It seems as though I have been watching a bit more television lately than I probably should. I suspect that it is because the daily rains have made me a bit more homebound or perhaps because I spent most of July on the road and now I prefer to hibernate at home for a time. Soon I will be traveling again to Colorado and then will resume my math tutoring at two different schools. I’m slacking off before getting back into a daily routine.
Last night I watched three episodes of the Netflix documentary Last Chance U. I’m not particularly enthralled by football as a topic but this series is really a kind of psychological and sociological study which of course fascinates me. It focuses on the football team of East Mississippi Community College, a school that won the Junior College National Football Championship the year before the story was filmed. It is a place where misfit athletes come for one last shot at a spot on a powerhouse university team or a job with the National Football League.
Most of the players have talent but for one reason or another have been relegated to the football ash heap. Some were once highly recruited high school players who got into trouble at the universities that gave them scholarships. They skipped classes, made failing grades, missed practices, ignored curfews or broke the law. Some did all of the above. All were summarily dismissed. Others demonstrated amazing athletic skills in high school but were unable to muster high enough grades or test scores to win admission to a major or even minor university. These young men came to East Mississippi hoping to get one more more opportunity to reach the big time. The coach there is well known for resurrecting hopes and dreams.
The stories of each of the players resonate loudly with me. I have seen so many young people with similar baggage. I have learned how difficult it is for some kids to succeed athletically when they have pronounced academic deficiencies. I often wonder where I would be today if I had been required to meet certain sporting requirements in addition to mastering the knowledge and skills of my profession. I suspect that I would still be working at a low level job without hope of ever earning a degree. Somehow it doesn’t seem right that a gifted athlete must also carry a certain average to remain eligible to play a particular sport. I understand the idea that a university is first and foremost a center for learning but what about those who truly struggle to learn but who have a very special talent to share with the world?
I once had a student who was a star in every sporting arena. Regardless of what he tried athletically he was a standout. It might be said that he was the athletic valedictorian of the school. Unfortunately he was a special education student with multiple learning difficulties. He struggled with reading and was never quite able to pass his senior year Exit exams. With great assistance he managed to earn a high school diploma but nothing about his academic credentials enticed a university to risk offering him a scholarship. He set his dreams of playing professionally aside and learned a trade after graduating. He has done well and I am quite proud of his efforts but I often wonder where he would be today if our society had a more realistic attitude about young people like him. What if someone had offered him the opportunity to do what he does so well without expecting him to demonstrate mastery of the things that baffle him?
Oddly I often saw this young man as being much like me. We both had enormous gifts and talents. Mine happened to be academic. His were athletic. We also had disabilities. I tripped over my own feet and he struggled to read. The difference was that I was allowed to follow my dreams without having to prove my physical prowess but he was barred from doing so simply because he lacked certain academic skills. There is an unfairness in that.
At East Mississippi Community College the coaches, teachers and an academic advisor work with the young men to help them through the challenges that have heretofore blocked their way forward. It is a place of redemption as long as the players are willing to put in some effort. They must attend all of their classes, complete assignments and ask for help when they need it. Four year colleges and pro teams scout them. Many of the former players at the school have found the success that had at one time seemed to be so elusive. The adults guiding them use a combination of tough love and encouragement to keep them motivated. Some of the young men make it and some burn out.
I wish that we had more adults to help struggling students to achieve their goals whatever they may be. Far too many of our youth come from environments that do little to encourage them. For example one of the players featured in the program witnessed his father killing his mother and then turning the gun on himself. He was only five years old when he endured this trauma and it is all too apparent that he continues to harbor abandonment issues that make it difficult for him to trust anyone. Another young man flunked out at his previous university. He is married and has a child. He wants to do the right things but he often becomes stressed and worried that he is wasting time when he might do better if he were to simply quit and get a regular job to support his family. Too many of the players come from high schools where the expectations were so low that they graduated without really learning much of anything. Their academic advisor definitely has her hands full but she is doing a yeoman’s job, something that we need more of in all of our schools.
Ultimately all of the players have to man up. Only they have the final power to make the efforts needed to change the directions of their lives. In the end their story is about salvation and whether or not they have enough drive to make their final chance count. The stakes are high and I find myself rooting for them not just on the field but as they navigate the world as well. It’s been said that a mind is a terrible thing to waste but then so too is it a tragedy to fritter away any kind of talent. In Last Chance U we watch young men from broken homes and economic uncertainty as they struggle to piece together the fragments of their lives. It is a high stakes game and one which I desperately hope that each of them will win.