Mervo track star struggles to get his studies up to speed

January 04, 1995|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

Over the past six months, James Carter has either won or placed in numerous local and national track meets. He's considered, by many, as one of the state's best high school runners.

James, a junior at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, has a stack of letters from big-name colleges interested in him for their running teams. He's even mentioned as a contender for the U.S. Olympic team in 2000.

Last month, the Mervo track star missed his first meet in two years. Not running was his mom's idea.

James' mother made him quit the indoor track team after his grades began to decline and his academic average dipped into the 70s. He was doing adequate work in most classes and failed a geometry course.

Although Marilyn Knight is proud of her son's athletic prowess, she feels it is what he learns in the classroom that will carry him through life.

"If I knew he was doing his best and had a 75 [average] then I wouldn't be upset," Ms. Knight said. "But I know this is not the best that he can do. I know that. It wasn't a hard decision. I think that James has to put as much emphasis on his grades as he does on his running."

For her son, the running ban is something he accepts.

"She wants me do better than I've been doing," said James, 16. "I'm going to do what I have to do and then get back out there and run."

"I think it's a very good decision on the parent's part," said Gene Lawrence, Mervo's principal. "It's good to keep focused on things like academics."

For the past five years, running has been a major part of James' life. In addition to running for the school team, he has spent his summers running for the Ed Waters Track Club, which travels to out-of-state meets. As a sophomore, James turned in a sub-49-second performance in a 400-meter race -- a time that was two seconds off the state record. He ran an 800-meter race that was five seconds off the state record, and he won the city school championship in the triple jump.

During the summer, he placed third in the 400 meters and ran the lead-off leg for the title-winning relay squad at the Junior Olympic Track Field Championships in Florida. He won the 200 meters, 400 meters and triple jump at a meet in Massachusetts.

"I was working real hard trying to improve and I think that I have, I know I have," James said. "I don't know. Maybe I put too much time in it [track] and not enough for school."

James is enrolled in Mervo's drafting program and hopes to become an architect. Although he was still passing most classes, James figures that before he dropped from the team he was spending 80 percent of his time running track and 20 percent on academics.

William Johnson, James' drafting teacher at Mervo, said the teen-ager seemed disinterested in his work.

"He used to really get upset when he couldn't understand something. Once he understood it, he'd say, 'Yes, I've got it.' " This school year, Mr. Johnson said, "it seems like he's got something else on his mind."

Victor Gugliuzza, an English teacher at Mervo, said that, although James is doing all right in his class, he applauds the mother's decision.

"It's very good because it shows that his mother is paying attention to his work," Mr. Gugliuzza said. "That track will open doors, but he doesn't want to just be a runner for them, he wants to be a student, too."

Several major colleges -- including Penn State, Ohio State and Texas -- have contacted James.

Rob Fieter of the Ohio State sports department said the university won't lose interest because James doesn't run track for a semester.

"This just means that if he decides to come to us he'll be ready academically for college," Mr. Fieter said. "We want good student athletes."

Freddie Hendricks, Mervo's track coach for 25 years and a coach for the Ed Waters Track Club, said James is a gifted athlete who can compete in many track events.

"He's an exceptional athlete," Mr. Hendricks said. "As a student-athlete, he's an average student. He still doesn't see the need to apply himself fully in the class. He said he's willing to work on it now."

Mr. Hendricks said James had passing grades, not low enough to force him from the team, but he agrees with Ms. Knight's decision.

"Grades in the low 70s aren't what he needs. He needs to get to the B-plus range, and everybody knows he can do it," Mr. Hendricks said. "We have to get him to focus on getting the grades up to the point where it makes everything else possible."

Now, instead of practicing with the track team every day, James goes home to study. He's confident that he can pull up his grades. "I want to run so I'm going to hit the books. I don't mind it because it's going to make me more than just someone who runs," James said.

For additional inspiration, he can look to his mother. A single parent rearing two children, she began her freshman year at Baltimore City Community College in the fall.

TC "You can't just do enough to get by, you have to excel," Ms. Knight said. "If I can work full time, take care of a family and get good grades, he can get good grades, too."

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