LeBron James is right – the classroom is where the future is, including for athletes. I know. I lived it: Jason L. Campbell (Opinion)

*Published online at Cleveland.com on Dec. 28th, 2017*

PORTLAND — “Nothing is given. Everything is earned” is the motto of NBA icon Lebron James. It’s also a pillar for his newly created I Promise School.

By intertwining a family-first ideology with a rigorous science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum for students in the 1st through 8th grades, the beauty and irony are evident. Someone who has made his entire life putting an orange ball into a hoop understands that a lifetime of success originates inside a classroom — not outside, on a basketball court.

“Nothing is given. Everything is earned in the classroom … first,” might serve as a more accurate descriptor of LeBron’s theory.

As we survey the majority of African-American communities, there lies a common denominator in how society views athletics — as the main mechanism by which blacks rise to success.

In primary schools, a factory-like process is pushed on many young black boys: Perform well on the basketball court in grade school; join an out-of-school team; earn a scholarship or invitation to attend a top athletic preparatory school; become a star recruit at a Division I athletic program; and keep your mind and eyes on the coveted title of “professional athlete.”

As these young boys become young men, there is an industry of coaches and recruiters who look for talent at an early age without valuing the young person themselves.

However, it does not need to be that way. As a young physician and former collegiate student-athlete, I had coaches who instilled values in me and goals on me to succeed in both the athletic and educational realms. If not for them, I would not be where I am today.

These coaches are a rare breed but need to be the common numerator.

The hard truth is that becoming a basketball player in the National Basketball Association is exceedingly difficult, almost like playing lottery odds. In the 2016-2017 school year, according to NCAA.org, there were 550,305 high school participants in men’s basketball, and 18,712 became NCAA participants. Thus, the probability of competing in NCAA collegiate basketball was 3.4 percent for male high school basketball athletes desiring to compete at the next level.

Only 1.2 percent of these NCAA student-athletes make it to the major professional level.

Neither of these aforementioned statistics account for longevity or success as a professional athlete. Suddenly a small fish in a big pond, some players end up in the league even if only for a single game or less. Despite these numbers, families and coaches are emboldened to push their young student-athletes to fight for careers in professional athletics.

However, what happens if we channel the same passion into pushing these young men to concurrently focus on exploiting the educational mission for long-term success?

National studies from 2012 demonstrate that black physicians comprise only 4 percent of active physicians, 6 percent of trainees in graduate medical education and 7 percent of medical school graduates.

If the same fury, encouragement, and will were instilled into young black men in the classrooms, what might be the possibility? Moreover, how much stronger would our entire country be with such a paradigm shift in priorities?

The right direction and guidance — similar excellence and discipline — used to excel at sports can be transitioned into the libraries, research laboratories and clinical rooms where black men are currently sparse. We often see black athletes but, in certain areas of this country, we rarely see black physicians. Pushing oneself to an exemplary level in athletics is nothing short of amazing, but enhancing your knowledge of a certain subject matter is one of the most self-fulfilling achievements in this world.

Lebron James has initiated a conduit for lifelong success for the black community in his hometown of Akron.

He evidences two of the most clichéd sentences in society, and as we know, most clichés ring true:

Home is where the heart is. Classroom is where the success is.

As my 30th birthday approaches, as a young trainee in an anesthesiology residency program, my career is in its infancy. In contrast, for my contemporaries in the world of athletics, most of their careers are in the terminal stages. Excluding environmental occurrences and certain medical conditions that may occur, we all will live at least another 50 years.

In truth, there are many successful athletes, like Lebron James, who have pushed beyond the limited box of athletics, recognizing that the seeds to the future success of the black male are in the classroom and not at the basketball courts or the football fields.

Today we plant the seeds.

And watch them grow.

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Dr. Jason L. Campbell, a native of Washington, D.C., is a recent graduate of The Ohio State University College of Medicine and a former Division III All-American track and field athlete at Emory University. He is currently a physician resident in the Department of Anesthesiology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon.

