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By Britney Wright
Football bowl season is synonymous with big plays and thrilling games. Beyond the field, though, bowl games are finding ways to make an impact year-round. With a strong history of scholarship endowments and charity donations, no one does it bigger than the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Over the past eight years, the Chick-fil-A Bowl has led all bowl games in charitable giving with more than $6 million donated. Since 2007, a portion of those funds has been used to support the bowl game’s partnership with the National Football Foundation’s Play It Smart program, designed to help Atlanta high school football student-athletes excel in the classroom.
The Play It Smart program began in 1998 as part of an effort by the National Football Foundation to promote scholarship and guidance for high school football student-athletes. At the center of the program is the academic coach, a person assigned to each school in the program to assist the student-athletes. The academic coach goes beyond the role of a traditional tutor, providing guidance with college entrance requirements and exams and serving as a counselor and mentor.
Mary Palmer, B.E. Mays High School.
Mary Palmer, the academic coach at B.E. Mays High School in Atlanta the past four years, said, “We’re focusing on our kids being winners off the field in addition to what they do on the field. Our kids seem to have no problem pushing their athletic prowess. We help them push their academic prowess.”
From its inception, the program has grown from supporting four schools to 160 high schools in 78 cities across the nation. The benefits for the more than 10,000 youth in the program are clear. Play It Smart seniors have a 95 percent high school graduation rate versus 76 percent from their peers. Additionally, 80 percent enroll in college compared to 63 percent of their non-Play It Smart counterparts.
What makes the partnership between Play It Smart and the Chick-fil-A Bowl significant is the level of commitment the bowl has shown within its Atlanta community.
“One of the main missions of the Chick-fil-A Bowl is to be a leader in the bowl industry in scholarship and charitable donations,” said Gary Stokan, CEO of the Chick-fil-A Bowl. “It’s also important to give back to the city that has supported us and makes us so successful.
Tony McCrear, Washington High School.
“When we looked at the high school level, we asked, ‘How can we positively impact kids who are playing football in Atlanta?’ We chose to support the Atlanta Public Schools system by giving $180,000 to Play It Smart to put an academic coach in every one of the nine Atlanta public high schools. It’s not about whether they eventually play football at the next level, we just want them to graduate high school so they can get to college.”
In addition to emphasizing academic achievement and advancement, Play It Smart academic coaches also work on life skills, community service and increasing family involvement. Some instances also put academic coaches in the role of parent figure, particularly with student-athletes growing up in less than ideal family situations.
“They come to us with some issues they may be having because they know that we care about them,” said Tony McCrear, a third year academic coach at Washington High School. “We’re trying to make a difference. That’s been the biggest impact for me, and it empowers us to do what we do.”
Although this initiative already exceeds expectations, the Chick-fil-A Bowl hopes to enhance it.
Alexis Yancy, Grady High School.
“One of the things we hope to do with this program is link the endowed scholarships we put in the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference institutions that play in our bowl back to Play It Smart,” said Stokan. “In doing this, kids from the Atlanta Public Schools system that matriculate to one of those SEC or ACC schools would have part of their education paid for through those scholarship funds.
“We really believe in this program,” he added. “We’re the only bowl that fully funds this and we’re the only city that has all of its public high schools in a program like this. One of the things we want to do at some point is to provide some of this information to other bowls that may look at this program and choose to support it in their own cities.”
While Stokan and the Chick-fil-A Bowl focus on the large-scale impact of the Play It Smart partnership, the Atlanta academic coaches remain focused on the long-term impact it has on their student-athletes.
“It’s not just about graduating from high school,” said Grady High School academic coach Alexis Yancy. “It’s getting something to affect them for the rest of their lives.”