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By Kayci Woodley
Northeastern State football players Cory Park and Cayle Shambaugh impacted fans, alumni and students at Doc Wadley Stadium during the 2012 season with their defensive efforts. In the offseason, Park and Shambaugh impact one student by spending extra time at the student fitness center.
Russ Rowland was born blind, and prior to taking a health course taught by head football coach Kenny Evans, he did not have the opportunity to access the student fitness center. While the university provides sighted help in other areas, it was unable to assist Rowland in improving his physical fitness.
“When we got into the fitness aspect of health, we talked about the lifetime benefits and Russ was very interested,” coach Evans said. “He mentioned to me after class one day that he’d like to get a fitness program started for him but would need help.”
Evans turned to his team, familiar with the daily dumbbell grind and asked if anyone would be interested in assisting Rowland. Park, a 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound linebacker, was grateful for the opportunity.
“I have always been blessed, so it feels good to actually help someone and give something back,” Park said. “I’ve never had the opportunity to help someone like Russell, and as soon as coach asked all us guys in the huddle I was excited and raised my hand.”
Thanks to Park, Shambaugh and a handful of other football student-athletes, Rowland now works out up to three times a week. He will give them a call on week nights, typically around 6 p.m., and someone will pick him up and take him to the fitness center. Members of the team help Rowland with core exercises, weight repetitions and getting on and off the treadmill.
Rowland worked out with members of the team for the first time last semester. He lost about 10 pounds and noticed a change in his energy level, which meant even more jokes from the sarcastic history major. Rowland doesn’t hesitate to make light of the situation with witty remarks and quick comebacks.
Coach Evans remembers a time in class when he asked the students if everyone could see the PowerPoint. Rowland replied with, ‘Well I can’t, coach,’ which had the entire room laughing.
“Early on he made it clear that he didn’t have a disability,” Evans said. “And he made it clear to everyone in the class that there was nothing that could go unsaid.”
Evans had Rowland in class as a freshman and said Rowland wasn’t afraid to state his opinion on the variety of topics covered in a health class. He added more to the conversation than most students, allowing others to feel comfortable during weekly discussion periods.
In a communications course, Park also noticed Rowland’s eagerness to speak up in lectures.
“He always has his homework done and is always the first volunteer to read out loud in class,” Park said. “He memorizes the chapters that we read every day and he’ll talk about what he read in the chapter in class without even looking at his book.”
A native of Shutter, Okla., Rowland wants to teach history at the college or high school level in the future. To Rowland, the relationships he has established with Park and Shambaugh extend beyond the weight room.
“I deserve the same rights as every other student, but it’s also about having that friendship,” Rowland said. “They can see me and let me know if I’m going the wrong direction to class. They can give me sighted help when I need it on campus.”
Student-athletes are often heavily involved with community outreach and volunteer efforts, but Coach Evans didn’t view this opportunity as such. He viewed it more as a chance for his players to extend a hand to a classmate.
“I’ve been in college football for 31 years and around people with problems and involved with different community service areas but this wasn’t really something I was look at it as,” Evans said.
Shambaugh, a six-foot-two-inch, 195-pound defensive back, was fifth on the team in tackles this season and started all but two games. Park is adjusting to newlywed life after getting married over the summer. Between classes, practices, lifting and training with Rowland, Park doesn’t take any time with his wife, Bobbi Jo, for granted.
Time is valuable in the lives of student-athletes and for Park and Shambaugh, working out with Rowland is time well spent. They even get together outside of the classroom or fitness center to fry fish or go fishing together.
“And that’s just what I want,” Rowland said about hanging out with the players. “I want to be treated as an equal and Cory treats me as an equal.”