 

 

sanc·tu·ar·y

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.” 

That quote hangs on my wall in my childhood bedroom.

I first started running with my mother as “punishment.” I don’t know if I thought, at the time, it was a form of punishment but looking back I think that is the most accurate classification. I truly only have one distinct memory of running with her although I know it happened multiple times (I guess like other heinous acts, I have blocked those other times out). I was attending one of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) conferences with my mother in which, like most research scientists and physicians, she used these annual 4-day conferences as a family vacation. We were in Orlando, FL and my mother and I left the hotel setting out to glide under the hot blue sky. If you’ve ever been to Florida, you know how long and incessant those black roads are lining the roadways in this never-ending fashion with the sun of the sunshine state glaring down. A few minutes into the run I was tired, frustrated and annoyed by the pace she had set troubling my short-legs and untrained lungs. I remember a school bus driving by and I thought, “They’re going to think I’m slow behind her.” As a result of my despair, she quickly became irritated with me as I was disturbing her peace. She always used to articulate how running was her escape from the perils of life—it was her sanctuary. I didn’t understand that then.

Not until one night when I walked out the doors of the Emory Athletic facility—The WoodPEC—onto the track. A cool spring Atlanta evening greeted me after a long day of medical training. Before I even stepped onto the track to begin warming up for my workout, I went into the bleachers and just sat there. My eyes circled around the red track, from curve to straight to curve to straight away. I can’t remember what I thought about but I know I was calmed. From that moment on I always viewed the track as a safe haven, a place where, even if everything was wrong in my world, the track was always right.

A few minutes from my present home, there’s a track here in Portland at the Under Armor Satellite Headquarters. I always drive by it on my way home from the hospital. It is not the most direct route, but it soothes me after a long intern day. The track represents so many memories—joy, sadness, humor, accomplishment, and defeat. Whether it was my mother pinning my racing bib on my 14 year old self at my first official race as my on-looking teammates teased me from afar, or watching the University of Michigan relay team run 16:04 with a 3:52 anchor leg for the 4xMile or running third leg on the 4x400m relay team that led us to a comeback conference win for our Emory’s Men team or being named captain of the Emory University team or being a part of the coaching staff for the first Ohio State Men’s Track and Field Big Ten Championship since 1993. The memories flow as I do when I am on the track.

One of the greatest races of my career came at a Junior AAU meet in Florida. The night before, I had run a 1500m time, slower than some of our 11-12-year-old girls, that resulted in me finishing second to last. I didn’t know how to “hurt yet,” or maybe I didn’t want to experience the pain and agony that is necessary to race the middle-distance events well. The next morning, I woke up ready to respond. As I began my warm-up today felt a little different. I spoke with Mikias Gelagle, one of my teammates at the time, who went on to be one of the best high school runners out of the state of Maryland in the 2004-2006 era. He gave me a game plan of which mostly I do not remember but I remember him distinctly telling me if I started out way in the back that’s where I was going to end up. He urged me to “go out near the front and to believe in the training I had under my belt.” This was a 3000-meter race I was lining up for, and most of my teammates were still back in their hotel rooms. As the gun sounded, I shot to the 5thor 6thposition and found my cadence. Lap after lap I was in it and as the race began to thin out I found myself running alongside a runner from another DC track club—The Pioneers. In his all-purple uniform, his crowd, situated opposite my contingency, would cheer him on as we ran past, giving him the motivation to pull a step ahead of me. As we rounded the track, I would do the same as my DC Redwings’ coaches implored me to “do what I knew I could.” Three laps later, this dance routine continued, but the only difference was that most of my teammates had now arrived from the hotel. Probably to their astonishment I was in the race, and to my delight they began cheering for me as we closed in with two laps left. Our cadences had become one at this point, synchronous like the Olympic swimmers, but I knew only one of us could cross the finish line first. As we approached 200 meters to go I started quickening my stride and using my arms to drive my tired legs forward. Down the straightaway we came, and I barely crossed the white line before him. I think I finished fifth in the race. The glory was all internal, but externally, the congratulations from my teammates and coaches, was the prize I needed. I finally felt like I belonged—one of the sacred feelings in life. It’s the emotions, the coaches’ turned fathers and the teammates turned brothers and sisters that make me proud to call myself a runner.

