By Adam Schupak
Tucked in the foothills of America’s heartland, where “Jim Ryun for Congress” signs run up and down the sidewalk and one is hard-pressed to find anywhere to eat after 9 p.m., there’s a green classroom for the leaders of tomorrow.
Welcome to the sixth annual First Tee Life Skills Academy held at the Earl Woods National Youth Golf Academy on the campus of Kansas State University. It’s this lesser-known Manhattan, population 45,000, affectionately known as the Little Apple, where something big is under way.
It’s the third day of the week-long Academy, and class is in session. A total of 101 boys and girls spill out of a pair of buses and huddle on the steps of Monroe Elementary School in Topeka. They range from 12 to 17 years old, coming from 27 states, our nation’s capital and as far away as New Zealand. They look like they have been handpicked for a diversity photo shoot: girls in the latest Hollister T-shirts, boys in everything from a Michael Vick Atlanta Falcons jersey to gym shorts down to their ankles. Others are dressed in pleated khaki shorts, bright polo shirts and caps with the names or emblems of their favorite equipment makers, giving away what they all have in common.
Yes, they are golfers, but they are gathered less for their playing ability (which in many cases is considerable) than for being the leaders at some of the 257 First Tee facilities worldwide. These golfers are home on the range, practicing individually, in pairs and in clusters, and surviving the heat as temperatures soar to 107 degrees. After two days of practicing with a purpose, sharing dreams and goals, and trusting the line given by their partner while they putt blindfolded, they are about to learn how a watershed court decision from the past helped shape their future.
“I would hope that this is not about golf,” the late Earl Woods said of the Academy when he attended in 2000. “This is about people and making better people out of the kids that attend here. It’s about learning the lessons of life. It’s learning to be a better person. Not only yourself but influencing others to be better people. You can learn all that from golf if you apply yourself.”
Previous Life Skills students have visited the American Jazz Museum and the Negro League Baseball Museum. Standing on the steps of Monroe Elementary – the school significant as the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site, where protesters once chanted, “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate!” – a pair of First Tee kids, one black and one white, share iPod headphones and burst into a duet. It wasn’t Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s “Ebony and Ivory.” But it might as well have been Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Inside, the iconic image of Birmingham police hosing down non-violent civil rights protesters stops a few kids in their FootJoys. Somehow it had escaped their history classes at school. Eyes expressing wonder, jaw ajar, one towheaded boy gathered his thoughts and mustered: “Dude, did you see that? They sprayed them with water.”
It was one of what The First Tee coaches like to call “teachable moments” that use sports to reach across cultural boundaries to foster understanding and compassion. Each participant in the Academy left knowing that on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court held that separate but equal educational facilities are inherently discriminatory. By overturning the legal basis for segregation, the ruling’s impact would extend far beyond schools. If you could get an education, you could do almost anything – even play a game that had a reputation for being as white as the ball itself.
The court ruling ordered compliance “with all deliberate speed.” Some people only heard “deliberate,” which often means slow. When it comes to golf, the pace of change has been slower than an uphill putt. Exceptional players like Charlie Sifford, Calvin Peete and Tiger Woods have been just that – the exception.
The Academy may be the best example of how The First Tee is making a difference. The program has touched more than 675,000 youngsters, but those here in Kansas are the ones who show
the most promise – they’ve graduated to the program’s advanced levels.
Some are gifted golfers; others are the best and brightest minds. All have become leaders of their chapters, brought together to learn from some of the top instructors and, most of all, from each other.
For some, it is the first time they have left their home states, traveled without their parents or set foot on an airplane. At the Academy, they get a taste of what college life may be like. They live
in a dorm room with a roommate, meet people with different accents and argue the geographic merits of saying “pop” instead of “soda” or Coke.” Dedric Holmes, The First Tee’s senior director
of life skills education, estimates 90 percent of the attendees have never visited a college campus.
How far can one’s horizons broaden in one week?
The Life Skills Academy began in 2000 at Kansas State, one of two universities in the nation that offer leadership as a major. It’s the school where Earl Woods (Class of ’53) broke the color line as the first black to play baseball in what was then the Big Seven Conference, now the Big 12. Fellow alum Jim Colbert, a 28-time winner on the Champions and PGA tours, built a nine-hole youth facility, naming each hole after one of The First Tee’s nine core values, such as integrity and perseverance.
At first, officials had trouble finding enough kids who met the camp’s standards. Now they have
to turn away worthy candidates. The Academy has grown to two sessions per year, with the second alternating between the University of Richmond (Va.) and Tennessee Golf House in Franklin.
Who are these kids? They come in all shapes and sizes – from Lindsay Unuia, a 17-year-old New Zealand native built like a linebacker, to Michael Hughes, a little person with a big love of the game.
Unuia played rugby until he broke his neck and three fingers. A year ago, his grandfather gave him an old wooden 5-wood at the same time The First Tee of New Zealand happened to be promoting the program at his school, Tangaroa College.
“I’ve never touched the rugby ball again,” says Unuia, now an aspiring professional golfer who was honored as the Academy’s most improved player.
Then there’s Hughes, 13, who was too short to ride some of the roller coasters when the group attended Worlds of Fun theme park in Kansas City. But on the course, look out for his short game.
“I’ve taken down some bigger guys,” he says. “My motto is just to play your game.”
Some of the kids make a lasting impression on their elders. Leon Gilmore, the former West Coast regional director of The First Tee, has never forgotten one such kid from the inaugural year. Desmond Calloway was a bit of a troublemaker with a disruptive stuttering problem to boot.
Says Holmes: “We took him under our wing and challenged him to be a difference-maker.”
By the end of the week, the kids had embraced him, and he was named the “Dr. William Powell Outstanding Male Leader” by the college counselors. Which meant the boy with the stutter had to stand in front of his peers and make an acceptance speech.
“He never stuttered,” Gilmore remembers. “It brought tears to my eyes. It was the most amazing thing I ever saw. Everyone was speechless.”
The memory of the ovation Calloway received will last as long as the friendships formed. At the end of the week, Academy attendees trade e-mail addresses and instant-message names. Then they go home as mentors to spread the message they learned in Manhattan: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.