We need winners in game of life


Harlow Fullwood's high school football coach used to call a team meeting at the end of every marking period.

The coach sat on a folding chair at the front of the room, looking stern. There was a blackboard at his side.

One by one, each player would be called to the front of the room and, in front of the others, be required to write his grades on the blackboard.

If the grades were good, the coach would nod in approval and smile and say, "That's good. Your priorities are in order. Obviously, you're preparing yourself to be a winner in the game of life. Keep up the good work."

If the grades were poor, the coach would look pained and shake his head and say, "Son, you're not even ready to play for yourself, so I know you cannot play for me. You come back after you've gotten your grades together."

"The message was clear," remembered Fullwood, a successful Baltimore businessman who attended Virginia Union University before becoming a top draft pick of the Baltimore Colts.

"We weren't just playing football, we were preparing ourselves for what coach called 'the game of life.' It wasn't just about winning on the football field, it was about winning in life."

Each Sunday, Fullwood's high school coach would require the team to don shirt, suit and tie and attend, as a group, a different church in the community. No excuses.

And when the seniors were ready to graduate, the coach had strong opinions about where they should go to college -- based on his assessment of the student's academic, social and athletic strengths and weaknesses and how they matched with the strengths and weaknesses of each school.

"We went to a small high school in Asheville (N.C.) during the 1950s," said Fullwood. "It was a very rural community up in the mountains. A segregated town, a segregated school system. Folks didn't have much -- all of us were poor. But as I look back, all of us graduated and went on to college and most of us did well afterwards."

No doubt people tend to romanticize the past. But when you talk to former athletes who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, one thing seems clear: There was a recognition back then that times were perilous for young people, segregation meant that opportunities were limited so that only a thin line existed between success and failure. So coaches took a personal responsibility to see that their players achieved.

As a result, many of this region's leaders participated in high school and collegiate sports, including the mayor, several legislators and countless area businessmen, bureaucrats and educators.

Times are equally perilous today.

But today, coaches are not getting the job done.

Last month, we learned that two of the area's top high school DTC basketball players were ruled ineligible to play Division I college ball next year because they failed to score high enough on their Scholastic Aptitude Tests.

Michael Lloyd and Donta Bright, members of Dunbar High School's top-ranked basketball team, both failed to make the minimum 700 combined score on the SAT. Under college basketball's Proposition 48, both will be required to sit out their freshman year.

Lloyd and Bright are not unique.

The collegiate careers of top prospects get sidetracked every year, either because of their grades or because they failed to make the minimum SAT scores.

I know that the issue is complex.

I know, for instance, that many high school athletes do pass their SATs or go on to brilliant athletic and scholastic careers in Division II and III schools, where Proposition 48 standards do not apply.

I know, too, that most coaches do many things to prepare their kids for "the game of life," as coaches did in the past. The stakes are higher today -- professional athletes can become millionaires.

I know that there remains considerable debate about the fairness of the Proposition 48 standards (although the NCAA just toughened them effective in 1993).

Finally, I know that the primary responsibility for getting prepared does not lie with a young man's high school coach, but with himself and his family. And what about his teachers and guidance counselors, as well?

Still, all of these may be statements of fact but they are not excuses. Coaches in the past assumed personal responsibility for the young athletes placed in their charge because they cared about them.

That's the bottom line, then. We live in perilous times for all young people yet athletes, who are at least in close contact with responsible adults, are coming out of high school poorly prepared to compete in the game of life.

If coaches care -- and I believe they do-- then they have got to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

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