“Once a runner, always a runner.” For me, that motto transcends time. Whether you’re an Olympian or a has-been/never-was, if you’ve spent time lying on the ground in exhaustion, eyes closed, swallowing your saliva because there was no water in sight, then you’re a runner.

What I Learned From A Two-Time Olympian

What I learned from a two-time Olympian…

“Mom, the Olympic trials are on!” I yelled upstairs. When you combine my mother, sister, and I, almost 30 years of running track fandom avidly stared at the screen. “Bang,” the gun sounded on the tv, and there appeared Khadevis “KD” Robinson, 4-time U.S. Olympic Champion, out to set the early pace. Prior to the start of the race, the commentator announced his 8-month-old son, Zion, was in the crowd watching. That pressure didn’t seem to faze him, as he took the pace out hard with his unique upright stride and robotically pristine form. 50.33, the clock read, as the crescendo of the bell rang signaling the commencement of the second and final lap. KD made a strong move to increase his lead as his fellow Nike teammate, Lopez Lomong, began coming up on his shoulder. 200 meters to go before the finish, KD’s powerful stride crushed the track underneath him. Strong finisher—Nick Symmonds—in the back of the pack had now found some room to maneuver. 100 meters to go—a straight away to decide who would be representing the United States in Beijing, the pack began closing the gap on KD. First, Nick Symmonds flew by, and then six-foot-five, Andrew Wheating, a University of Oregon product, galloped pass Khadevis. As the line approached, it was between KD and Christian Smith, another Oregon Duck, for the final USA Olympic team spot. At the line, Christian Smith hurled himself over as he crashed to the ground.

Symmonds.

Wheating.

Smith.

Those were the ones going onto Beijing. It was an Oregon sweep—1.2.3.

Years later, I read out the name “Coach Khadevis Robinson” on the door. A smile began to form from my lips. My standing in front of that door was thanks to one person. Coach Karen Dennis, one of only 5 female Directors of a Power-5 Track & Field conference program, became a mentor and mother figure from the moment we were first introduced four years ago. She knew more than anyone my love for track, coaching, and mentoring, and so, she gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. She spoke with Coach Robinson and he agreed to bring me on as a volunteer assistant coach in my last semester of medical school. I had dreamed about this over and over—the opportunity to coach at The Ohio State, to run alongside the young Buckeye athletes, to tell them I believed in them right before their darkest moment and hardest set. However, the dream never dared to include working with one of my track and field idols. I remember our first encounter like it was yesterday. Two enthusiastic men embracing as we began sharing our experiences about the sport we treasure. I asked him multiple questions about his training philosophy which he returned with answers followed by questions revolving around what type of doctor I wanted to be. After that meeting, I knew he respected me as a man, a former student-athlete, and a medical student but I wasn’t sure he fully trusted me as his new assistant coach. Early on, during a workout, when one of our athletes seemed to slow her pace down prior to the expected finishing point he thought I had told her to stop. I mentioned to him that I had not, and we moved on. As I reflect, I realize he was taking quite a risk bringing me on-board because if we had not had a harmonious relationship the student-athletes, the team & the coaching staff would have suffered from a potentially negative environment.

