Six years ago, Taveze Calhoun was a skinny high school kid with the respect of his peers on the football team and his teachers at school, but with little-to-no fanfare anywhere outside the bubble of the small town of Morton, Mississippi. He was hardly being recruited by anyone on the FBS level at all, let alone in the Southeastern Conference.
Luckily, one of his teammates had the interest of nearly every school around the country, including Mississippi State. It’s for that reason Dan Mullen found himself in the principal’s office of Morton High School. While there to talk about the five-star prospect on the team, the principal told MSU’s head coach about the player she thought he should sign – Calhoun.
“This is the guy you want,” she told Mullen. “Just take a look at him. He’s our hardest worker, our best leader. He may not jump off the tape when you watch, but if you take him, you won’t regret it.”
Today, we know Mullen did take Calhoun. He took both players, as a matter of fact, but it’s Calhoun who became the star, just as his principal predicted, and it was her praise that foreshadowed the honors now being bestowed upon Calhoun. Not football honors. Not directly, anyway. But academic honors.
This week, Calhoun was named a National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete, one of only 12 players in the country to earn such a distinction and the only one in the SEC. As a result, Calhoun is also a finalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, often referred to as the academic Heisman.
Asked about his reaction to the honor, Calhoun first said he was grateful and happy to see that hard work in the classroom paid off. Then, of course, he’s excited for the trip to New York for the ceremony. A country boy from Mississippi, he’s never been to the Big Apple.
However, it’s those roots that got him to this point. His time in Morton made him who he is and high school is where his dedication to bettering himself and his determination to be a leader began. He may not have known the impact he was having at the time, but looking back, Calhoun can see why his principal campaigned for him when coaches came to visit.
“I always wanted to be different,” Calhoun said. “I didn’t want to be the average kid in high school who was a good football player and didn’t do well in school. I wanted to make a difference in my community and in my life. I worked hard in everything I did and, fortunately, having the pedestal of being a good football player made me stand out even more. That made me a great leader in my school and that’s probably why she pushed me so hard.”
“Probably one of the greatest teachers I ever had, Mr. Smith, made me fall in love with history,” Calhoun remembered. “I like learning how we got to this point.”
When he got to MSU, Calhoun picked history classes for every elective his advisor allowed. He saw college as another opportunity to learn, another chance to take advantage of what was in front of him. Now in graduate school for community college education with an emphasis in nutrition, Calhoun got his undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies, trying to take in as much as he could in his years on campus.
He’s never been the student who didn’t have to work for good grades, he admits, but he’s always had a natural eagerness to learn, a willingness to work hard and a memory to help him retain information from the variety of subjects he’s studied.
“Football is not forever,” Calhoun said. “I just want to make the best of my opportunities. I don’t want to be the guy to come back and say, ‘I wish I would have done this.’ I want to give 100 percent in everything I do in my time at Mississippi State, because it is limited. I don’t want to have any regrets. I gave it all in the classroom and on the football field.”
The patience to listen and learn has paid off in football, too, he says, where coaches have been amazed to teach him something once and see him put into practice immediately and consistently. In classes, Calhoun has always taken pride in his ability to take good notes, pay close attention and retain information. The same principle applies in the film and meeting rooms in football.
Even today, he said, he remembers things his position coach told him his freshman year five years ago. He still heeds the tips and pointers current NFL and former MSU cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay gave him when they were the stud seniors and he was the young one working behind them.
He’s not just an eager learner, he’s a good one. Once he hears something, Calhoun says, he doesn’t forget it.
For all he’s learned, his dream is to one day give that back to those coming behind him. The NFL is his immediate plan following his career at MSU, but long term, he wants be as great an influence to others as his coaches, teachers and mentors have been to him.
“I’ve had a lot of coaches throughout my high school and college career who were important in my life and made a difference in my life,” Calhoun said. “They encouraged me to do good in school and in football. I want to give the same thing to some kids. A lot of people I know, they lack that and kind of go down their own path. If I could reach one or two people like somebody reached me – I think the greatest thing you can do for somebody is impact their life in a positive way. That’s something I want to do after football.”