Former NFL player Tommie Harris Jr. speaks during the Cedar Valley fifth-grade graduation ceremony Thursday morning.

Former Chicago Bears defensive tackle and Killeen Independent School District student Tommie Harris Jr. celebrated Cedar Valley fifth-graders’ graduation Thursday morning during a special ceremony.

The graduating fifth-graders walked into the cafeteria two-by-two, smiling proudly to the tune of pomp and circumstance as their families and teachers looked on. After receiving their diplomas, they eagerly waited for Harris to speak.

“He sat in this very cafeteria, walked these halls and went through the lunch line right here at Cedar Valley,” Principal Jan Peronto said as she introduced the 31-year-old “Army brat.”

“This school is special. This is a military brat school,” Harris said. “At Cedar Valley, we all shared (that) one thing in common.”

Harris went on to attend Manor Middle School and Ellison High School. He shared his path to success with the crowd, acknowledging that it was not without a few bumps in the road.

“I was hanging out with the wrong crowd,” he said, resulting in a spell at an alternative school. “If you hang out with trash long enough, eventually you’ll start smelling like it. Stay focused and pick the right friends.”

By his senior year at Ellison, Harris was selected as the best high school football player in Texas. “After that, life took off.”

He went on to play for the University of Oklahoma and then spent seven seasons with the Chicago Bears.

“Your duty is to do something great with this paper,” Harris said of the students’ diplomas. “Then, come back here and use this stage as a platform.”

Harris used the very stage he stood on as a platform back in 2004, when he announced his draft by the NFL. He took the opportunity to announce another major move at Thursday’s graduation — he is retiring from the NFL.

“Now, I’m an entrepreneur and I’m back here (in Killeen) where I started,” he said.

Much of the focus on the graduation was the concept of growing a dream, a theme Cedar Valley has concentrated on the entire school year.

Peronto repeated quotes from Colin Powell, Gloria Steinem, Jesse Owens and Harriet Tubman on dreaming, paired with her own advice for planning for the future.

“With sweat and determination with a plan, you can reach your goal,” she said, citing her own recent achievement of earning her doctorate. Peronto used three rocks to drive home her point.

Holding up a petrified rock, she described how most students arrived at her school, unrefined and sharp around the edges. Eventually, the students began to develop and form, she said, holding up a smoother but lumpy rock.

Finally, Peronto held up a third rock, smooth and shiny, with only a few bumps, symbolizing the graduating fifth-graders.

“As you go through life, that process will continue, but continue to dream, work hard, to have determination and to push through,” she said.

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