Academic aide helps Terps' passing game

For four Maryland football players, grades suffered until counselor Natasha Criss applied the pressure

December 22, 2005|By HEATHER A. DINICH | HEATHER A. DINICH,SUN REPORTER

COLLEGE PARK --The message on Ricardo Dickerson's cell phone was not a joke.

You didn't get a B in the class, so as of right now, you're dismissed, and you're no longer a part of the university.

It was academic counselor Natasha Criss.

The weather was freezing, but Dickerson left his coat. He ran straight to the Gossett Football Team House and into her office, where she was waiting for him despite calling in sick.

It's a small corner room Dickerson and three of his senior teammates have repeatedly trekked into for guidance, and in the end, walked out of with much more.

Each of the four has his own story, his own reasons for nearly slipping out of the football program and not graduating.

For Dickerson, it was the birth of his son, Deangelo, which coincided with failing out of school. For linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, it was the death of his grandfather, followed by his grandmother's death this summer.

Linebacker William Kershaw also dealt with the loss of a grandparent and needed an extra academic push. And receiver Jo Jo Walker came to College Park from Texas, homesick and with a Lone Star-sized attitude.

They were like the majority of football players at Maryland who fall into the "at-risk" category and needed additional academic support, said Heather Arianna, associate director of academic support and career development. The data released by the NCAA earlier this week - the first Graduation Success Rate - shows Maryland graduated 63 percent of its players who entered the program between 1995 and 1998.

Dickerson will earn his degree at graduation today. And probably the only factor that would keep the other three from graduating this spring is an opportunity to play in the NFL.

Criss was part of their recruiting process, and they are part of the first class she has seen all the way through. Once they committed, her main goal was to successfully see them out.

"It's so much more than picking classes or monitoring their eligibility," said Criss, one of two academic counselors in the program. "When they're not actually on the field or in meetings, they're in here. They sit in here and talk to us about their relationships, their parents, fights with their girlfriends.

"It is personal," said Criss, 35, who likened her role with the players to that of an older sister. "You get close to them. You have to. ... I don't get bonuses or brownie points for them graduating. We don't get anything extra, but that's what I truly want to see from them."

Tiny inspiration

Deangelo James Dickerson was born Feb. 11, 2003. His father was 20, a linebacker for the Maryland football team and majoring in family studies.

"When you have something like that come into your life, you know you have to make a better life for him," Dickerson said. "I knew no matter what happened here, graduation was going to be something I wanted to do. I wanted to do it for my family. I'm going to pave the way for my son."

But first he had to find his own way. It started the day he got the cell phone message.

"His eyes were big as saucers," Criss said. "He was like, `This can't happen.' The reality of the situation was that it did. `You didn't do what you were supposed to do, so now you're not in school.'"

Arianna said she began working with the football program in 1997, and that year, "I don't even remember how many kids we had academically dismissed," she said. "I was like, `Oh my gosh, what did I get myself into?' I didn't know what we were going to do. We had so many kids academically dismissed. It's steadily improved, but we made a lot of changes."

Some of those changes include a morning study table, mandatory breakfast and study hall before class. There are also "class checkers" for players who "can't seem to find their way to class," Arianna said.

All 11 football players who entered the program in 1997 and played under coach Ralph Friedgen during his first season in 2001 graduated, and university officials said they expect Maryland's federal graduation rate - a more stringent measure than the NCAA's GSR - for the football freshmen who started in 1998 to be close to 79 percent.

Dickerson had to write a letter to the admissions office, pleading his case. He was allowed back. He changed his major to criminal justice and worked with Criss every day. He said he earned a 2.8 grade point average the next semester.

"I was just thinking, `Man, if I get this opportunity to get back in school, I'm going to make the best of it,'" Dickerson said. "That's what I did."

The linebackers

Jackson spent most his childhood at his grandparents' home in Largo, Fla., because his father had gotten hooked on drugs and his mother was busy working to support him and his brother.

Their house was on a dirt road next to a large, open field that Jackson said happened to be about 100 yards long. He would go out and hike the ball to himself and pretend it was fourth down.

"I never got tired when I was younger," he said. "Never."

That changed his freshman year at Maryland.

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