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Bird Brown: Choosing your path can pay off in the end

We’ve seen it so many times before.

During the college bowl season, it seems like practically every year a handful of student-athletes are suspended for failing a drug test, missing out on opportunities that they’ve been preparing for their entire lives. Because of their incredible, God-given talent, some overcome the mistakes and are able to advance their game to the next level.

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For many others, that opportunity never comes.

In the pro ranks we hear stories about those athletes who succumb to the demons of steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs that cause them embarrassment, a few weeks off without pay, and then for those repeat performers, a year-long or even lifetime ban from the sport they love and that has given them every material thing they have.

The abuse doesn’t seem to stop there.

Even worse than an athlete putting himself or herself at risk by ingesting the performance enhancing substances that may have serious long-term effects to them personally, are the athletes that take their abuse home and extend the victims to include wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, and sometimes even their own kids.

The media can’t seem to get enough of those types of stories.

I’m not really sure about the statistics of these athletes, but I would assume that the percentages of these athletes to the general population of top-level athletes are maybe slightly higher than in the “normal” population, a small percentage of the overall pool of athletes who do not engage in these types of behaviors.

Why is it that we thirst for these stories, those who we’ve watched rise through the ranks to reach the pinnacle of their careers only to come crashing down to earth with the rest of us?

It’s easy to blame the media for finding these stories and spreading them through print and electronic media, but maybe we should blame a bit on ourselves for eating up these stories and creating a market for the media to serve by searching high and low for stories of “fallen angels.”

There are so many other stories, positive stories, that can be told about the many athletes who live their lives to serve others, who understand their positions as role models — whether they asked for it or not, and bring a positive light on themselves, their teams, and the sport they love.

During the bowl season one of those players that caught my attention was Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, not because he shredded the offensive line of my beloved Fighting Irish — a line who will place most of its members in the NFL — but because of the young man he is both on and off the field.

Wilkins’ athletic prowess is well known. He’s a three-time All-ACC player, two-time first-team All-American, two-time national champion, unanimous All-American, and winner of the Bill Willis Trophy as the top defensive lineman.

The first thing that caught my attention was when the commentators were announcing the lineups on each side of the ball and said that Wilkins has completed his degree in communications in an astonishing two-and-a-half years, becoming the first scholarship player in Clemson football history to accomplish that feat.

Before he leaves school for the NFL Draft this spring, Wilkins will add a graduate degree in athletic leadership.

Wilkins’ academic awards are equally as impressive winning the ACC’s Jim Tatum award, an award given to the top student-athlete in football, and this year brought home the William V. Campbell Trophy, awarded to the player with the best “combination of academics, community service and on-field performance,” which oftentimes is referred to as the “Academic Heisman.”

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His community involvement includes working on several builds for Habitat For Humanity, the Relay for Life, the Clemson Miracle Dance Marathon, and has been a part of the school’s Visionary Leadership program, a mentoring program with local elementary schools.

He’s also known as the kid who is the biggest supporter of other sports on campus when they don’t conflict with his football commitments.

This kid’s story could have been so different.

Eight years ago, in a raid on his apartment for suspected drug-dealing by his stepson and a friend, Wilkins’ grandfather was killed when a SWAT team officer’s rifle accidentally discharged and struck him in the head while he was laying on the floor, face down.

Wilkins found out about the death of the person he idolized most in this world the next morning when his mother woke him to tell him about the tragedy.

But like so many people who find themselves at a personal fork in the road when facing personal tragedy, Wilkins’ had two choices to make and for our sake he chose the right path. He chose to honor his grandfather’s legacy with his life’s actions rather than to let that incident define who he was going to be.

Learning more about Wilkins’ story reminds me of a quote from inspirational speaker Zig Ziglar when he said, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, determines your altitude.”

For this kid, this sky’s the limit.

I hope that Eric DeCosta rewards him with a purple jersey.

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