Whatever my past achievements were before, he taught me that success is non-transferrable. I don’t mean you can’t be successful in multiple fields because you can. But just because you are successful in one field, it doesn’t automatically transfer over to another. You have to earn respect in any fresh sphere with which you enter, with each promise fulfilled, one step at a time. Despite having garnered All-American Collegiate accolades, being named captain of my university team and being an assistant coach at my high school alma mater, I had to prove I could be successful at this level—to him, to the athletes and just as importantly, to myself. My greatest asset to the team and my student-athletes was my energy and enthusiasm as evidenced by my 6:00 AM boisterous yells booming across the infield covering all four sides of the track. If the student-athletes weren’t awake when they arrived to practice they certainly were by 6:10AM. But, in conjunction with my blaring voice I had a softer, gentler voice I used to encourage athletes dealing with adversity, reassuring them that their goals were just on the other side of their adversity. As the season continued, Coach Khadevis & I continued to grow closer. It wasn’t only the time on the track that transformed our relationship. It was the casual conversations during meals, the track & field team trips together and the jokes we created that made all the difference. Whether it was from our back & forth taunts about whose fraternity was better, to Coach KD’s incomparable dance moves to Coach Karen having to yell at us both to not run alongside our athletes during competitions due to our mutual excitement, a unique bond formed.

Two Big Ten Championships, many laughs, and two seasons later I sat in his office a few weeks prior to leaving for Oregon to start my medical residency. Talking casually, Khadevis brought up that Olympic race from 2008 which was the very race I watched 10 years ago with my mother. “I had to come back,” he said. “There was no way I could let my son see me fail. No way was my last race going to be anything less than me making another Olympic team. So, I let my setback set the stage for my comeback…

And I made the Olympic team in 2012.”

KD & I

Three Men, 1 Goal

“Our chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can.” 

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

All the success I’ve had in the past, present, and future, could not and cannot be done without the love and support of my family and friends. The special ones who have guided me are true mentors. Here’s how I met one of them.

I could barely make out the back of his shirt that read, “Princeton Track & Field,” but I didn’t need to read it to know this gentleman was a runner—his telltale build and strut as he left the track were clear as day. Unsure if I’d see him again, I slowly jogged behind him until I was within hearing range. “Hey, did you run track for Princeton? I’m an 800 guy here at Emory!” He responded, “I did. Now, I’m a med student here.”

I’ve learned many different things in my life, but one thing I hold to be true is there is no such thing as coincidence. Immediately, I asked if we could meet up as I told him he was exactly where I wanted to be in a few years. How rare is this? To have a future you stand in front of you willing to meet, and as I would find out in years to come, equally willing to help. But what if I hadn’t chased after Alexis (Dr. Tingan) in that moment? What if I had hesitated? One slight moment of doubt could have closed the path to a guide and friend, one never to be crossed again. My strong desire and willingness to become a physician may have led me there alone, but as the parable goes, ‘a man once believed he’d survive flood waters because he prayed to God to save him. After turning down a boat, a canoe and a helicopter he sadly died and when he arrived at the gates of heaven, God told him that he sent those people to save him.’ God puts people in our life with a purpose. Lex was one of those for me. Our shared interest in running and passion for medicine established a natural relationship, and he has been able to help me choose the appropriate undergraduate class schedules, select medical schools that would be a good fit for me and to navigate the medical school application process. Having run the same events in college, we shared in our perils, our accomplishments, and our goals.

For success meeting a mentor: establish a relationship first, know your weaknesses and your strengths, be cognizant of the schedule of your potential mentor and be clear in outlining one’s needs.  Fast forward…

The lessons I learned from Alexis were put in practice for someone else. Preparing for a lengthy heart physiology and anatomy study session at the library, I couldn’t help noticing a young African-American undergraduate student intensely studying at the adjacent table. It was about 9:30 PM on a Saturday night and it was obvious he had been at that table for quite some time. Peeking over his shoulder as I walked to the bathroom, I saw him writing down notes from an organic chemistry book. Before I returned to my seat, I excitedly approached this young gentleman and through our conversation, learned that he aspired to attend medical school. Without hesitation, I offered to mentor him through the long and arduous process from the pre-medical courses to the application and interview process. He hesitantly gave me his email and a few days after, I emailed him to which he eventually replied. I am not sure if he was shocked by a stranger approaching him or by the idea of having a stranger offer to mentor him. As we grew closer, he admitted to me that he had never had a mentor. I don’t know if he was afraid to ask before, lacked the self-confidence or simply had never had someone offer their assistance? But I knew if he had made it this far “alone” then, within, lay had an incredible self-drive. Growing up in Houston where he attended public school and then matriculating to The Ohio State University where he earned merit-based scholarships, he progressed without anyone in the form of a mentor. How many others feel this way? Black? White? Male? Female? Mentorship is hard to obtain, but easy to bestow upon someone if it’s in your heart. As the application cycle approached for Phil, he showed me his list. There were good medical schools on the list, most of which were in his home state of Texas, but after seeing his stellar GPA and multiple leadership/volunteer experiences, I looked him in the eye and told him, “You’ve got to apply to Harvard School of Medicine! Whether or not you go there, there aren’t many of us who have ever been granted an interview at such a prestigious institution.” I also added other schools to his list opening his horizon, reminding him to believe in himself and to believe in his potential. Phil has just finished his first year at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine—a renowned and highly regarded medical school.

