Longhorn Leaders give holiday “thank you” lunch for local middle school children
December finals week at The University of Texas is a time typically reserved for studying, completing term papers and taking semester-ending examinations. Yet, on Monday (Dec. 12), final exam week began in a different way for many Longhorn student-athletes with ties to the “Longhorn Leaders” program.
These Longhorn athletes didn’t need a single minute of studying to prepare themselves for this fun Monday afternoon “assignment”. Rather than put pen to exam, or hit the laptop keyboard to finish a paper, the group relayed experiences from their youth and their college days to a group of 65 seventh-graders as part of UT Athletics’ Longhorn Leaders holiday lunch at the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletic Center.
Monday’s Longhorn Leaders program allowed 65 seventh-grade students from Austin’s Bedichek Middle School to share pizza and soda with the UT student-athletes and to hear valuable advice straight from their Longhorn role models.
And, after lunch and common sense words of wisdom from the UT athletes, the Bedichek youngsters also were given personal tours of Moncrief and the locker room, academic study areas, weight room and sports medicine area by the Longhorn student-athletes, and then had an autograph session with the Longhorns.
Now in its third year and administered by Dr. Michael Lauderdale, the Clara Pope Willoughby Centennial Professor in Criminal Justice from UT’s School of Social Work, the upper-division course gives Longhorn student-athletes course credit and “real-life” opportunities to work with and encourage Austin youngsters to stay the course toward a successful future. The Longhorn Leaders program is co-sponsored by The University, the Greater Austin Crime Commission, the Austin Independent School District and the Austin Police Department.
“The mission of the project is to identify strong leaders from within the UT student body and have them talk about the kinds of challenges they personally faced when they were in middle school,” said Lauderdale, who counts former Texas football greats as Cedric Benson, Derrick Johnson and Roy Williams as former Longhorn Leaders participants who had great impact on the program participants.
Furthermore, Lauderdale’s pupils take time to warn the middle-school students of many issues plaguing adolescents.
“In educating these youngsters, there are four major things we are trying to prevent: school dropouts, gang membership, unwed teenage pregnancies and drug use. Our main idea is to present a message to succeed.”
Women’s basketball senior guard Nina Norman offered a message of how older athletes encourage personal growth from new teammates. This is a daily challenge Norman has taken head on while welcoming seven freshmen teammates to the basketball program this season.
“Our upperclassmen have gotten the message out to the freshmen that they need to take care of business in the classroom before they do anything else, period,” Norman said. “We’ve told them they can’t just go out and hang out or plan to party all the time and expect to be ready for classes, a game or practice the next day. We tell them that they have to be responsible every day – no excuses.”
Football sophomore offensive tackle Tony Hills likened the relationships developed between Longhorns football teammates to a “band of brothers” who constantly look out for one another’s best interests.
“Some people develop bad habits because no one embraced them before those habits developed,” Hills explained. “If you bring that person into your family and let them know that you care, all of that will change. It’s so important to do that early on, because some people only get so many chances (to succeed) in life.”
Hills added that the Longhorns take preemptive measures to keep teammates from taking the wrong path through their college years.
“One of the first things we tell recruits is that you don’t have to prove yourself at The University of Texas to become one of us,” Hills explained to the kids. “All you have to do is stay on top of your academic obligations, go to work on the field and everything else will take care of itself. We make sure that in a family-oriented environment, such as ours, that they leave any bad attitudes at the door.”
Cleve Bryant, UT’s associate athletics director for football operations, explained to the Bedichek students that adverse behavior not only can land a student-athlete in trouble with the law, but it can also jeopardize chances of playing for the Longhorns.
“(Their punishment) could be a number of things. It could be doing extra running or conditioning, doing community service, or, even getting expelled from the team,” Bryant explained. “We try to make the punishment fit the crime in terms of making sure the person learns from it, becomes a better person and a more productive person, and that everyone gains something from it.”
The objective of the Longhorn Leaders program is not to frighten seventh-grade students and invoke fear of consequences for transgressions committed later in their high school and college years. Rather, the goal is for young people to create beneficial habits now – and to see potential dangers - before anything can knock them off course in their pursuit of success.
“Our thinking is less violence at school, better class attendance and more participation in school activities,” Lauderdale added. “We want to improve the student’s ability to know their classmates and teammates and build a strong team.”
If the Longhorns continue to get that message across to the students at Bedichek, that will be the equivalent of an “A” grade – a grade which ironically might be the most important one they will ever GIVE and RECEIVE at the same time.