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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.

Adelante! Why a former Step Up scholar completed his UF degree during rookie season in NFL

BY ROGER MOONEY

Where to begin with CJ Henderson?

That the former Step Up For Students scholar used his time wisely at Christopher Columbus High in Miami and earned a football scholarship to the University of Florida?

That he turned three seasons with the Florida Gators into an NFL career, and in 2020 was drafted ninth overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars?

CJ Henderson (23) makes a tackle against Houston during the Jaguars first game of the season. (Photo courtesy of the Jacksonville Jaguars)

That he continued his coursework during his rookie season and graduated last May from Florida with his class?

That in May he donated $250,000 to the new training facility at Columbus?

CJ Henderson’s senior picture at Christopher Columbus High in Miami.

Each of those are noteworthy on their own. Added together, they help tell the story of a student/athlete who lives by the motto used by those associated with Columbus: Adelante! It is Spanish for “forward” or “onward.”

CJ moves forward with his goals. That’s why he received a scholarship to play cornerback at a major university and why he was a top-10 pick by an NFL team. He made that goal when he was young.

“CJ had the ambition to go to the NFL since kindergarten, first grade,” his dad, Chris, said. “He used to write that in his journal.”

It’s also why CJ, who was traded Sept. 27 to the Carolina Panthers, has a degree in education science and why he chose to give back to his alma mater.

It’s called C-Pride, said Xzavier Henderson, CJ’s younger brother who is a sophomore wide receiver at Florida.

“We hold ourselves to a standard,” Xzavier said. “C-Pride is having pride in the alumni base, athletics, academics, having pride in everything you do in high school.”

Columbus High, CJ said during a video announcing his donation to the school, taught him the discipline needed to succeed at a university like Florida. That’s the reason Chris wanted his son to attend a private high school and why CJ chose Columbus, a Catholic school. The campus has a college-like vibe, the athletic program is among the best in the state and the academics are demanding.

Xzavier Henderson’s senior picture at Christopher Columbus High in Miami.

“They have rules to keep you in line, and those same rules you have to apply to yourself in college,” Chris said.

Chris had the same NFL dreams as CJ. After a standout football career at his neighborhood high school in Miami, Chris attended the University of Cincinnati on a football scholarship. Looking back, Chris said he wasn’t prepared for the academic side of being a college football player. He left Cincinnati, attended two more colleges, and never graduated.

Chris and his wife, Prudence, wanted their sons to have the best chance at succeeding in college. They began researching the private high schools in the Miami area when CJ was in the eighth grade. That’s when they learned about the private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

“That really helped,” Chris said, “because without that, it’s hard to say if we would have made it through all those years.”

Xzavier received the same scholarship and followed CJ to Columbus.

“They represent Step Up and what it’s all about,” Columbus Principal David Pugh said. “I think they got the most out of what Step Up is meant to do, provide students like CJ and Xzavier with another option, and they made the most of it.”

The jump from high school classwork to college is demanding, but the four years at Columbus left CJ and Xzavier better prepared for what awaited them at Florida.

“That was the preparation I was looking for,” Chris said. “To thrive in college, you really need to be disciplined (in class) to give you a push. Going to play football sounds fun and easy, but going to Florida, that’s tough. CJ took advantage of his resources and made it happen.”

And he graduated with his class despite spending what would have been his senior year in the NFL. CJ managed to mix in virtual classes to finish his degree while navigating life as an NFL rookie.

“That was an accomplishment I wanted to achieve,” Henderson told floridagators.com. “I just wanted to get it out of the way rather than wait until later and come back and do it.”

Tony Meacham, assistant director for academic services at Florida’s University Athletic Association, told floridagators.com that he could not remember a football player who continued to work toward his degree during his first year in the NFL. Most wait until at least the end of their rookie season before resuming their education.

“To his credit, he was willing to put in the work besides the work he was putting in on the field,” Meachum said. “You think someone in his position would be glued to football, but he was doing both. It was very impressive for someone to do that in his position.”

Said Pugh, “I wouldn’t expect anything less. It just shows you the level of commitment that a guy like CJ makes. He made that commitment to Christopher Columbus High School, and he made that commitment to the University of Florida.”

Xzavier Henderson warming up before Florida’s game against USF on Sept. 11 in Tampa. (Photo courtesy of University Athletic Association)

The Hendersons wanted all their children to graduate from college. CJ’s sister, Daija, graduated last spring from Florida A&M and is pursuing a master’s degree while working as a dental assistant. Xzavier was named to the Southeastern Conference First-Year Honor Role as a freshman.

“We take our academics seriously,” Xzavier said. “We want to be champions in everything we do.”

Like CJ, Xzavier occasionally returns to Columbus to work out and spend time with students. He can now work out in the facility that bears his family’s name – the Henderson Family Athletic Training Center. The 2,000 square foot building provides the school’s athletes with better evaluation, treatment and rehabilitation of injuries.

