A fan of the University of South Carolina Gamecocks was walking next to bumper-to-bumper traffic on an 80-degree day on Oct. 6, 2012 when he happened upon a truck driven by a University of Georgia Bulldogs football fan.
It was a couple hours before what tens of thousands of people milling around and tailgating outside Williams-Brice Stadium were calling the biggest game in the school’s history.
“Turnovers will decide this thing,” the USC fan said as he strolled next to the barely moving Chevy. “We had 3 last year,” the UGA fan returned.
The ESPN Gameday crew, which broadcast from the Horeshoe that morning, had already moved into the stadium. Co-eds in short, tight skirts, long boots and cowboy hats strode past. Families under tents cooked hotdogs and ate potato salad. Fraternity members tossed footballs and drank beer in the spaces they had commandeered at the state’s fairgrounds.
Inside, Kwame Geathers, a Carvers Bay High School graduate and the youngest of three brothers set to play in the National Football League this fall, was warming up with the rest of his UGA teammates in the visitor’s locker room.
None of those at this game or dozens of others around the country that day were thinking that such gridiron battles could hold the keys to solving the literacy problems of young boys, especially given that critics of the sport have long accused football of being a prime impediment to educational excellence.
In April, he watched as his youngest son, Kwame, despite his size and skill and pedigree go undrafted by the NFL and now must fight to earn a long-term contract with the San Diego Chargers. That solidified his thinking that while professional football was a godsend to his family, it is not a viable option for most. But the sport can be used to convince more young boys struggling with reading to tackle literacy the way Geathers tackle quarterbacks.
Competitive skills translate into learning skills
On the first drive, USC running back Marcus Lattimore runs the ball for a couple of yards. Quarterback Connor Shaw hits a receiver for 42 yards. They quickly score a touchdown on what would be a 38-7 victory and propel USC into maybe its most successful football season ever.
Kwame Geathers gets into the game early and faces multiple offensive formations. Sometimes he gets blocked by one offensive lineman, sometimes by two. Sometimes a running play is faked his way, sometimes the quarterback scrambles.
Sometimes he gets near the quarterback on a passing play, sometimes he and the rest of his teammates are sucked in by Shaw’s nifty ball handling.
Most in the cheering crowd don’t realize that Geathers has a matter of seconds while crouched with one hand on the ground to figure out when he will be double-teamed, when the quarterback is faking a handoff, or when All-American running back Lattimore will be trying to barrel through his part of the defensive line.
Most fans don’t think about the wind sprints and the countless pushups and hours spent in the weight room by the players on their favorite teams. They rarely think about the hours players spend studying film and playbooks to get better acquainted with the philosophy of the other team’s offensive attack, schemes that get more complicated as the level of football gets higher.
They only see the product of those behind-the-scenes sessions on Saturdays. But buried in the pageantry and exponential growth of ticket sales and TV rights is the sort of competitive environment experts say young boys need, the kind they often do not experience inside today’s classrooms.
There are a host of reasons a student does not reach his full potential in school, including an unstable home life, poverty and undiagnosed learning disabilities.
But one of the least discussed is how the classroom is often set up to discourage the type of environment a boy needs to succeed, an environment football offers in abundance. Football is as masculine as the classroom is feminine, making it easier to grab -- and hold -- a young boy’s attention.
That’s among the conclusions from “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.
The pair previously wrote the best-selling “NurtureShock,” which explored practical ways educators and parents could use neuroscience findings to enhance their children’s chances of succeeding.
“Top Dog” explores competition itself. The writers found that competition is important for kids’ development, but that the classroom must be a place that is competitive, not seen as a threat.
“I think, in some ways, football, or basketball, is a really good example of all of the things that make competition seem so potent and exciting,” Merryman said. “It’s a sense of control, sets up a feeling like, ‘This is hard, but I can do it.’”
For starters, “for children to compete, they have to learn to not quit,” Bronson and Merryman wrote.
Football pushes and pulls and cajoles and dares the player to reach his potential -- an often, painful, gut-wrenching, but controlled process -- then push pass those boundaries once their muscles are stronger and their understanding is clearer.
“This is even more important for boys; they need short-term, clear competitions with rules and clear ends,” Merryman said. “When you think about school and the rules, when does the competition start? In pre-school? Kindergarten? When does it end? Who knows?”
Football is a “classic example of what we describe in the book as a finite game,” Merryman said, another crucial factor in setting up a challenging, not threatening situation to inspire students or players to continue competing, continue improving.
The way school is set up, on the other hand, is not finite, or doesn’t seem so to the average student. That makes it less conducive for optimal performance for many students.
“And who are you competing against in school?” Merryman asked. “Is it a billion people in China? How can you feel like you are making progress?”
In football, it is clear. The competitions come in four quarters, usually once a week. The player competes against the player across from him -- and against himself every time he does one more wind sprint than he initially thought possible, or comes to better understand the Cover 2 defense after weeks of intense study.
