by Kawann Short
I come back every year because I see me.
Lots of kids that all remind me of myself.
Except for one big difference: I never heard the things that I'm telling them now.
I didn't get that sort of advice about school work. I didn't get to physically see the world beyond East Chicago, and realize that my life could look a different way. I wasn't given the chance to come to sports camps for free. I didn't focus on academics and realize that it was the pathway to a way out.
That's what I want to change for this next generation growing up on the same streets that I did.
I'm from the Harbor neighborhood in East Chicago, Indiana. 3585 Block Avenue. It's one of the roughest parts of the city. I was two streets over from Guthrie, which was renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. Guthrie was one of those places where you wanted to be, but didn't want to be at the same time.
I'd go to the basketball courts there all the time, and I saw dog fights, shootouts, drug deals, arrests. Sometimes I was scared, but I never stopped going. I loved to play basketball and that was my neighborhood. That's just where we spent our time.
I grew up with my mom and my grandma. My mom, Yvonne Green, raised six of us. Two girls and four boys. My mom was the backbone of the whole family operation.
I definitely had friends that got caught up in everything growing up, but I was always the odd ball that never veered into those situations.
I spent most of my time at a community center nearby. I didn't start playing organized sports until eighth grade, but I grew up there with my best friend just trying to be as good as he was at basketball. My dream was to go to the NBA. As I started playing organized basketball, I got to travel to different towns and spots in the city. I was never in the same spot all day, and that really helped me go a different direction than a lot of people there.
Basketball was definitely my first love. I was a big bruiser inside. Double-double machine.
But my high school basketball coach encouraged me to try football. It was at a whole other school, and he just said "try it. If you don't like it, then fine, but you should try it."
So I started playing football, and the funny part was that I realized if I played football then I wouldn't have to do the conditioning test for basketball. So I stuck with football to avoid that conditioning test. Then at the end of my sophomore year, I realized that I'm actually good at this game, and I wasn't even trying. Let's see what I could do if I put my whole effort into it.
And then the letters started pouring in. From all over the country. And I still remember the gold envelope sitting on the table. Inside was a full scholarship to Purdue. And literally in that moment, I was shaking and sweating. I was nervous. But when I calmed down, I had that clarity that this is hope. This can change my life. This is an education that's paid for. From that point on, I knew that my destiny was to become a football player. I committed to Purdue.
But then I found out that I had a big problem. I wasn't on track academically. Up until that point, I wasn't thinking about college. I wasn't taking the core classes that I needed to be eligible. So in the summer after my junior year, I had to take summer classes and night classes just to get caught up. My senior year was tough, as I didn't get to take those electives like cooking and gym and just breeze through. I was in algebra classes with freshmen. I ended up taking regular classes, night classes and online classes just to qualify in that final year of high school.
It was so rough that I gained about 30 pounds off stress. I was in the house all day doing work non-stop and I was so stressed.
Even though I became academically eligible, I dug myself out of one hole and into another at Purdue. Because of that stress and not working out, I reported about 30 pounds overweight to fall camp. And I redshirted that first year. It was a year of extra running and lifting. It was a year of acclimation. And I was able to have a sit down with myself and focus on all the ways I needed to be better and needed to be focused.
I never looked back.
I got the opportunity to start during my redshirt-freshman season. I started my major in observational leadership and supervision and really fell in love with it.
I had the opportunity to leave for the NFL early as a second- or third-round guy, but I had made a promise to my mom that I was going to graduate. Everything that we did to this point was about education. Graduating was the main thing that I wanted to do.
When I went to the NFL, I knew that I wanted to be active in giving back to the community. So many kids are now going through the same things I went through. If I just walked around being quiet, most kids would give up. But if I tell them that I was this close to being in East Chicago for the rest of my life, then maybe that's just a little push for them when they need it most. That's what I needed: a little push.
I go back to East Chicago now and I go to my high school. I go to that community. I think that's important because they know me. I'm always around just as a normal guy. I don't want to be like some guy that shows up every once in a while with a big security team. I'm a regular guy. I'm never too big for anyone there.
I started a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) camp as a part of my summer football camps. We had some colleges help set up booths for it, and when I walked in and saw some of those older kids with their families just so engaged with the science, it blew my mind. It was a great feeling to watch that engagement.
I've taken kids to Purdue on trips, and it might be their first time on a college campus. I want them to see what they could have in front of them if they work hard and make the right choices. I talk to the athletes and the non-athletes, too. I want all of those kids to know that education can open any door for you that you want it to.
At the end of the day, no one can ever take an education away from you. And even as an NFL football player, life isn't easy. I have to lean in on the lessons I've learned throughout my life to continue to be successful as a player and as a person. I know that I have a responsibility to impart that to others.
I just want these kids to have a pathway. And hopefully it's a little straighter and a little easier than the one I traveled.