Local leaders, community members and Austin College students came together Monday morning to honor the memory, works and legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The annual breakfast event, now in its 13th year, features guest and student speakers reflecting on the topic of race in America and the importance of King’s work in promoting civil rights.

“When we gather each year to observe and honor Dr. King’s legacy we do so in the spirit of differences and similarities,” Austin College President Marjorie Hass said. “We have our differences, but we gather also in the spirit of one important similarity — we are in this room because we share a commitment to civil rights, a commitment to the American dream.”

For its 2017 event, former NFL Linebacker George Koonce served as the keynote speaker and talked about his path from an impoverished background to being a professional football player and later the vice president of a college. Koonce recently wrote a book on his life after the NFL, and his return to education following his field retirement.

“He gave me an opportunity,” Koonce said following the event, describing King. “I stand on the shoulders of Dr. King, A. Phillip Randolph, Lyndon Baines Johnson. People who came before me gave me the opportunity to live the American dream.”

Koonce said he was born in a poor family in North Carolina in the late 1960s. When he was 9 years old, his parents divorced. It was from his mother who built in Koonce a desire to further his education.

As a child, Koonce said he would often watch football games and dream of going to college as a first-generation student and eventually playing professional football. His odds of being one of the 1,696 players in the league were low.

“There were 500,000 student athletes that year,” he said describing the year he graduated. “Only a few of us went on to play in the NFL four years later.”

In 1992, Koonce was signed by the Green Bay Packers and was with the team when it won Super Bowl XXXI in the 1996 season. Koonce would continue to play until his retirement in 2000. Following his departure from the NFL, Koonce returned to school and eventually earned his doctoral degree in philosophy from Marquette University.

Since 2014, he served as vice president of university relations for Marian University. Koonce noted that, like himself, more than half the student population at the university are first-generation college students.

For Austin College freshman Sierra Salser, King’s greatest achievement was “increasing understanding between groups, races and generations.” It was through his work that he was able to foster a “Godly love” of understanding between groups with different cultural backgrounds, she said.

“It is not every day that I get to share my experience of living in a world that is ever changing,” she said, noting the progress over many decades toward civil rights in America. This includes seeing people not based on their race and instead on their own character and qualities.

“I am a multicultural young woman and growing up was a little challenging,” she said, noting her white, African American and Cherokee heritage. “Identity has always been a question asked of me accompanied by the phrase, “What are you?’”

With the current generation, Salser said there have been major strides in breaking down the cultural barriers that have hindered progress in civil rights.

“It is not what I am, but who I am,” she said, noting that she is ultimately just human being like the rest of the world’s more than 7 billion people.