We Believe in Me gives high school athletes a boost

Student athletes on the We Believe in Me 2015 Summer College Tour visit University of North Carolina. They are, from left, Deano Trlin, Garrett Ross-Johnson, Demarkus Glover, Dontell Green, Jay Dempsey, Theo Anderson, James Morrison, Zeke McGaughy and Tristian Upton.

Three years ago, Damian King was failing geometry. King was a star football player at Indian Rocks Christian School, able to play because his overall GPA was 2.1.

But his core GPA – based on academic classes including English, math, science, social studies and foreign languages – was only 1.6.

He was being recruited to play football in college, but he didn’t meet the NCAA academic qualifications to attend. He was missing a year of math, a year of English and a science credit.

“He had 30 verbal offers for college, and he couldn’t accept any of them because he didn’t qualify academically,” explained Brenda McCarthy, who would tutor him.

King connected with McCarthy through her husband, former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jerry Wunsch, the assistant head coach at Indian Rocks. Later, the tutoring group grew to add Zeke McGau and Theo Anderson, who will be graduating this year.

“We started in our old house in Clearwater in the living room tutoring,” McCarthy said. “Last year, we had 17 kids go to college. We had a 100 percent success rate.”

The tutoring group eventually became We Believe in Me, a Tarpon Springs-based nonprofit that helps student athletes bridge the gap between their athletic talent and scholarships to play at the college level.

In fact, it was the three original students who came up with the name and the logo for the group. The adults of the organization pitched I Believe in Me as a name. King, McGau and Anderson shot it down.

“Because it takes a family. It takes a group of us to get us there,” McCarthy remembered them explaining. “So we went with ‘We.’”

King is playing football at Liberty University now. He has a 3.6 GPA. And he’s just the beginning of the success of We Believe in Me. All together, there are 150 students in the program, benefiting from academic help, advocacy in the recruitment project, mentoring lessons in character and trips to tour colleges and participate in football camps.

“We’re just here to help the kids. That’s all we care about, helping them have that opportunity to take control of their destiny instead of feeling like they don’t have that control,” Wunsch said. “A lot of times, people don’t know what it takes.”

The goal of We Believe in Me is to give the students a game plan to reach their dreams, he explained. That starts with baseline testing and a review of their transcripts to find out what classes they’re missing.

“We see where their levels are and then we bring their levels up, so by the time they get to college, they’re ready,” McCarthy said.

We Believe in Me now partners with the Community Learning Center in Clearwater.

“Once we pretty much almost hit 20 kids in the living room, I was like, this has got to change,” McCarthy said.

Tutoring is still free for the students, as 80 percent of the athletes in the program are in a low-income bracket. Sometimes it takes putting academic concepts into terms the athletes will understand, like relating the parts of a sentence to football positions.

“We don’t really believe in learning disabilities. We believe they just haven’t been taught how to learn,” McCarthy said.

The organization also helps students replace some of their grades or the gaps in their transcripts by taking classes online over the summer through NCAA-accepted programs. Once they’re academically eligible to go to college, with a core GPA of 2.3, We Believe in Me adds the students’ recruiting profile to its website.

“Each kid has to earn their right to be on our website,” McCarthy said.

The group also helps the students, some of whom have never been out of Pinellas County, tour colleges. A group of 10 students toured 15 colleges and universities on the East Coast in one bus trip last summer, a trip that cost $5,400 – all provided through donations.

We Believe in Me helps student athletes with gloves, shoes and athletic fees. They also help the students with medical costs for any injuries they suffer, mostly through donated services from Dr. Jeff Watson of the Orthopaedic Medical Group of Tampa Bay.

Several former NFL players serve on the We Believe in Me board and play an active part in reviewing the football film of the students and giving them pointers on how they can improve.

“We as NFL guys, we had the same dream sitting there and know what it’s like when things are in your way, obstacles that you can’t control,” Wunsch said. “What we’re all trying to do together is eliminate those obstacles for these kids, so that if they do have the passion … we’re going to be there for them to let them live that dream.”

The former players emphasize the value of an education, especially when it comes to life goals after college and after a possible run in the NFL.

“NFL is not for long. Every guy who’s ever played it leaves it injured and beat up,” Wunsch said. “The one thing you will die with is your degree … We make sure they understand that and how important getting and attaining that piece of paper is.”

We Believe in Me is not just for football players; it also caters to female athletes as well as athletes of baseball or basketball. McCarthy and Wunsch said they even learned about rugby to help one student.

“We’ll help anyone because the (NCAA) academic requirements, they’re the same,” McCarthy said.

The student athletes sometimes call McCarthy, who has no biological children of her own, “Mamma Dukes” because of her bulldog advocacy and her mothering role to them as well as the former NFL players.

“I don’t know who’s worse: the former concussion brains or babysitting teenagers and all their hormone issues,” McCarthy said with a laugh.

One of the greatest lessons of We Believe in Me is that of building character. The organization is not just about creating excellent athletes, but also good citizens. The athletes are required to “pay it forward” and volunteer in the community as part of their membership.

“I expect them at all times to be humble and respectful and look you in the eye and not have their headphones in or be playing on their phone,” McCarthy said.

Already, the organization has a good reputation among college coaches.

“They love our kids, because they know what they’re getting. There’s not the showboating. There’s not the cockiness. They work, and they’re humble, and they do what they have to do,” McCarthy said.

This year, 20 We Believe in Me students have committed to colleges, from West Virginia University and University of North Carolina to Oregon State and Marshall University.

The organization, supported entirely through donations and without any paid staff, is always looking for new partners and donors.

Visit www.webelieveinme.org.