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Education choice scholarship leads Step Up student-athlete to U.S. Naval Academy

BY ROGER MOONEY

Denim Edwards slid to his knees as he caught the ball in the end zone, scoring a touchdown on what would be his last play of his high school football career.

It came late in Christopher Columbus High’s loss at Venice High during the state semifinals earlier this month. Moments later, Denim, a senior, stood alone on the field as his teammates trudged toward the locker room.

He stared into the distance.

What’s next?

“Manhood,” said Denim’s dad, Terence Edwards.

The next time Denim, a 5-foot-7, 190-pound running back with breakaway speed, touches a football will be for the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island. He will attend the school next year as he prepares for life at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Denim Edwards signs a national letter of intent to attend the U.S Naval Academy while his mother, Michelle Witherspoon, watches.

Denim is about to enter a world of 5:30 a.m. alarms, endless salutes, “Yes, Sir,” and “No, Sir,” demanding academic workloads and “Beat Army!”

It’s a world not suited for everyone.

Denim can’t wait.

“It’s a brotherhood,” he said, “like the school I attend now.”

Denim entered Columbus in Miami as a sophomore during the 2019-20 school year. He attends the all-male Catholic high school on a Family Empowerment Scholarship. Managed by Step Up For Students, the FES funds K-12 education choice for students from low- and middle-income families.

“I think it’s an excellent scholarship program,” said Denim’s mother, Michelle Witherspoon. “What I really like about it is, most scholarships you apply for are low-income based. The middle class, you tend to have to pay for everything. The Step Up scholarships provides opportunities for middle income families who need help.”

Michelle has a Ph.D. in leadership in education and is an assistant professor of communications at Miami Dade College. Terence drove a fuel truck for a construction company when he suffered a near-fatal heart attack one morning in 2016. As a result, he has a permanent defibrillator inserted in his chest and cannot work.

Denim’s parents were looking for a high school with high academic standards that would prepare their son for college when they settled on Columbus. That the school excels in athletics – especially football – was a plus.

“If we didn’t have (the scholarship),” Terence said, “we wouldn’t have been here. Denim was able to accomplish what he needed to accomplish as far as his education.”

Columbus Principal David Pugh said from the moment he first stepped on campus, Denim exhibited the qualities the school looks to instill in every student.

“In the classroom, in the hallways, on the field, he leads by example,” Pugh said. “He’s a respectful young man. He does everything right.”

Columbus used “We Lead” as the marketing slogan for this school year. Denim, who has been a captain on the football team during his two seasons, was chosen as one of the campaign’s student ambassadors.

“There couldn’t be anyone better than Denim to lead us in our advertising,” Pugh said.

The term leader is used often when people talk about Denim. He’s proud of that label. He shares his insights into the position with the younger running backs in the program, coaching them on how to run with the ball. How to use their vision. When to cut. When to stiff-arm a tackler.

“I feel I was born to lead because I am very vocal,” he said. “I love all my teammates. I want to be there for all of them.”

That trait carries to his life off the field. Denim is part of a group that is forming a club for the Black students at Columbus, the first of its kind at the school. He is an honor roll student who arrived on campus each day at 5:30 a.m. during football season so he would be on time for practice, which began at 6 a.m. He plans to serve as an assistant track coach this spring.

All students at Columbus are required to volunteer in the community. Denim’s volunteer work goes a step further. He is a member of the Kudos Youth Group, sponsored by the National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, his mom’s sorority.

Denim plans to represent this uniform with the same dedication, discipline and leadership as he displayed at Columbus High.

For that, Denim volunteers at a food pantry, works with a domestic violence awareness campaign, and helps collect trash after youth football games. He wrote letters to grandparents in the neighborhood for Grandparents Day and wrote letters to military veterans for Veterans Day.

His message to the veterans was simple: “Thank you for fighting for our country. I appreciate that so much. You didn’t have to. You put your life on the line for the country.”

Denim could add that he’s a future Midshipman since he officially committed to Navy on Dec. 15, which was the first day high school seniors could sign a letter of intent to attend a college and play a sport.

His interest in Navy began last year when the Navy coaches showed an interest in him. Last July, Denim and his parents visited the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, Navy and Wake Forest University. He decided on Navy during that visit. It helped that he has an idea of what to expect from two former teammates who are on the football team.

Also, Navy reminded him of Columbus.

“They say when you’re an alumni of Columbus, you’re always going to be a part of that scene. You’re always going to go back there. You get relationships out of it, relationships you don’t get at any other school,” he said.

Terence gave his son a long, emotional embrace after that final football game. He talked about what Denim accomplished at Columbus and what he endured.

And there is this: Denim almost lost his father when Terence had the heart attack. He almost lost him again when Terence was hospitalized late in 2019 with an aorta dissection. No one knew at the time that Terence had contracted the virus that would become known as COVID-19.

“He stood tall. He made it through. I’m proud of him,” Terence said.

It’s that toughness, plus his academic prowess, plus his desire to be a leader, that should serve Denim well at Navy. Or, as his dad said, manhood.

“This isn’t the end,” Terence said after the final game. “This is a beginning. He has another life to start.”

A life made possible with the help of an education choice scholarship.

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

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