BY PATTYE L. SAWYER-HAMPTON, Pinellas County Urban League
ST. PETERSBURG — As roughly 40 elementary and middle school students filed into the multipurpose room at the Thomas “Jet” Jackson Recreation Center Fri., Jan. 2, they weren’t quite sure who they were going to see, or what they were going to hear.
Some of them might have been a little upset because their basketball or volleyball game had been interrupted for the “assembly,” but they were curious nonetheless. They took their seats and waited for the program to begin.
For the second year in a row, the Pinellas County Urban League (PCUL) partnered with Walmart, the National Alliance of African-American Athletes (NAAAA) and Under Armour to host the 2015 Student Athlete Forum. This forum was designed to impress upon students the importance of striking the appropriate balance between academics and athletics.
Jeff Worthy, Walmart Store Manager and PCUL Board Member, opened the program by introducing J. Everette Pearsall, Executive Director of the NAAAA. Founded in 1989, the NAAAA has a mission “to empower African-American males through athletics, education and public programs.”
Pearsall kicked the forum off by asking the students what they aspired to be when they grew up, and received responses such as a NFL player, basketball player, nurse and engineer. One young student confidently stated that she wanted to be “a judge and a basketball player.”
Pearsall went on to tell them that all of their dreams could come to fruition if they excelled academically. He shared his own aspiration of being a football player from the age of seven, and told them that he only focused on gym and math – figuring that all he needed to do was “be athletic and know how to count my money.”
Although he was capable of being a good student, he said he didn’t fully apply himself. Embarrassing himself and his family by almost getting expelled from school at age 14, which was the wakeup call that caused him to redirect his focus and become the great student and athlete he knew he could be.
The anxious children got a chance to meet two finalist of the Watkins Memorial Award, which has been presented annually to African-American scholar athletes since 1992. The coveted award is named for Franklin D. Watkins, the coach of championship football and basketball teams in Harrisburg, Pa.
The award recognizes stellar high school athletes from across the nation and is presented to the nation’s top African-American male high school scholar-athlete. Finalists are chosen based upon their unweighted grade point average (GPA), their personal statements, extracurricular activities, community service and letters of recommendation.
Each of the five finalists will be recognized in Washington, D.C. Feb. 21, and will receive an award, ring and dinner in their hometown. The 2015 finalists are: Frank Buncom IV (San Diego), Arrington Farrar (Atlanta), Holton Hill (Houston), Bryce Love (Raleigh, N.C.), Daylon Mack (Gladewater, Texas) and Justin Reid (Baton Rouge, La.).
Students then heard from Keion Roberts, a former NFL player who played for the Cleveland Browns and the Canadian League’s Toronto Argonauts. Roberts encouraged the students to listen to their parents and teachers because they have their best interest at heart. He shared how his initial lack of academic preparation resulted in him having to attend a junior college before going on to a four-year university.
The students erupted in laughter when one asked Roberts why he had to go to junior college and he responded, “Because I was a knucklehead.” He told them hard work resulted in his eventual achievement of a 3.7 GPA and a degree in Kinesiology. “You have to focus and get your academics together.”
Next the students heard from Leon McQuay III, a former Watkins Award finalist who was named the top safety in the country when he played football for Armwood High School in Seffner. He stressed to the students that they have to work hard to achieve their goals, even if it means they have less time to spend with their friends. He told them they will encounter many challenges, but they must remain focused.
Now a student majoring in music Industry at the University of Southern California and an aspiring R&B/hip-hop producer, he is a starting safety with the USC Trojans. When asked by one of the students: “Are you famous?” McQuay smiled and laughed. Pearsall quickly interjected, “Yeah, he’s famous. Look for him on TV; he’s on TV all the time. His number is 22!”
2015 Watkins Award Finalist Justin Reid, a safety and kicker from Baton Rouge, La., was the next speaker. He said his parents, Sharon and Eric Reid, Sr., raised him with high academic requirements. He told the students they must be balanced.
“You have to work your craft. You can’t just be successful in one area.”
When asked about the greatest challenge he has faced, he said it was watching an older, talented friend and teammate spiral downward due to drugs.
“You’re going to have the opportunity to do the right thing and you’re going to have opportunities to do the wrong thing. You have to know when to say no and make the right decision for yourself.”
Reid maintains a 4.4 GPA at Dutchtown High School in Geismer, La. and is a member of the Hurricane Katrina Clean UP, Dutchtown Student of the Year, recipient of the Gallant Griffin Award for Academics and Character, 2014 Courage Award, First Team All-State, First Team All-Metro, and Sportsline Player of the Year.
He has received offers from 22 schools and has narrowed his choices down to Oklahoma, LSU, Stanford and Notre Dame. It seems being a Watkins Award Finalist is a family tradition. Reid’s older brother, Eric Reid, Jr., was the 2010 Award recipient, and now plays safety (#35) for the San Francisco 49ers.
The final speaker was Bryce Love; a running back from Raleigh, N.C with a 4.5 GPA. Love told the students that they “have to do the work to accomplish your dreams. Understanding the value of the opportunities placed in front of you is key to your success.”
Love also has an impressive list of accolades, including: Member of National Honor Society, National Achievers Honor Society, National Beta Club, Distributive Education Club of America, Boys and Girls Club Volunteer, Homeless and Rescue Mission Volunteer, Volunteer at the Duke Children’s Hospital Cancer Center and the list goes on and on.
According to Bryce’s parents, Chris and Angela Love, he has received offers from over 40 schools, and is in the process of choosing between Stanford, Tennessee, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech.
The forum was closed out by PCUL President and CEO Watson Haynes, who promised to continue this annual tradition by having the forum again next year and making it even bigger and better.
Afterward, the students had the opportunity to get autographs from these rising stars and were given free tickets to the Under Armour All American High School Football Game that was played at Tropicana Field on Friday afternoon.
These stellar young men are great examples of what happens when raw talent is combined with determination, drive, commitment and academic excellence. They stand as shining role models, duly equipped for success, both on and off the football field.