Student athlete forum: Balancing athletics with academics

BY PATTYE L. SAWYERHAMPTON, Pinellas County Urban League

ST. PETERSBURG – The air crackled with excitement Thurs., Jan. 2, as elementary, middle and high school-aged students gathered at the Dwight Jones Center Northside Boys & Girls Club to hear about the importance of academics while excelling on the football field and in other sports.

The students heard from J. Everette Pearsall, executive director of the National Alliance of African American Athletes (NAAAA), Zavier Carmichael, one of the finalists for the Watkins Award and Keion Roberts, a former NFL player. The NAAAA was founded in 1989 with a mission “to empower African American males through athletics, education and public programs.”

The Watkins Award has been presented annually to African-American scholar/ athletes since 1992, and is named for Franklin D. Watkins, the coach of championship football and basketball teams in Harrisburg, Pa. It 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 on their un-weighted grade point average (GPA), their personal statements, extracurricular activities, community service and letters of recommendation.

Each winner will be recognized in Washington, D.C. Feb. 22, receive an award, ring and dinner in their hometown. This year’s finalists are: Tony Brown (Beaumont, Texas), Zavier Carmichael (Mobile, Ala.), Robert Okereke (Santa Ana, Calif.), Christopher Register (Brownsummit, N.C.) and Richard Yeargin (Ft. Lauderdale). Each of these young men have maintained a GPA ranging from 3.7 to 4.4 while playing football, participating in other extracurricular and civic activities and doing community service. Pearsall started the morning by asking the assembled students what they wanted to be when they grew up, and he received responses such as, nurse, doctor, lawyer, NFL player, actress, college professor, marine biologist and even hairstylist.

“You can do anything you want to do, but you must get an education,” Pearsall said. He stressed the importance of not only going to school, but doing well in school. The students also heard from Keion Roberts, a former NFL defensive end who played for the Cleveland Browns and the Canadian League’s Toronto Argonauts. He shared his story of overcoming the adversity of suffering a torn hamstring just months before Pro Day, as well as his battle with Crohn’s Disease, diagnosed during his junior year of college, causing him to lose 80 pounds. Even though Roberts was tempted to give up, he fought through his illness, earned a degree in Kinesiology and went on to play professional football. He encouraged the students to “have a vision and see it through to completion; don’t allow distractions to hinder you.”

Watkins Award finalist, Carmichael, is an outside linebacker/safety for the St. Paul’s Episcopal School Saints.  He has an impressive list of accomplishments including:  president of the National Honor Society, volunteer for Key Club, member of National Society of High School Scholars, volunteer at Habitat for Humanity, Alabama All State, Mobile Player of the Year and Mobile All Defensive Player just to name a few. Carmichael maintains a 4.28 GPA, and credits his parents with stressing the importance of getting his education. He told the students to be sure to have respect for their elders because, “They gave a lot of themselves for you.”

He has committed to Duke University, where he plans to major in biomedical engineering. Although he wants to play in the NFL someday, he told the students they must “have a Plan B or C.” Carmichael shared that he tore both his MCL and PCL last year in the last game of the season, and that helped to shape his future career goals. If the NFL doesn’t call, he plans to be an orthopedic surgeon.

“Prove your critics wrong by your actions. Never give up on your dream. You’re only as good as you allow yourself to be,” Carmichael encouraged the students. Whatever career path this young man takes, his future is certainly bright! The event was spearheaded by Jeff Worthy, Walmart Market Manager and Urban League Board member, the Pinellas County Urban League and the Boys & Girls Club.

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