Kids pay attention, buy Fitzhugh's message

On High Schools

High schools

November 13, 2005|By MILTON KENT

If Tuesday's luncheon at the Sheppard Pratt Conference Center had been a boxing match, it would have been over in the first five minutes, because the speaker, Steve Fitzhugh, had his audience won over in about that much time.

And this was no tomato-can opponent that Fitzhugh, a former Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns linebacker, was up against, but rather the toughest group a speaker can face, namely a roomful of teenagers and more to the point, a group of student-athletes from area private and religious schools.

But by the time Fitzhugh had dropped in some "SpongeBob" references delivered with a voice reminiscent of Jim Carrey in his Ace Ventura days, the kids hardly knew what had hit them.

"We all have some truths we can share," Fitzhugh said after his talk. "I recognize that 90 percent of my effectiveness is whether or not they are going to hear me. My grandmother used to tell me that you can be the best tailor in the world and have diamond needles and gold thread. But if you don't have any material you're going to starve."

Fitzhugh, who runs a Christian outreach center in Washington, crisscrosses the country regularly on behalf of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, with which he is associated.

His location may change, and his audiences may be of different ethnicities and socioeconomic makeups, but Fitzhugh's message is constant because of the universality of what he has to say and because of who is in the groups.

"Teenagers across the board are very similar," said Fitzhugh, sweating profusely after a 30-minute talk, which was arranged by the Sheppard Pratt Office of Substance Abuse Education.

"I'm in South Central L.A., Southeast Washington, Wyoming, Wisconsin and Towson. There's an awful lot of similarities. My challenge is to understand that they are still teenagers. This could be a group that could be difficult to reach. But I just try to break through all of that."

Fitzhugh spoke in the middle of a day devoted to drilling home to kids the evils of drugs, specifically those of a performance-enhancing variety, as in steroids.

The group got specific answers to steroid questions from the refreshingly candid Dr. William Howard, director of Union Memorial's sports medicine clinic. Howard, while declaring his opposition to steroid usage, doesn't feed the steroid hysteria sweeping the nation, thus giving his stance integrity and believability.

Howard gave his audience straight answers rather than fear, telling them, for instance, that so-called 'roid rage stemming from persistent steroid usage is not common, but it does occur. He also told them that steroids work more noticeably in women because they don't naturally make as much testosterone, which is created in additional concentrations by steroids, as men do.

But the most elegant and poignant statement against steroids that day came from Fitzhugh, who recalled Brian Pillman, who played with him in college at Miami of Ohio. Pillman, who went on to wrestle professionally under the moniker "Flyin' Brian," died in 1997 at the age of 35.

Fitzhugh said Pillman, who used human growth hormones, offered him steroids while they were in college, but he refused, electing to bulk up "the old-fashioned way, peanut butter and jelly," which, of course, brought the house down.

And that was the secret of Fitzhugh's success, the innate ability to weave tragedy and comedy into his routine, alternately keeping his audience hushed and rolling on the floor.

In one moment, he was telling his crowd that Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway played with him. "Life is all about perspective," he said. In another, he was sharing the harrowing details of his mother's death from cancer stemming from years of cigarette smoking.

Not long after joshing the audience about its choice of pro football teams, Fitzhugh was gently shocking them with the story of his older brother, who could have been a scholarship athlete but instead battled drug-induced demons until he died eight years ago after smoking crack.

Fitzhugh admitted afterward that his spiel does border on what he calls "edu-tainment," but he offered no apology, if the payoff is saving a few potential lost souls.

"I had to border on entertaining them just to get a few thoughts in," Fitzhugh said. "And I'm willing to do that. I've had some [school] administrators say [in a gruff voice], `It took you 20 minutes before you got to what you had to say.' Yeah, but when I got to what I had to say, I had them for the rest of the day. So, I'm willing to make that kind of investment."

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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