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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.

His cleats, our cause

By ROGER MOONEY

Former University of Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel is creating some buzz for Step Up For Students this month during the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats campaign.

Driskel, a member of the Denver Broncos, had Step Up’s logo emblazoned on a pair of his cleats in support of the nonprofit scholarship funding organization based in Florida.

Driskel, who grew up in Oviedo, Florida, partnered with Step Up over the summer in an effort to combat racial inequity.

“That’s why I support education choice,” Driskel wrote in an op-ed piece that ran in The Gainesville Sun in August. “Education can be one of the great equalizers in society, and equalizing opportunities is fundamental to finding the learning environment that works best for each child.”

My Cause My Cleats was started by the NFL players in 2016. They showcase foundations or nonprofit organizations they support by having logos and slogans on their cleats during this annual event. The cleats are auctioned off with the proceeds to benefit the players’ selected charities.

All proceeds from the auction of Driskel’s cleats will go directly to Step Up. They are available at Denver Broncos Charities. The auction began Dec. 1 and ends Dec. 18.

“We are honored that Jeff chose to support Step Up in our mission of creating equal education opportunity for children,” said Lesley Searcy, Step Up’s Chief External Relations Officer.”With 150,000 Step Up scholars, I think the Broncos just got a lot more fans!”

The Broncos players will wear their personalized cleats during Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Driskel will support Step Up on his social media platforms and other partnership initiatives.

“I’m a quarterback, so I naturally believe in being aggressive and going on the offensive,” Driskel wrote. “On the field, you need as many options as possible to succeed in any situation. Similarly, education choice attacks inequality by providing parents with multiple ways to find the setting that best meets their children’s needs.”

Step Up manages five scholarships for pre-K-through-12 schoolchildren. Two are income-based: the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship. The Gardiner Scholarship serves children with certain special needs. The Hope Scholarship is for schoolchildren who are bullied in public schools. The Reading Scholarship Account is for public schoolchildren grades three through five who have trouble reading.

Driskel played four seasons at the University of Florida before finishing his career as a graduate transfer at Louisiana Tech. A sixth-round draft pick in 2016 by the San Francisco 49ers, he has played for the Cincinnati Bengals and the Detroit Lions before joining the Broncos last March.

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