Scholar-athletesprovide lessonswe all can utilize

By Scott Schlaufman The Sports Desk

If there ever was a knock that my coworkers had on me during the last 28 months, it’s that this section had almost everything but a column.

I’ve written about soccer, tennis, golf, swimming, baseball, weightlifting, football, racquetball, basketball and everything else this county has to offer. I found myself along the sidelines at both nearly-empty fields and playoff games with environments that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Yet for all the pictures that I took and the stories I told, it was rare that readers got to delve into my mind. In the midst of telling all these stories, I never wanted it to be about me, I wanted it to be about the athletes and tried to let our coverage speak for itself.

But after all this time, I at least owe you goodbye.

As Jaymie Baxley alluded to in his column that ran on Sunday, today is my final day working for The Robesonian and our parent company, Civitas Media.

By the time the sun rises on Friday, I’ll have begun a three-day journey back to my old stomping grounds in the suburbs of Denver. It’s a decision rooted in family, based around a desire to spend more holidays with the people who raised me and know me best.

But today? This is the end.

It’s an end that I chose for one particular reason: At a private ceremony tonight, my coworkers at Civitas Media and I will be hosting a banquet to recognize the 10 monthly winners of the scholar-athlete program, a program that we run alongside our friends at Mountaire Farms.

It’s a night that brings together athletes from three different counties and six different schools, one that not only honors these students for their athletics but for their accolades off the field as well. There will be valedictorians and salutatorians, football stars and softball phenoms. It’s far away from the negative stereotypes that seem to dilute Robeson County.

I was nervous when I first came here in early 2013.

Before accepting the job, I did my research, and as website after website will tell you, Robeson County isn’t the safest place on earth and students aren’t always focused on their education.

In reality there’s no shortage of tough stories around the county. While it’s easy to be mesmerized by the county’s negatives, the scholar-athlete program always allowed a different type of person to shine: the kind that that truly invests in both themself and their education.

One of my first stories I wrote when I moved here was a scholar-athlete profile on Mac McGill, a former Lumberton High School linebacker whose brother passed away during his senior football season. Despite that loss, and one of a LHS teammate in his sophomore year, Mac seemingly never bought into the negative, finishing his senior year as Robeson County’s top defensive player. He later graduated with a GPA in the upper 3s.

He faced aversity, but he never caved.

It’s a statement that is true about so many of the other scholar-athletes that we pick.

One year, there was an athlete who put up one of the top GPAs in his class despite not having internet at his home. Others have battled through painful injuries for their love of the sport. Some just knew that without an education, they couldn’t afford to achieve their dreams. Whatever the hardship these kids faced, they never let it deter them.

Since that first interview, I’ve been fortunate enough to write a number of scholar-athlete profiles on memorable student-athletes including Alexis Roberson, Colby Johnson, Demetri Sheridan, Christa Thorndyke and Chuck Oxendine, among others. This year’s local monthly winners include Lindsay Barfield, Mariah Lovin, Alec Dent, Josh Sheridan, Kali Strickland, Dylan Brooks and Sayvon Sampson.

These students did not win because we drew their name out of a hat. They won because they are bright spots in their communities. The kind that took the extra time in the gym or on the field, that burned the midnight oil to finish the class project, that found time to volunteer within the community. They knew what they wanted and they held themselves to a higher standard.

Even better, the scholar-athletes are finding their payoff. Many of them got into their dream schools and others will continue their athletic careers at the next level.

It’s a lesson we can all learn from and as I leave Robeson County, I hope that the athletic programs and supporters here continue to push for more.

I hope that the smaller, less attended sports can continue to find prominence within the county. Whether it’s soccer, wrestling, track or tennis, Robeson County has a lot of very talented athletes that don’t always get their due, be in in the paper or in attendance. It’s sad to see a minor sport with talent struggling to fill seats while some of the major sports teams struggle everywhere but at the ticket window. With all the effort some of the non-revenue athletes put in, they too deserve the satisfaction of a caring community.

I hope that fans stand by local teams, even as they struggle. There was no question last year that attendance was down during football season at UNCP. Likewise, when high school teams start to struggle, there are clearly more open seats at home games. It’s sad to see, but no team is perfect and there’s hardly any fun with bandwagon supporters. If you’re going to cheer for local teams, get out there and invest your energy in them even when the tide is low. It will make the great times even better.

Finally, I hope that Robeson County continues to push athletes in and out of the classroom. This spring, schools seemed to put a much larger emphasis than before on the meaning of college signings. Whether it was JUCO, D3, D2 or the rare D1 commitment, ADs made spectacles of kids playing at the next level. There were cakes, pastries, punch and speeches, all while kids took time out of class to watch their peers find the payoff to years of hard work athletically and academically.

It’ll take time to see if these spectacles pay off, but I truly hope that the message gets across that academics are just as crucial to a collegiate career as athletics, especially as NCAA tightens the standards for D2 schools. If just one or two freshmen at each school can be inspired and do better in the classroom as a result, this county will be on its way to becoming a better place.