May 2, 2013
By Matea Wasend
Fred Wells Tennis & Education Center
They've never played tennis in their lives, but University of Minnesota football standouts Cedric Thompson and Derrick Wells have lately been spending a lot of time on the tennis court. Every Sunday afternoon, in fact.
"We caught onto it pretty quick," said Thompson. "Some of the stuff is pretty tough, but the basics aren't too hard to master."
Not hard to believe, for these two athletic Gophers. They're rising stars at the U--no mean feat in a Division I program that rosters some 120 players. Football is a "serious sport" at the U, and one that necessitates a year-round commitment despite a three-month season. There are a lot of 6 a.m. practices involved.
But every Sunday afternoon, Wells and Thompson have been setting aside football and picking up racquets for a few hours of volunteer work at Fred Wells Tennis & Education Center (FWTEC) on Fort Snelling.
Since February, the pair has been helping with Wells Academy, a fledgling youth outreach program that brings low-income high school students to FWTEC for tennis instruction and academic help. It's the site they picked for the service-learning component of a shared `Multicultural Perspectives in Sociology' class--enticed, in part, by the program's twin emphases on sports and academics, which reminded them of their own high school experiences.
"If it weren't for football, I don't think I would have done as well in school," said Thompson, who was the first member of his family to attend college. "It really helped me with a lot of aspects of my life."
"Football pushes me to do better," said Wells. "What I really love to do is play football, but I know that if I don't get good grades and don't pass my classes, I won't be able to play."
At FWTEC, Derrick and Cedric fit right in; while the sport in question may be different, the sentiment is the same. Wells Academy intentionally uses tennis as both an empowering tool and as an enticement for kids to come to FWTEC--where it then offers them access to personalized academic support.
The program is one segment of Tennis2College, an umbrella program unique to FWTEC which serves kids from third to twelfth grade with the ultimate goal of helping them graduate from high school with a strong post-secondary trajectory.
"We help them with work, with test taking skills, with homework--even with ACT preparation," said Thompson. "And then we go out and help them with their tennis."
"Where I was from, I didn't have a program like this," he adds. "I encourage them to really take this opportunity seriously, because a lot of kids don't get this kind of opportunity and they wish they did."
For the most part, Thompson doesn't have much convincing to do. Program Coordinator Ali King says that since Wells Academy launched in February, most of the kids have shown up with enthusiasm every week and many have brought new attendees along--friends and relatives who have heard about the program and wanted to give it a try. Early on, students wrote out their short and long-term goals; everyone expresses aspirations to go to college or get a particular job out of high school.
"They're all thinking post-secondary," said King. "They're all thinking about what they're going to do after high school."
That's what Wells Academy is all about: challenging kids to set goals, and then empowering them to achieve them. In a state with one of the worst achievement gaps in the country, that often means offering support with homework and preparation for standardized tests. It can also mean help with the college search, which FWTEC Executive Director Margot Willett says can be nearly unnavigable for some families.
"The fact that Cedric and Derrick are in college, that they've gone through the college search from high school, makes them real role models for these kids," said King. "So does the fact that they're balancing athletics and academics in college now."
Balance is certainly something the two Minnesota student athletes have had to learn. Both are business-marketing majors at the U; Thompson hopes someday to open his own business, and Wells aspires to start his own iteration of Boys & Girls Club "to help kids who are growing up." But for now, they juggle classes with their football schedules year-round--including in the summer, since the entire football team enrolls in summer classes to train for the fall season.
"You learn a lot of discipline," said Thompson. "School teaches you discipline, and you need a lot of discipline at this level of football as well--you have to be very self-focused and really know how to push yourself."
The two safeties are both transplants from warmer climates--Thompson from California, and Wells from Florida. Besides the sometimes-lamentable weather, they like Minnesota. For Thompson, who grew up in Compton, the fact that there's "not a lot of violence" here is what really hits home. And they both love playing at the University of Minnesota--especially in front of a home crowd at TCF Bank Stadium.
"What amazes me is playing in front of all of those people," said Thompson. "It's an unbelievable feeling, especially when they're cheering for us."
Next year, one of the people in that crowd might just be Wells Academy student Fatima Garcia. A twelfth grader who started with Wells Academy when it launched in February, Garcia just committed to join Thompson and Wells ranks at the University of Minnesota in the fall--the epitome of a Wells Academy success story.
"Wells Academy has been really helpful," said Garcia. "I think I'm getting better at tennis, and I've spent a lot more time doing my homework and learning how to take notes. And I can have fun at the same time."
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