The classroom on the football field

Jack Kemp
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Posted: Aug 23, 2004 12:00 AM

The end of summer signifies back to school and the football season kickoff for many American children. In recognition of the more than 12 million children who participate in the great sport of football, USA Football, the NFL and the NFL Players Association salute these young players with the inauguration of Play Football Week. Now is a good time to reflect on the positive role athletics play in academic achievement and lifetime success.

As legendary football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant always told his players, "You must prepare for your future, and that key is education."

Education is liberating. It frees the mind and the soul. It opens up new opportunities. Education reveals worlds within worlds, showing us unique cultures, different values and new ways of understanding. It is the source of intellectual growth, personality development and socialization into the community. When a child masters reading, writing and math skills, the foundation has been set for any vocation, for economic security and for opportunities throughout life.
Regardless of how a profession may change, an educated person is always prepared.

As a nation, we must ensure that all children are given an opportunity to succeed and that no child is ignored or left behind. Two years ago, our nation's leaders came together to enact the historic No Child Left Behind legislation. We are working to make education more effective and ensure that students receive the quality education they deserve.

A quality education is about reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as building character - helping to craft a person who cares about hard work, honesty, integrity, compassion, tolerance and justice. Extending the classroom beyond the school walls by blending academics and athletics instills these values. For example, those who participate in football have the opportunity to learn a great deal about themselves, about life and about getting along with people of other races, religions and cultures.

Participating in team sports can provide the support needed to excel academically and secure future success. The sport of football is particularly powerful in that it challenges players both physically and mentally. Training on the football field helps young people learn the importance of setting long- and short-term goals. On the field they prepare not just for the next play but for the many opportunities ahead of them in life. Our experiences on the football field combined with a desire to develop our minds through education helped us achieve certain degrees of success in our own professional careers.

  The lessons learned in playing football go beyond the fundamentals of the game. They go far beyond tackling, throwing, blocking and catching. Football teaches important life lessons, including dealing with adversity, developing a strong work ethic, learning the value of teamwork and building character. The core values learned in football help young players grow into successful leaders throughout our society.

Not every young player will be able to throw as many touchdown passes as Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning or the Atlanta Falcons' Michael Vick, but the skills learned on the football field can lead that young person to achieve his or her personal goals, such as becoming a physician, an astronaut, a teacher, a mezzo soprano or even a president of the United States.
There are many paths to success when students combine athletics with academics.

The bravery of Pat Tillman in forgoing a career in the NFL to serve his country on the front lines is a powerful example of the types of lessons our youth learn through football. As our nation remembers the exemplary life of Tillman, we know that he represents a larger group of soldiers serving our country who practice what we are preaching. Tillman illustrates that the words of Pro Football Hall of Fame Coach Vince Lombardi ring as true today as decades ago: "Football is a great deal like life in that it teaches that work, sacrifice, perseverance, competitive drive, selflessness and respect for authority is the price each and every one of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile."

Education and the sport of football will make a difference in the lives of many children. We must have the will, the vision and the courage to work together to instill the important values that will give all children an opportunity to succeed and ensure that no child is left behind.

As Lombardi said, "Individual commitment to a group effort - that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work."

Rod Paige is the U.S. Secretary of Education and former head coach at Jackson State University, where he coached Pro Football Hall of Famer Lem Barney. Jack Kemp is an ex-NFL quarterback and is chairman of USA Football, as well as a former vice-presidential candidate, U.S. congressman and U.S. HUD Secretary.