That same approach also can help a student lick a math problem he at first fears, or understand the role of a past participle in a sentence when the word initially seems like Greek.
In between competitions, they get to hone specific skills, dedicated to specific ends.
The quarterbacks work on throwing the football and figuring out when to hand the ball to the running back or run around the left end of the line of scrimmage, in a split second, with the goal of practice to make the player know it so well that it becomes second-nature on game day, the kind of routine that would help any student on a big test.
Receivers work on perfected slant routes -- they must be run at a 45-degree angle, not 48-degrees -- and go routes and keeping their hands “inside” while trying to block a defender.
Then they practice some more. Higher level skills are methodically built upon lower-level skills.
Players are challenged to get better -- knowing that they will not be thrown into the game until they are ready for what’s required of them.
Such a process helps athletes shut out outside noise and negative peer pressure, the sorts of things that can also impede academic performance.
“Heightened awareness that others are judging you is manifested in the ‘mentalizing system’ -- increased neural activity in four discrete regions of the brain,” Bronson and Merryman wrote. “One of those regions is the medial prefrontal cortex, which signals that decision making has become more conscious and slower, less automatic. ... A threat situation alters the way the brain sensitizes to risk and reward. The amygdala, deep in the limbic system, is highly attuned to fearful stimuli. The risks of a situation become prominent in the mind. Meanwhile, the brain’s reward center -- though activated by the opportunity -- is still the lesser partner.”
And while one of the most famous quotes in the annals of football -- “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” -- is constantly repeated by coaches and corporate trainers, one of the best lessons of football is that the cliche is not true, a lesson that can also be used to create an environment in classrooms to improve a student’s academic ability.
The hard work, the sweat (and sometimes tears) and study it takes for a boy to earn his way onto a football field become invaluable intangibles in every other walk of life -- including the classroom. It’s akin to a student studying and striving for an A but learning he earned a B in a course he otherwise would have failed without employing the kind of discipline that also hones athletes.
“In a challenge state, you’re not expected to be perfect and not expected to win, but you have a fighting chance to rise to the occasion,” Bronson and Merryman found.
Young players -- and students -- are “free to take risks and go for it.” That activates a hormonal release “and the brain gets comfortable, as if everything is familiar. Decision making shifts back to automatic mode.”
What Bronson and Merryman found in their analysis of brain research is evident in the Geathers family.
They’ve taken risks, beginning and maintaining small businesses and helping push forward plans in Georgetown to leave school segregation behind.
Clifton is opening himself up to scrutiny for the sake of other boys who may be going through the school system with reading difficulties because their special learning styles have gone undiagnosed as his did.
“How he rigorously prepared to play football on game day is just the same as how he must rigorously prepare for his SAT and all other academic tasks on test day: visualization, affirmation, stress reduction, substantive preparation, time management, steadfast practice, pragmatic goal-setting, and a realistic game plan established by competent, consistent and inspiring coaches, ” Jean D’Arcy Maculaitis, founder of the testing firm that helped Clifton Geathers, wrote in a letter to USC about him. “Clifton is in charge of his education and life. It is all about execution.”
Kwame is making his way, trying to work into the permanent rotation of the San Diego Chargers defensive line. Everything he learned at home and on the field and in the classroom are necessary in that pursuit.
Robert Jr., already forged the type of NFL career most football players covet. Now he’s trying to make smart financial decisions that will allow him to take care of his family for decades and continue reaching back to help kids in the Browns Ferry area.
Debra Geathers is continuing to mold young minds in her middle school math courses, while paying particular attention to students she fears might fall through the educational cracks because of literacy challenges.
Robert Sr. went to college to better himself, knowing his lack of reading and writing skills could open him to ridicule. Though he has struggled with literacy most of his life, he is the patriarch of one of the most successful football families in the history of the country while giving back to a community he says he wants to help even more.
He knows the success his family has had with the NFL, while a notable accomplishment, isn’t the route to success for many of the boys who now struggle in the classroom as he once did. He knows that maybe one of the 160 little boys who visited the Carvers Bay High School football field in May for the annual Geathers football camp might make it into the NFL.
In July while driving home from a car auction, Robert Sr. passed a field like the ones he used to work in. It was a long way from the bright lights of Williams-Brice Stadium or Monday Night Football.
A pale-skinned man was sitting on the back of in the bed of his Chevy. A straw hat kept rays from the hot summer Southern sun off his face and neck. He was overseeing a group of eight dark-skinned workers -- some who may have struggled academically the way Robert Sr. did, but did not have football or another unique skill to pull them into something better.
“It brought back memories,” Robert Sr. said, the kind that are convincing him to get more firmly into the business of helping young kids understand the importance of hard work and education. He plans to improve his own literacy skills to be a better example as he mentors more boys and speaks to groups of educators who need to understand the plight of those boys better.
“It’s still happening,” he said to himself as he drove past the man on the bed of the Chevy. “Man, something’s gotta change.”
Contact ISSAC J. BAILEY at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Twitter at @TSN_IssacBailey.