“CJ and Xzavier are role models,” Pugh said. “Other students would want to emulate what they do, because they do it the right way.”

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

Football? Academics? Scholarship student chooses both at Dartmouth

By JEFF BARLIS

Robert Crockett III is engaged in hand-to-hand combat with his uncooperative red-and-white striped necktie as a photographer sets him up for the next shot.

On a bright, breezy spring day at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, teachers and fellow students say hi as they walk past without an ounce of surprise to see the affable senior representing the school. With his close-cropped hair and perfect smile, Robert is a star on campus.

Getting accepted to Dartmouth College has only added to the mystique.

“We need to buy him a lifetime supply of school sweatshirts to have him be the face of a Columbus alumnus,” said English teacher Bob Linfors. “He’s a success. I don’t know how much credit we should get for molding him, but he’s somebody to put on our posters.”

Robert Crockett III is headed to Dartmouth College to play football and study pre-med.

Robert Crockett III is headed to Dartmouth College to play football and study pre-med.

When Robert came to Columbus for ninth grade, it was his third school in three years. He excelled at a K-8 magnet school through seventh grade, but mom Stacy Preston, who also grew up in Miami, wanted Robert to get the big neighborhood school experience for eighth grade. It turned out to be too easy.

She knew about Columbus, where a nephew had gone years prior, but it came with a daunting price tag. Then a friend whose son went to Columbus told her about the Step Up For Students scholarship, which helps lower-income families with tuition.

Stacy has worked in HR at the University of Miami for 11 years. She’s separated from husband Robert Crockett Jr., who works for a moving company. Neither went to college after high school, but Stacy is now just four credits shy of getting her bachelor’s degree.

She raised Robert with an expectation of college but said “it hasn’t been common in our family. That’s what got me back to school. I couldn’t push my kids and not be an example.”

Stacy didn’t know how Robert would do in an elite private school, but she didn’t need to worry. According to Columbus principal David Pugh, Robert excelled at the school from day one and is taking five Honors and two Advanced Placement courses as a senior.

“Sometimes it can be a difficult transition to a competitive college preparatory school, and he’s met all of our expectations,” Pugh said. “For four years, Robert has worn his uniform impeccably.”

Robert wears another uniform as captain of the football team.

Growing up in this football-crazed city, Robert fell in love with the sport at age four. He put on his 11-year-old brother’s helmet and pads and ran around his house and yard yelling, “Hut! Hut!”

“The helmet was about to take him over, the pads were way too big,” Stacy recalled. “It was super cute. But that’s him. He’s been at this a long time.”

Dad was the football parent who coached pee wee leagues. Mom was the school parent who demanded that academics come first. She’d seen other parents put sports first and wasn’t having it.

Today, Stacy simultaneously beams and deflects credit when she talks about Dartmouth. From an early age, she guided Robert, the second of her three boys. But he didn’t need much pushing.

“He saw how I was with his older brother,” she said. “You came in, sat down, got a snack and did your homework. As a little kid, Robert would want to do homework, too, and he wasn’t even in school. We would have to sit him at the table with his older brother and give him pencil and paper, and he couldn’t even spell his name yet. That’s just been him from the very beginning. He was a different kid.”

The kind who could learn from others’ mistakes.

Early on, it was no TV or going outside when older brother De’vante Davis didn’t bring home good grades.

Later, it was the threat of losing football privileges.

“I just looked at someone doing bad and said, ‘I don’t want to be like that,’ ” he said. “I think about my parents and football. If I mess up that’s all over with. Colleges wouldn’t be interested. I don’t want to be that kid that messes up and gets everything taken away because I did something stupid.”

Before his senior year, Robert’s inner circle was mostly football friends, some of whom he’s known since pee wee ball. Some are big-time college football recruits, All-Americans who chose football-factory colleges like Alabama, Florida and Miami. Others went down the wrong road, but he’s lost touch with them.

Robert dreams his road will lead to a shot at the NFL. But he has another dream – becoming a surgeon – and he knows pre-med classes at Dartmouth will be more important than any game.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet that I’m going to an Ivy League school,” he said with an arched eyebrow and amused smile. “I don’t puff out my chest. I’m just staying focused, because me getting there and me graduating from there are two different things. I have to do everything I need to do first.”

About Christopher Columbus High School

Established by the Archdiocese of Miami in 1958, Columbus is one of 14 Catholic schools in the U.S. ministered by the Marist Brothers and the only one in the southeast. Within the Marist tradition, the school emphasizes personal development and community service in addition to a college prep curriculum that includes extensive AP and dual-enrollment classes. More than half of the staff hold advanced degrees. Accredited by AdvancEd and a member of the National Catholic Educational Association, the school annually administers the SAT and ACT. There are 1,688 students, including 250 on Step Up scholarships. Tuition is $10,700 a year. Financial assistance is available for qualified families, but each family must contribute something toward their tuition.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org