Late in the Game, a College Athlete Learns to Read
As a high school basketball star in Kansas City, Kans., Kevin Ross had hopes as lofty as his 6’9 ” frame. Eagerly wooed by college recruiters, be accepted a full athletic scholarship to Creighton University and in 1979 moved to its Omaha campus to begin working toward a career in the pros. For three years Ross maintained his academic eligibility for the college team—even though he could neither read nor write beyond the level of a second grader. Like countless other promising young athletes in the country’s high schools and colleges, be had long managed to bide scholastic shortcomings with the help of victory-minded coaches, teachers and school officials who prized rebounding over reading. Last year, finding himself among the 98 percent of all college athletes destined to fall short of a pro career and facing an uncertain future because of his negligible education, Ross left Creighton, a school of 5,600 students run by the Jesuits, and enrolled in Westside Prep, the Chicago storefront grammar school founded by innovative educator Marva Collins. Now 24, he studies with classmates half his age to learn the skills that have long eluded him. In a conversation with Sarah Hall of PEOPLE, Ross recounts his sad odyssey through the educational system and his struggle to start over.
I was the youngest of six children, and my parents were divorced when I was 7 or 8 years old. My mother worked very hard at night in the post office to raise us, and although we didn’t have books in the house, she always talked about how important it was to get a good education and to try our best in school. I remember that I always felt self-conscious about my reading, but it didn’t seem that I did any worse in school than a lot of others. I never liked to read, and I did it real slow, but so did a lot of other kids.
In junior high school I started to grow, and I just didn’t stop. I ran track and played baseball and football, but in the eighth grade my coach took me to the gym one day and said, “Let’s shoot some baskets.” I was already 6’5″ and still growing. By then the balance was toward being an athlete and not working very hard in class, but my grades were all right. When you’re a kid, being an athlete works in your favor. Athletic departments and faculties want winning teams.
At Wyandotte High I tried to write some of my papers, but mostly I printed them. No one told me any different, and only when I got to Mrs. Collins’ school did I learn how to use a capital “I.” Until then I always used a little “i” for everything. What really helped me get into Creighton were the A’s I got in my senior year because the coach taught American history and government. Also, I got C’s in biology and health class where they let me be a teacher’s aide and a nurse’s aide. I guess I didn’t have to do the regular work.
During my senior year in high school a lot of men came to see me from colleges. One came from Cal State in Fullerton and one from the University of Hawaii. I had all kinds of letters from other schools, but I chose Creighton ’cause I thought I would get a fair deal there. They promised me I would be a starter and that they would pay for all my tuition and things and that if I went to class I would get a degree. When you see those guys in suits and ties, you respect them and believe the things they promise you.
I had trouble with some of the courses in the beginning, and I knew I couldn’t keep up with English and math. The coaches told me to take some other courses that weren’t so hard and that it was okay with everybody. I knew they were bonehead courses—things like squad participation, ceramics, first aid and the theory of baseball—but I picked them out with the coach, and my adviser signed his permission. No one told me that these classes weren’t good for graduation.
I knew my writing skills weren’t very good, but I tried. I stayed up late copying things out of books when I had to do a book report, then put in some of my own words to make it look legitimate, and the teachers usually accepted it. The women in the athletic office helped type some of my papers after I printed them out.
I really feel now that I was falsely recruited. The deal was that Creighton got a basketball champ, and I got a degree, but at the end of my sophomore year we had a meeting, me and the coaches, and [athletic director] Dan Offenburger thought I shouldn’t come back. I told him that I wasn’t a quitter and that I wanted to try and make it. They said they would help me and had me see tutors.
But things didn’t work. I was having trouble in psychology in my third year ’cause I couldn’t read, and if you can’t read, you can’t understand. That was also the year I was injured, and I think that was the turning point of my career at Creighton. I had to have an operation on my left knee to remove some bone and tissue pieces.
In the spring of my senior year I found out I was on academic probation for the first time. I failed courses with teachers who had passed me before, and I got D’s in Afro-American literature and ceramics. Things got so bad that Offenburger offered to send me to another country like Australia to play ball or to send me to a vocational school. I think he thought I wouldn’t know the difference. Hell, I couldn’t go to Australia; I couldn’t even spell it. He said that perhaps I could be a policeman, but how could I do that when I couldn’t fill out a police report? How could I get a job when I couldn’t even fill out an application?
Creighton is now taking a lot of credit for sending me to Westside Prep. It’s true they flew my mother and me here to look at the school and are paying my expenses, but I get $350 a month, and that’s very little to live on in Chicago. I want to learn, though, I want to know things, and I realize you have to sacrifice if you’re going to be good.
It was very embarrassing at first to come to school with all these little kids. Some of them knew things already that I don’t know. But they’ve been real good to me. They applaud when I do something right at the blackboard, and they encourage me a lot. I’ve already gone up in my reading a grade and a half in the four months that I’ve been here. I still find it very hard to read, and I don’t enjoy it, but the kids and Mrs. Collins really push me along. I work every day at school from 8 a.m. to 2:30 and study at the home of a Chicago family I’m living with. Right now I’m working on getting the vowel sounds right.
I still need at least 36 hours to graduate from Creighton, and I’d like to go back to get my degree one day and try to use this experience to help other athletes. I want to tell them that you can’t live behind a facade, that it’s rough out there, and if you don’t have the skills, sooner or later you’ll come down. The teachers in high school and college thought they were being kind, but in the end their being kind hurt me. It’s just sad that I was allowed to get through, that I had to go so far and then had to turn around. But I’m not going to give up. I’m not a failure, and I don’t want to be one. I think there are going to be a lot of changes because of the kind of example I’m setting. I’d like to see something good come out of this.
Last month at its annual convention, members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association voted overwhelmingly to establish new academic requirements for athletes at major colleges. For the first time, incoming freshmen will need to have earned a C average in a high school core curriculum and achieved specified minimum test scores on their college entrance exams in order to qualify for intercollegiate sports. The new regulations take effect in August 1986.