I am thankful for so many things these days, starting with my family. I’m also thankful for my friends as well as the job I have covering a sport I truly love. The older I get, the more I appreciate the opportunity to share so many inspiring stories of the people I get to meet. I know the police blotter stuff and the negative headlines tend to generate the most coverage, but the reality is there are way more inspiring and uplifting stories than the bad news ones.
To me, there is no better story in sports right now than Pitt’s James Conner. The former ACC Player of the Year who ran for 26 touchdowns and almost 1,800 yards in 2014 before missing most of last season due to a knee injury came back and has been a force for the Panthers after being diagnosed in early December with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His battle became a public one and it’s been awesome to see how he’s leveraged it to connect with folks and inspire people. Better still, Conner’s getting stronger as the season goes on and just set the ACC career record for touchdowns.
Conner beat cancer. TCU’s Caylin Moore overcame almost everything else. There were times in his youth when Moore was homeless. His father is in prison for life. His mother is a victim of domestic abuse and sexual assault. He worked at one point as a janitor but never wavered on his grades. The reserve defensive back is an economics major with a 3.9 GPA. In addition, Moore’s founded a youth outreach program called S.P.A.R.K. — Strong Players Are Reaching Kids. Last weekend, Moore won the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.
Baylor’s Ryan Reid overcame being homeless too. He graduated last May after coping with many nights as a kid sleeping in cars and eating toast for dinner, he told us when we did the Bears game against SMU in September. Ask Reid if it bothers him that many people have painted Baylor players with a broad brush and he’ll tell you, “Once you go through stuff like that, it doesn’t matter. I know who I am.” After football he said he plans to get his master’s in health.
Speedy Arizona State wideout Tim White’s story essentially starts out with him and his family sleeping in cars and shelters all over L.A. as his father worked a number of different jobs to support White and his eight brothers and sisters. White and his siblings sometimes would make the 16-mile round-trip walk to school, gathering aluminum cans along the way for additional income. Not surprisingly, White’s grades suffered with such unstable circumstances. He ended up in junior college, where he shined as a triple jumper who caught the eye of ASU’s track coach, who then told Todd Graham about his football skills.
Good thing for the Sun Devils. White blossomed into a standout. He’s also one of the more charismatic and upbeat people you’ll ever meet. He’s got the kind of persona where it’s hard not to smile when you’re around him. He told me he thinks about what he’s had to overcome every single day and has embraced it. “I just cherish the moments,” he said. “I’ve always been positive.” This spring he will graduate from college with a degree in communications.
Arizona’s Samajie Grant told us when we met him about the special relationship he had with his mom, Latasha. He said she spoiled him. Only thing is the more we talked, it didn’t sound like he thought she spoiled him with gifts or material things, but with love. She also hammered home a message of how so many of the men in Grant’s family were “super talented and they all went down the wrong path,” and that she didn’t want him to make that mistake. Sadly, she passed away when he was just 15.
Grant ended up moving in with his football coach, Matt Bechtel, who was also his biology teacher and had been impressed by how sharp the kid was in his class. When he showed up at Bechtel’s house, Grant had everything he owned in a trash bag. “He had every excuse to go the wrong direction,” Bechtel told me. “He did have a part of him that was a little mad at the world, but he’s channeled it in the right way. And, he’s a great inspiration to all of our kids.” Grant said after football is done, he plans on going into the military.
Skyler Howard is much more low-key than Grant or White when you meet with him. But his grit and toughness fits the West Virginia program. He came to Morgantown from a winding path. Raised in Texas, he was overlooked in the recruiting process because he didn’t have ideal size. He walked on at an FCS program where they switched him to running back. Then he left for a junior college in California where he shined, earning himself a spot at WVU. He graduated at 20, but still has that chip on his shoulder. Where does that determination stem from?
His mother, Deirdre Kelley. She was a young single mom, who not only raised her son but also worked multiple jobs and later put herself through nursing school, juggling a full course load while also doing double shifts waiting tables. She told me from the time Skyler was about four years old, she preached to him that he would go to college and be somebody.
About an hour after I spoke to him, I ran into Skyler on the field before the Texas game during warm-ups. It was hard to tell who was more proud of the other — the mother of her undersized QB who worked his way into a starting job in the Big 12 and is working on his master’s, or the son who knows how hard his mom strained to not only make a better life but also make sure he got the message too.
As sweet as these stories are, I know they’re just a fraction of all the terrific ones out there in the sport. Happy Thanksgiving, all.
gallery: Stewart Mandel’s Week 13 college football picks against the spread