their ethos in a way that may sound familiar to Nike fans: “When you don’t have any other choice, you just have to do it.”
Ware’s family lived nearby, forming a close-knit community. “When your village is always there for you, you never feel lacking.” Though his father was absent, his mother worked at the school; his aunt drove the school bus. She’d drop DeMarcus off at the local community center, where his grandfather worked as a janitor. “Granddad, you are the epitome of hard work,” Ware said. “You bring us all together and when you speak, we listen.”
“Statistics supposedly tell us that if you come from a single parent home, you’re probably not going to graduate high school or go to college, [and] are three times more likely to live in poverty. And if you live in the Black community, it’s even tougher. But not my community. I want to thank Osi Umenyiora, Brandon Hall, and all my high school teammates for using their voices to help me get my scholarship to Troy University, the only college scholarship I got,” he said.
“But often there’s something in our lives that pushes us to make a real change. For me that one single, frightening moment was when I was in college. I was attending a parking lot party when I was visiting home. My uncle was in his car and without warning was knocked across the head with a gun. And a knife dropped to the ground, and I picked it up.
When I looked up, all I could see was the potential shooter’s eyes and a gun barrel pressed against my head. All I heard was my family say, ‘Don’t kill him.’ There was an eerie silence, after which I simply said, ‘This isn’t me,’ and I dropped the knife.”
“At that moment, I knew God gave me a second chance, and I had to do something with it,” Ware said, his voice breaking as the crowd applauded. “That was my turning point. The memory of those parking lot lights and the sound of those screams – ‘Don’t kill him!’ – became the fire that empowered me. You can’t imagine how many years that night echoed in my head. When I trained, I was motivated by the memories of those parking lot lights. And when I ran onto the field and the crowd cheered, those memories of those screams began to fade.”
Despite all he went through, Ware is proud of where he went: “I’m proud to be a Troy Trojan. I had an amazing college family,” he said. He had an amazing career, too: after becoming a defensive end as a sophomore, he dominated as a senior, receiving the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Award. He led Troy to its first-ever bowl game and finished with 44 tackles for loss – tied for the most in school history. Ware thanked his Troy teammates and staff: “I learned the value of building relationships.”
At 6’4” and 250 pounds when he left Troy, Ware was considered a “tweener” by scouts who viewed him as somewhere between linebacker and defensive end. Ware was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2005 NFL Draft; Cowboys owner Jerry Jones personally chose him. “All my hard work in Troy brought me to this: Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys organization calling me on my Nokia flip phone,” Ware remembered. He told Jones: “I want to thank you for taking a chance on me. You gave me the opportunity to play in two of the greatest stadiums with the most amplified crowds, that helped silence the pain of my past.”
As a rookie, Ware tied the franchise record for most sacks in a game (three). In 2006, he had 11.5 sacks — the most ever by a Cowboys linebacker. But his breakout season was in 2007: he led the team with 14 sacks, finished with 80 tackles, and made his second straight Pro Bowl. Ware led the league in sacks twice, with 20 in the 2008 season and 15.5 in 2010. He added 19 more and became the Cowboys’ all-time sack leader.
Ware said: “You know, the most frequently asked question I got as a Dallas Cowboy was, ‘Why are you always smiling?’ I smile because you guys were a highlight of my day and you help me get through life outside of football. You chose me to be your captain, and I’m forever humbled by it. But even the captain’s lights can get dim. Sometimes it just needs to shine somewhere else and that was Denver, Colorado.”
After nine seasons in Dallas, Ware was released by the Cowboys. He signed with the Denver Broncos a day later, in 2014. In Denver, he joined linebacker Von Miller on what became one of the league’s best defenses. “Dallas taught me how to be the best-in-class leader, because I was surrounded by so many of them. So when I went to Denver, I had a huge opportunity to once again let that light shine,” he said. And shine, he did. As part of Denver’s defense, Ware helped propel the team to a 12-4 record in 2015 and an AFC Championship. And in the Super Bowl, Ware and Miller wreaked havoc on the Carolina Panthers. Thanks in large part to Miller and Ware — who sacked Panthers quarterback Cam Newton multiple times — the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50.
Interestingly, much of the Broncos’ Super Bowl squad had a Houston connection. Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, tight end Owen Daniels, and linebacker Antonio Smith had all worked for the Texans. (In fact, the Texans had fired Kubiak in 2013.) Now, they’d all won the championship in Denver.
“My teammates are unstoppable,” Ware said, “and I’m so proud to be part of that legacy. As we always said, iron sharpens iron, and another man sharpens another.”
In a moving moment, he revealed that some seats in the stadium had been left empty in honor of his former teammates. (Former Cowboys running back Marion Barber died of heat stroke last June. Broncos RB Ronnie Hillman died from kidney cancer at 31 in December. Former Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas – who also played for the Texans – died of complications from a seizure in December 2021, just weeks before his 34th birthday.) “Keep resting in peace, fellas,” Ware said.
“Time won’t allow me to thank everybody, but if you’re here today or watching on television, I thank you,” Ware added. He thanked all his coaches, from high school to the pros. He thanked his children, Marley and DeMarcus Jr. (from a previous marriage) and MJ, along with his wife Angela. And then, Ware got even more emotional as he addressed his father Otis Pitts, who was absent throughout most of his life — but was right there, sitting in the audience.
“This might sound crazy,” he said, “but the NFL taught me how to forgive. First, I forgave myself and then I forgave my dad. Dad, all the times I didn’t understand why you weren’t there; it doesn’t matter. You’re here now. I’ve learned that guilt rots in a person and forgiveness heals. How can I expect God to forgive me if I don’t forgive you? You once said two simple words to me: ‘I’m sorry.’ I’m not sure if I responded, but I’m telling you now, on the biggest platform of my life: I forgive you.”