Ex-NFL player back at Woodlawn

At his old high school, former 'hardhead' helps students get their heads straight

November 30, 2008|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,arin.gencer@baltsun.com

For the past several months, former NFL safety Keion Carpenter has been going back to school.

Roaming the halls of Woodlawn High School, he slips into classrooms for lessons on federal versus state government powers. He stops to chat with teachers and students between classes.

And when the dismissal bell rings, Carpenter, 31, joins the varsity football players as they practice, exchanging quips with and shouting instructions at the athletes during grueling exercises.

For Carpenter, who graduated from Woodlawn in 1995, the time spent with students as a volunteer coach and mentor is a chance to show them life's possibilities - and teach them what's necessary to turn their potential into reality.

"I want my presence, being here, to be an inspiration to them," said Carpenter, who played football and basketball at the Baltimore County school. "Hopefully, they can look at me and say, 'Wow, this guy, he went to school here, he made it. He went on to college, went on to the pros, and now he's giving back.' "

Carpenter's path from Woodlawn is one that many of the young Warriors would like to take: full athletic football scholarship to Virginia Tech, then a career in the National Football League as a safety for the Buffalo Bills and the Atlanta Falcons before retiring in 2006.

"He's just one success story of many, but he's the one that's right there on the front line," said Brian W. Scriven, Woodlawn's principal. "He's achieved what so many dream of achieving."

Scriven recently took the lead at the newly restructured school, where about 55 percent of seniors have met state test requirements for graduation - and 46 percent of last school year's students received free or reduced-price meals, an indicator of low family income.

Carpenter credits Scriven, who was head football coach when he played for the Warriors, with saving him, acting as the father he didn't have. He wants to support Scriven's mission to turn the school around, Carpenter said.

A self-described "hardhead" with a "terrible attitude" as a student, he said he can relate to the more difficult individuals, too.

"I tell them all the time, 'I sat in the same classrooms that you sat in, I walked the same halls, I ate in the same cafeteria,' " said Carpenter, who splits his time between Maryland and his home in Georgia.

These days, he's in those classrooms and halls regularly - although he has no plans to revisit cafeteria food.

One day, Carpenter stood near Woodlawn's front entrance as students spilled out of classrooms. He easily picked out those he knew.

"What's up, man? Good luck today," he said as he slapped hands with several junior varsity football players, who had a game later.

As the halls cleared, he shouted to a student strolling by, "You need to go to class, chump!"

"My teacher's not in there," the student replied.

"You've still got to go to class," Carpenter shot back.

"It's more than just to show up on the football field," he said in an interview, explaining his presence in the building. "I want them to know that it's more of an importance to be a better student. ... If you don't take your books just as much as you take practice, then you're not going to be able to play football."

For many of the teens at Woodlawn, the coaches "are their fathers and their role models," said Michael Sye, the school's athletics director.

Having "Coach Keion" around encourages and motivates them, the athletes said.

"He's been there before, so he knows how to get to where we want to go," said senior Delontai Bruton, a running back. "He's giving us something that most of us thought we'd never have."

"What he is doing is really special," said senior Rudy Lee Daniel, a safety. "He could be doing something else instead of coming back, giving back to his community."

Gary Servance, a senior and running back, said Carpenter is "giving us a taste of what the future life could be like - if we just stay on track."

His involvement also speaks to a "level of commitment and perseverance that we're trying to transfer to our students," Scriven said. "They really need to understand some of the sacrifices ... all of those coaches are making to try to have a positive impact on their lives."

For Carpenter, that relationship extends beyond the football field. He is like a big brother to the students - someone they can text with questions about sports and more personal subjects, including their plans for life after Woodlawn. He plans to work with the basketball team, for which many of his students also play.

"He doesn't approach us as, 'I'm a coach, respect me,' but more so, 'I'm somebody you can talk to,' " said David Williams, the quarterback.

Carpenter has also made a commitment to helping them through the college application process, talking to them about colleges they're interested in, what they need to do to prepare themselves academically - and offering to call coaches on their behalf.

"He's right there - you can ask him anything," Daniel said, adding that Carpenter is "the easiest person to get to."

Williams said Carpenter's presence is "kind of like that edge that you need."

"It's just a hope," Williams said. "Somebody can make it that came out of here - why can't I?"


Age: 31

Education: Woodlawn High, Class of 1995; Virginia Tech, Class of 1999

Career: Played safety for the Buffalo Bills and Atlanta Falcons; retired 2006

Current activities: founder of Carpenter House, a Baltimore-based nonprofit foundation to help single parents and low-income families become homeowners; volunteer football coach, Woodlawn High School; president of for-profit advocacy organization For My Kids (FMK)

Residence: Splits time between Georgia and Maryland

Family: Father of three

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