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Mids' Singleton ably fills slot as leader on, off football field

Vernadetta Rawls' voice comes over the telephone line from Anchorage, Alaska, deep-throated and full of enthusiasm. She has been asked about her nephew, Zerbin Singleton, the Naval Academy's senior slotback, whom she helped raise and whose young life could be the material of one of those Family Channel inspirational movies.

"He's always been an amazing kid," Rawls said. "He started walking at 6 or 7 months, and he could understand what you said to him, too. He came into the world stubborn and determined."

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By the time he got to Navy four years ago, he had used those traits to overcome incidents in his life that might have sent him down a different road.

Before Singleton was 11, he had heard gunshots fired at his mother and seen drug abuse. By the time he was 17, he had dealt with being behind the wheel and being hit by a drunk driver and the resulting injury that had delayed his acceptance to the Navy.

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And when he was 19, he felt the pain of loss when his father, a man he was just beginning to know, committed suicide.

Today, at 23, he is a midshipman majoring in aerospace engineering and dreaming of becoming an astronaut.

This week, he is also dreaming of helping the Midshipmen to a victory against Utah in tonight's Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.

"People read my story and think I had a bad time," Singleton said. "But there are people with stories way worse than mine, and they don't have the support that I've had."

The thought of that inspired him to talk about his childhood.

About his mother, Brenda, an Army veteran on disability who developed a drug problem after her discharge, a problem that led to Zerbin's living in Decatur, Ga., with his cousin Lorine and her husband, Carey Hall, and their three children.

About how in the new environment he became president of the National Honor Society and of his Columbia High class, and valedictorian.

About how he met his father for the first time before his senior year in high school, only to lose him two years later.

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About the drunk driver, who ran a red light, smashed into the car Singleton was driving and broke Singleton's collarbone just before his high school graduation. When the Academy learned of the injury, it declined to accept him, fearing he would not endure the physical demands of plebe summer.

After a year at Georgia Tech, Singleton reapplied to Annapolis and was admitted.

His will and perseverance have helped him develop on the football field from primarily a blocking back to a running threat, producing back-to-back 100-yard efforts and scoring seven touchdowns in the team's past three games.

This despite a slight 5-foot-8, 164-pound frame.

Off the field, his efforts to overcome his past misfortunes were recognized this month when he was awarded the 2007 Disney's Wide World of Sports Spirit Award, given annually to college football's most inspirational figure.

Also, he was voted the recipient of the FedEx Orange Bowl-Football Writers Association Courage Award. That award will be presented Jan. 3.

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The awards and the e-mails from businesses and schools requesting him to appear as an inspirational speaker have left him a little surprised.

"I didn't know or think about those things when I decided to talk about my past," Singleton said. "I just thought maybe by sharing my story, someone else who needed some help might see it and be helped."

He is constantly reaching out to others. Cindy Weyant, site supervisor of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Maryland, said Singleton, a Big Brother for three years, has also taken on the role as the organization's campus leader.

"He's been through so much in his life and emerged a well-rounded young man," Weyant said. "It seems to me he leads his life trying to have a strong impact on others. In our organization, he has mentored the same little brother all three years, which shows how strong their connection has been."

Singleton's best friend, fellow slotback Reggie Campbell, said he admires his friend.

"Zerbin is always looking to improve himself," Campbell said. "And the guy has his phone number posted in the locker room. Anybody on the team can call him at any time if they need anything. ... He has a big heart. He's a genuine person. You don't see that too often."

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Slotback coach Jeff Monken said: "Zerbin is just wired differently from anybody I've ever been around. Our whole team feeds off his energy. Not just the offense, the whole team. ... He is great for all of us."

Next semester, Singleton will serve as Brigade Commander, responsible for guiding and directing the daily activities of the entire Brigade of Midshipmen.

Brigade Commander - just another unlikely step on Singleton's curvy road of life.

"Zerbin proves as long as you can find something to hold on to - your dream, God, whatever - you just need to hold on to it to turn your situation into what you want it to be," said his cousin Lorine Hall, who has acted as Singleton's surrogate mother most of his life.

Singleton's dream of becoming an astronaut remains intact, though he might make another detour and stay at Navy next year as a graduate coaching assistant, delaying his assignment to training as a Marine pilot for a year.

"I've always been amazed by space," he said, "by the adventure part. It's a fascination I have - outer space, weightlessness, research. ... [I'm] fascinated by everything [that's] out there."

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sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

Zerbin Singleton

Personal: Senior, age 23 ... 5 feet 8, 164 pounds. ... Three-year participant in Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Maryland. Also acts as the organization's on-campus advocate. ... Has been assigned to Marine pilot training after graduation. ... Wants to be an astronaut.

High school: Was president of the National Honor Society and of his senior class at Columbia High School in Decatur, Ga., where he graduated valedictorian. ... Won Georgia state wrestling championship at 135 pounds.

In the classroom: Carries a 3.14 grade point average in aerospace engineering.

On the field: Slotback has scored seven touchdowns in past three games. ... Has developed from a primary blocking back into a running and scoring threat. ... Had back-to-back 100-yard games this season. ... Rushed for 498 yards and 7.5 yards per carry. ... Also plays on all of Navy's special teams. ... Has 1,233 all-purpose yards.

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Awards and honors: 2007 Disney's Wide World of Sports Spirit Award, as college football's most inspirational figure. ... 2007 FedEx Orange Bowl-Football Writers Association Courage Award. ... Named Brigade Commander, a role he will take on next semester.


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