It’s easy, and sort of understandable, to bypass the word student in the term student-athlete. Those on the outside only see these young men and women when they’re working on the athlete end of things. Games, practices, workouts, photo shoots, interviews – all athlete-centric activities, all seen or discussed publicly.
The student side of it isn’t done in private, but very rarely is it seen or celebrated. And until schools build 50,000 seat stadiums to watch people learn geometry or take a Spanish quiz, it’s likely to remain that way. But that’s what these student-athletes are in school for. It’s their reward for playing sports – an education.
Mississippi State cornerback Cedric Jiles and defensive linemen A.J. Jefferson and Nelson Adams are names known well, all seniors and often starters on MSU’s football team. They’re known for size or strength or speed or skill.
They’re also known, to a few dozen 2-4 year olds, as the life of the party. Like many other student-athletes at MSU, Jiles, Jefferson and Adams have been interns since this summer at the Early Childhood Development Center on campus, a pre-school for area children.
“The kids love them,” one staff member shared. “They’re full of life.”
All three football players are also human sciences majors, so the work is directly related to their studies. Twice each week, they go to the center for a few hours at a time to read to kids, play outside with them or even do some finger-painting, if time allows. On Monday, each of them arrived following their workout at the football facility, anxious to get started.
“We’re with the four-year-olds today?” Jefferson asked with a happy look on his face.
Jiles responded in the affirmative.
“YES,” Jefferson answered with a fist-pump.
Monday being Halloween, many of the kids were dressed up.
“So you’re Cinderella,” Jiles asked one girl in their classroom.
“Elsa” she replied.
“I like Anna,” Jiles told her.
“You like Anna?”
The outrage in her voice was clear. How could anyone like Anna over Elsa?
At the next table over, Jefferson and Adams were helping a young boy build a tower out of plastic blocks and hinges.
“What sports do you play,” Jefferson asked him.
“I play soccer,” the boy began, working through the list in his head. “I play baseball. I play kickball.”
Here the boy paused to review his athletic interests.
“And I play catch.”
Catch is an important one. Fun, simple, classic.
The interactions are similar throughout the day. Within a few more minutes, several kids were seated around Jefferson in the reading corner as he shared a few passages from a book. Shortly after, Jefferson was allowing his hand to be painted blue so he could make a handprint several times larger than the four-year-old-sized handprints littering the arts and crafts table.
When the kids were taken outside to play, all three football players went. They raced, they messed around on the playset, they made attempts at various games and they had great success chasing each other in circles.
Calls of Mr. A.J., Mr. Nelson and Mr. Cedric rang out consistently, someone different always wanting to play, always wanting a share of time with these gentle giants. In fact, the three football players rotate classrooms on each visit so that the staff can ensure all of the kids get to hangout with them.
“It’s really exciting,” Adams said. “They’re wild, man. Especially the four year olds.”
The view of these football players – all 800-some-odd pounds of them combined – is a bit different when taken at this level. Their time each week won’t earn them any awards or help them win any games, and that’s OK. That’s good. Maybe it isn’t glamorous, but each considers it a ton of fun. And certainly, it’s part of the deal – the student end of being a student-athlete.