Ethan Zohn

What would you do if you won a million dollars? What Ethan Zohn did might surprise you.

Before he became an instantly recognizable celebrity on the reality television program Survivor: Africa, Ethan Zohn played soccer professionally for teams in both the United States and Zimbabwe.

So when he won the competition and found himself $1 million richer, he had to make some decisions. What would he do with the money and his new celebrity?

It didn’t take long to decide. He decided to use his money and notoriety to help spread HIV and AIDS prevention education to young people in Africa. It fit Ethan’s character. It was the perfect way to blend his value of serving others while paying tribute to Africa—a continent of people who had taught him a great deal. Using professional soccer players, Ethan’s non-profit, Grassroot Soccer, is educating an entire generation of young Africans.

And, that probably would have been the end of an admirable story: young, attractive soccer player puts his money to work for others. For several years, Ethan devoted himself to his non-profit and existed as a television celebrity.

But, then in 2009, another opportunity to serve came out of left-field: a rare form of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Suddenly the celebrity with the recognizable head of curly black hair was in the fight of his life.

“And, I found myself in the same place I was in that moment when I was deciding what to do with the money,” Ethan said. “I had to take a good long look at myself and listen to my heart. How could I make this help others?”

It’s a story of character your students will always remember.

“It was such a privilege and honor to have you; a wonderful pleasure to meet you and hear you speak at our fall plenary lecture. You struck a chord in the audience, especially in the students with your inspiring life-story and work. You have given them and us much to think about in terms of how to become a leader, how to engage in the community and how to make a difference in the world following your passion.”

– Rekha Datta, Director, Institute for Global Understanding, Monmouth University

“Ethan delivers a thought-provoking message while asking ‘what would you do if you won a million dollars?’ Ethan is able to seamlessly weave humor, compassion and life experiences throughout his comments. He left the audience wanting more!”

– Gina Hurny, PSU, University Park

Character: The Ultimate Survival Tool

In this keynote, Ethan begins with the question, “What would you do if you won a million dollars?” It’s a thought provoking question that became a reality for the former professional soccer player and coach . After he won $1-million on Survivor Africa, Ethan followed his gut and invested his winnings in something much bigger than himself, a non-profit organization called Grassroot Soccer which promotes HIV and AIDS prevention education to Africa’s youth. It was a decision that perfectly matched his values and character: putting his good fortune to work for a cause greater than himself.

That decision alone would make him a compelling speaker on character and service to others, and Ethan was settling into a life of quasi-celebrity and good works. Then in 2009, a less enticing opportunity gave him another chance to serve.
In 2009, Ethan was diagnosed a rare form of Hodgkins Lymphoma. Suddenly, he was fighting to become a “survivor” in a whole new sense. While he endured the rigors of cancer treatment, he became a national spokesperson for Katie Couric’s Stand Up to Cancer organization and kept a weekly video blog on People Magazine’s website. Millions watched Ethan fight the highs and lows of aggressive cancer treatment – his interest in service stronger than ever.

“Character: The Ultimate Survival Tool” is Ethan’s chance to share his extraordinary journey with students looking for a way to make a difference in the world. For Ethan, life’s opportunities and challenges were faced with confidence by drawing on his values and character. In the keynote, Ethan delves deeply into the issue of character with his audience: where it comes from, why it matters and how it can help them make important decisions in their lives. Ethan relates the character-building moments in his own life to illustrate how character is built and why it is important to develop, nurture and refine our character throughout our lives.

“You never know when you will need the reserves of your character, but when you do, you better be sure you are up to the challenge,” he said.

Character is difficult to define, but Ethan puts it into terms that students can relate to, and he sprinkles in personal stories from Survivor, battling cancer, and other experiences in his unique life. The values of honesty, integrity, friendship and honor—are as important in today’s society as ever.

If you are looking for a recognizable face to deliver a deeply-felt, meaningful lesson on values, character and personal strength to your student leaders, you should consider Ethan. He is a popular choice for new student orientation, leadership conferences, convocations, World AIDS Day observances, and more.

With his remarkable sense of humor and his honesty, he offers a keynote that inspires students to answer life’s opportunities with strength and conviction of character.

Learning Outcomes

As a result of attending this program, students will learn:

  • Specific tools to help use character as a guiding principle in their college journey and to become a better leader
  • The importance of getting involved on campus through service and charity
  • How to ensure that all challenges, big and small, turn into opportunities that improve the lives of themselves and others

Ethan’s Bio

In August 2008, Ethan officially launched Grassroot Soccer UNITED an international, youth-led movement to raise money and build awareness for his foundation and mission to end HIV/AIDS in Africa, by embarking on a world-record-breaking 550-mile journey on foot, from Boston, MA, to Washington, DC—dribbling a soccer ball the entire route. Ethan is also the national spokesperson for America Scores, an organization that helps inner city kids participate in educational soccer programs. Other extensive charity work includes the Colon Cancer Alliance, Intergovernmental Renewable Energy Organization (IREO), Autism Speaks, St. Jude Hospital and Maccabi USA.

In May 2009—less than 30 days after his diagnoses with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was made public on the cover of People Magazine—Ethan was asked to serve as National Ambassador for “Stand Up 2 Cancer” and to stand in for Lance Armstrong as the keynote speaker for all of his LiveStrong Challenge Races while Lance was competing in the Tour de France. Most recently, Ethan was asked to be a panelist for the Clinton Global Initiative University Series starting in April 2010.
In recognition for his charitable work, Ethan has been awarded the “Nkosi Johnson Community Spirit Award” by the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care, the “Heroes Among Us Award” from the Boston Celtics and the Massachusetts State Health Department and the “Auxilia Chimusoro Award” from the US State Department in Zimbabwe. In addition, he was awarded the 2007 Peace Abby “Courage of Conscience,” the 2008 A Caring Hand’s “Philanthropic Achievement Award,” and was named one of People Magazine’s “Helpers of the Year” in 2005.

In 2005, Ethan was voted Campus Activities Magazine’s “Rookie of the Year.”

Originally from Lexington, MA, Ethan graduated from Vassar College in upstate New York, going on to play professional soccer for Highlanders FC (Zimbabwe), Cape Cod Crusaders and Hawaii Tsunami. Ethan also played for the 1997 and 2001 U.S. National Maccabiah squads.

Off the field, from 1998 to 2002, Ethan was the assistant coach for the Fairleigh Dickinson University Men and Women’s soccer teams. In 2003, he was the head coach of the US National Maccabiah team at the Pan-American Maccabiah Games, in Santiago, Chile.


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