Making academics a fantasy sport

He started all four years at various positions for Varina, including the last two at quarterback. He helped the team to four regional titles and was a highly touted recruit when he committed to Penn State. "The biggest thing about Mike was that he was just always very positive and a leader on the field," said Jessica Meade, a longtime math teacher at Varina who helps with the Team Excel program.

Despite his versatility -- Robinson played quarterback, running back, slot back and split end his freshman year at Penn State -- he never allowed himself to think too much about the NFL. School was Plan A; football was lower in the alphabet. He earned two degrees and was picked by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round of the 2006 draft.

Robinson was an anomaly, says Varina football coach Stuart Brown. Every fall, one of his biggest concerns is keeping his players academically eligible and interested in school.

"We've produced over 50 Division I athletes over the last 18 years," Brown said. "But the sad part about our community is the ones that didn't make it. We always read about the ones who did make it, but there's a whole lot more who didn't who are just as talented. Mike wants to prevent that. He wants to make sure they have the resources to be successful and to give them a little nudge."

The Team Excel pilot program centered on freshmen because they are dealing with an impressionable, difficult year of change. All 30 freshmen selected were athletes, and teams were picked with an effort to be as even as possible, matching stronger students with weaker ones. Meade said the average GPA for the three teams was within a tenth of a point of each other.

Parents had to agree to allow their kids' grades to become public and to take them to school early once a week. One particular student, Sydney Cooke, was not a morning person and was so cranky in her first Wednesday morning meeting that she pondered leaving.

Cooke stuck around, though, and Robinson showed up to speak to the group the next week. He was two weeks removed from the Super Bowl, and the boys in the crowd became wide-eyed and started whispering to their friends. Robinson, wearing a stocking cap, a T-shirt and a giant Super Bowl ring, barely talked about the game. He told the kids that the resources were there for them to be successful and that it was up to them.

"I thought a Super Bowl winner would be cocky," Cooke said. "He was far from that."

The Team Excel students met at 7:45 on Wednesday mornings in a tiny auditorium that is also used when athletes sign letters of intent to play college sports. There was always plenty to do. Speakers talked about careers in dentistry, law and engineering. There were team sessions with students going over their grades and plotting victory.

Just like in the NFL, rewards were at stake. Each member of the winning team could earn $200 cash and a $500 scholarship. Johnathan Mayo, who helps manage Robinson's Excel to Excellence Foundation, said the prizes were all funded out of Robinson's pocket. But there would be no handouts. If a student wasn't pulling his or her share of the load, Mayo said, he or she could be denied the winnings. Robinson wouldn't allow anyone to coast, and he wanted the kids to encourage each other to do better and be accountable -- like a team.

"I don't believe in lowering your standards just to make the child feel better," Robinson said.

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