Phil emphasized, during a recent conversation: “Jason, without you, I never would have applied here…” I could only reply “Phil, together we go farther. Remember that!”

 

Sent From My iPhone

“We have reviewed your application once again for admission to our school of medicine and we regret to inform you that you have not been granted an interview at this time.” I scrolled down & it was signed by the Director of Admissions—a name with M.B.A behind it. And then I scrolled down further and read the signature…

“Sent from my iPhone.”

A tear streamed down my right cheek. I felt like a volcano that had erupted—full of frustration, anger & sadness. I was devastated. The words, “Life is hard for those who dream” kept scrolling through my head. I was in the downstairs bedroom of my parent’s home. At that moment, it was very likely that my mother was upstairs above me, just a few feet away. I don’t know for a fact, but I felt like there was a mirror image of myself upstairs at the dining room table in the form of my mother. Of all people in the world, she was the one I did not want to disappoint desiring so badly to carry on the legacy she has scuplted.  The first African-American woman in the country to receive a Ph.D. in Epidemiology. Despite her many accolades, at that point in time I think the only care in the world she had was for her son to be accepted into medical school. When I had graduated from Emory and was enthusiastically off-track, if you will, she spoke with one of her colleagues; a medical school advisor she knew well asking that he bestow upon me guidance and direction. And was it too simple to think the University that she works so hard for so many hours of the day, leading their mission of improving health disparities would at least offer an interview to her son? By title, She is the Associate Dean! If having one’s parents as alumni can help secure legacy status, what was going on here? Was that not customary? I rolled back onto my bed in the fetal position. What’s next? What could be next? This is the institution where I envisioned my white coat ceremony, match day ceremony and graduation occurring. But all I can remember is the thoughtlessly blasé “Sent from my iPhone.”

I was like many other pre-medical students at the time. I felt that since I had gone to a stellar, well-known undergraduate institution, the same would occur for my medical school education. But one thing I had to recognize was that your undergraduate institution doesn’t automatically lead to the medical school you enter—nothing is guaranteed. I have learned many things as I approach thirty years old, but nothing as sincere as the notion that entitlement is precarious, perhaps even dangerous. We fall into these easy expectations and if they do not come to fruition, we fall apart & don’t know how to pick ourselves up again. The moment you feel like you deserve something is the moment it slips through your grasp. In that very moment when you look up wishing & praying a leaf falls that was meant for you to catch, it may or may not but let me tell you about my leaves. I interviewed at Ohio State on January 22nd. Heading to the airport, I looked back at the large OSU Wexner Signage feeling as though I was actually leaving my home rather than my interview. A few weeks later, I signed into my newly-created Ohio State portal only to find a “wait-listed” next to my name. Many months later as I was tutoring a high school student, my phone began buzzing on the desk. I quickly uncovered it and saw a number with a 614-area code. There it was, the call I had been waiting so impatiently for. The director of admissions at Ohio State College of Medicine asked me, “Jason, are you still interested in Ohio State?” “Yes,” I exhaled. I felt like I had been holding my breath for 5 months and finally I could breathe again.

I drove home one breath at a time.