Making academics a fantasy sport

Varina School students

Michael Robinson never understood fantasy football. Every year, he'd get asked to join a league; every time, he couldn't commit. With retirement looming this past winter, Robinson finally had a little time on his hands, and he acquired a team. He loaded it with talent and went up against his old teammates Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson.

Smack was talked, standings were pored over. And in the end, Robinson's team lost, foiled by a ... 15-year-old gymnast.

The MVP of this fantasy league, a 5-foot-3 girl named Asia Farmer, was part of a pilot program Robinson recently started in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. There are initiatives to get kids fit and to try to protect them from concussions, but Robinson doesn't think enough is done to promote academics. So he started sort of a reverse fantasy program at his alma mater, Varina High, and divided 30 freshmen into three teams in a competition for points based on grades, attendance and community service. Farmer is a studious type who doesn't like missing class, and, unfortunately for Robinson, she was on Wilson's roster, proving once again that quarterbacks get all the glory.

"The interaction with the kids," Robinson says, "that's the most rewarding thing."

In February, Robinson won a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks. It was especially meaningful because of all that he went through in the 2013 season -- the allergic reaction to anti-inflammatory medicine he suffered in training camp, the hospital trips because he was so violently ill, the 30 pounds he lost. Robinson was cut in August, but got a call to come back to the team around midseason. Ultimately he got what every NFL player wants: to go out a winner.

That was fantasy. He went to the White House, met the president and posed for a picture with Earl Thomas next to Abraham Lincoln's statue. He made a cameo appearance on "The Young and the Restless" and nailed his lines.

What he does now, with the teenagers in Team Excel, seems much more real.

"When we were done, the confetti was falling, and I was so grateful to be there," Robinson says of the Seahawks' Super Bowl XLVIII victory. "I had a tough year being sick and all the little things, being cut, and then coming back this way. ... I just felt like there was an emptiness. There was a joy I was anticipating that really wasn't there. I couldn't figure it out.

"I came back home and took a tour with a group called Communities in Schools. When you see these kids and they find out I was a Super Bowl champion, they go crazy. You appreciate what the Super Bowl does for you. You appreciate that platform. But you also see what really matters to us [as a society]. What did I really do for all this?"

Resources to succeed

Robinson was lucky. Although he grew up within walking distance of a couple of the roughest neighborhoods in Richmond, near drugs and gangs, he never was pulled in. His mom had huge expectations. School came easy for him, and she knew it. When he got a C, or even a B, she warned him that he wouldn't be able to go to football practice if his grades didn't improve.

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.

"Look around the country, especially here in Richmond. The school boards and government are lowering the standards to help these kids pass, but what are we really doing? Is the goal to get them out of school? Well then, yeah, you're accomplishing that. Or is the goal to arm them with the tools to make them successful in life? We're not doing that."

Message gets through

A young man named Antonio Moore came in on Wednesdays and got an earful from his teammates. Seems he was missing class, although Moore insists he was just late. Because attendance counts as part of the score, he was bringing his team down.

Moore, a talented linebacker, appeared headed for trouble when he entered the spring semester at Varina High. His mother, Bonnie, worried about his grades, his attitude and the five-word sentence he kept repeating over and over: "I'm going to the NFL."

School? Antonio didn't really think about that because he was convinced he was going to make a career playing football.

When someone from Team Excel called and asked whether they wanted to participate in the reverse fantasy football pilot, Bonnie Moore quickly said yes. Her son had struggled for much of his academic career. When he was in first grade, she insisted on holding him back because he was having trouble with speech and reading. Now he was a teenager with a deep voice and a 1.5 GPA.

"You're talking about somebody walking around who literally looked depressed," said Brown, the football coach. "Somebody who's struggling in life. Somebody who, at [16] years old, which we see a lot around here, we've already lost."

One Wednesday morning, Robinson noticed Moore's teammates coming down hard on him. They told him they were in first place but would have a bigger lead if he'd just show up for class. Robinson pulled him aside.

He asked Moore what he wanted to accomplish in life. He told him not to believe that he had to wind up on the street, or that he couldn't go to a prominent college. He told him he could be whatever he wanted.

Moore says he listened to Robinson because, "That's where I want to be in life." Moore focused on his studies and improved his GPA to 2.8 by the end of the semester.

"It felt really good," Moore said. "I surprised my mom a lot. I even surprised myself.

"I knew I was smart. I really didn't try until this year."

Bonnie Moore says she's noticed a huge difference in her son's attitude. She says he looks up to Robinson. For years, she's been telling him that dreams are great but he can't put all of his hopes into being a professional football player. But he didn't seem to listen until Robinson told him that.

Antonio, she says, came home one day and said, "Mom, you were right."

She looked at him and said, "Good, baby."

More rewarding than football

Months passed this offseason, teams didn't call, and Robinson settled into the idea of retirement. There isn't much of a market for a 31-year-old who can't take anti-inflammatory medicine, which is practically a necessity for players who take the beating of the fullback position. So football is probably over, and Robinson is at peace with it.

He wants to expand Team Excel to other cities, and Lynch already has plans to adopt the program in his hometown of Oakland, California. Lynch and Wilson were several time zones from Richmond, so they didn't have face-to-face interaction with the Varina students. But Lynch, who is notoriously unchatty, did send his team a videotaped message of encouragement during the fantasy season.

"Hey, Team Marshawn," Lynch said in the clip, "what's up, man? Just wanted to say congratulations on keeping y'all's grades up. Now let's see how far we can really take this. Get some better grades.

"Mike's going to report back to me. ... Keep it up."

They did keep it up. Only one student dropped out of Team Excel, and 59 percent of the competitors raised their GPAs. Lynch's team had a 10 percent overall improvement in grades.

Just like Robinson did many years ago, kids started thinking about their future. Cooke, who almost quit that first morning, wants to be a veterinarian. Farmer, the gymnast, is doing more community service.

Nothing is missing anymore for Robinson. He'll say it, but nobody will believe it: His time with the kids in Richmond has been more rewarding than the Super Bowl.

"My goal is to affect people in a positive way," he said. "So I kind of look at this as the start.

"Honestly, I've been waiting my entire life for this point in my career."

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