By GEOFF FOX
The joy in Travis Blanks’ voice was obvious.
He had recently returned from scenic Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where he went on a honeymoon with his new wife and college sweetheart, Chandler. The couple married on June 25, 2016.
Back home in Clemson, South Carolina, he spoke as he took a lunch break from his new job as a mortgage loan officer at Oconee Federal Bank, where some customers recognize him instantly.
Less than a year earlier, Blanks was a star linebacker for the University of Clemson Tigers football team that made it to the national championship game, where it lost to Alabama, 45-40, in an instant classic.
Although Blanks had always dreamed of playing in the NFL, the 22-year-old said he is perfectly content.
“It was tough not realizing my dream like I wanted to, but I have a great job; I have a degree and I met my wife,” he said. “I’m not really walking around with any disappointments.”
Blanks’ positive outlook has always been an asset. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he was considered too small to be an impact player for Clemson, but he proved critics wrong.
In his senior year, he registered 43 total tackles, made several stops against rival Florida State University and played with fiery determination in the championship contest. He accomplished that after sitting out his junior year with a knee injury.
While Blanks’ personal drive has never been in question, he has had help along the way.
Since the closest neighborhood high school had low graduation rates and a floundering sports program, Hutto, a single mother of four, pursued the scholarship. Her application was accepted and Blanks spent his high school years at North Florida Christian.
The school became something of a haven for Blanks, whose father was in prison during his time there.
“It’s a Christian environment,” Hutto said. “They teach kids about the Bible and religion, and it’s a very tight-knit group of people. They’re very supportive. It’s smaller than a regular public school, so we thought it would be fitting for him.
“He was able to meet some very good people who helped shape his future.”
Pastor Randy Ray, who has been at North Florida Christian for about 25 years, was one of those people.
“Travis is one of the most exemplary students we’ve had; he’s in the Top Five,” Ray said. “First of all, he was a good citizen. You’re not a good student unless you’re a good citizen. He was a great athlete and all kinds of things, but we’ve had a lot of great athletes.
“He was a part of our community. He loved it here, and we loved him. He was serious about what he did, but he didn’t take himself too seriously. He had a gift of doing things well, but he could laugh at himself if things didn’t go perfectly.
“Step Up allowed him to be a part of our community,” Ray said.
When Blanks earned a football scholarship to Clemson, the family – including an older sister and two younger brothers – moved to South Carolina to be near him.
A commercial insurance agent with BB&T, Hutto has since relocated to Fort Myers and is planning to apply again for Florida Tax Credit Scholarships for her 15-year-old twin son and daughter.
While Blanks said he has left the gridiron behind, he is realizing other dreams.
His recent wedding to Chandler, Hutto said, “was beautiful.”
“They’ve been together three strong years, during the most difficult times of their lives – at college,” she said. “It was a gorgeous time for two gorgeous people.”
Blanks also is settling nicely into his new career.
“No matter what kind of job you get, they’re going to have to train you to do what they want you to do – even if I had a finance degree,” he said. “I know how to interact and talk to people, and meet their needs.
“I’m just trying to provide for my wife, but I love my job. We’re a community bank, so I get to have a personal relationship with my customers. I’m dealing with people, not just sitting around in a back office somewhere.”
By GEOFF FOX
Darius Cook wants to someday become an entrepreneur.
He isn’t sure yet what type of business he wants to run, but the outgoing recent graduate of Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando said he feels confident that his communications skills will be used.
Cook, 18, is working as a cashier at Publix, while he waits to start classes at Valencia College in August. After completing two years at Valencia, he plans to transfer to the University of Central Florida in Orlando. The costs will be covered, in part, by a tuition-reimbursement program at Publix.
His mother, Amy Cook, takes pride in her oldest son’s bright prospects. In 2008, as Darius prepared to enter fifth grade, the single mother of four worried he wasn’t getting a quality education at their neighborhood school.
“It was the worst of the worst,” she said. “My daughter went there, so I was kind of involved, but the environment and the other kids there were not nice kids. And there was no personalized attention. There was no art and music, just math and reading, and tutoring to pass the FCAT.”
At the day care center where her youngest children stayed, administrators told Cook about Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The program helps expand educational opportunities for lower-income children.
Cook was skeptical. She said she applied for the scholarship in 2008, mostly so the day care workers would stop “pushing me to sign up for it.”
She is now thankful for their perseverance.
“It wasn’t difficult; it was too good to be true,” said Cook, who works as a server at a local deli. “I didn’t think it was going to happen.”
Thanks to the scholarship, Darius was enrolled at Saint Andrew Catholic School, a kindergarten through eighth grade school in south Orlando.
“It’s literally in my backyard. I mean, we can literally jump the fence to get there,” Cook said. “And it is a (National) Blue Ribbon school. When Darius started going to Saint Andrew, I noticed how much of a better education he got than my (older) daughter. It’s a huge difference, especially among their peers. There’s no bullying. It’s friendly and a nice environment.”
Darius said the differences between Saint Andrew and the public school were obvious from Day One.
“It’s a more controlled learning environment,” he said. “The classes are smaller and the teachers are a lot more available to help you. Multiple times, I went in earlier in the morning and my math teacher came in early to tutor me, just because I asked her to.
“To this day, I feel close enough to go in and talk with them.”
Besides excelling in the classroom at Saint Andrew, Darius participated in soccer, volleyball, basketball and track.
“Darius was always a gifted communicator and leader in his class,” said Andy Sojourner, assistant principal at Saint Andrew. “I’ve seen him a few times since he graduated and gone onto the public high school. He talks about how much he valued his time here and wants to be involved in alumni (groups) in a leadership capacity.”
While Dr. Phillips High is a public school, Cook said that Saint Andrew helped Darius make a smooth transition.
“They really work on your individual needs,” she said. “The school’s eighth-grade class was small – 30 kids. Some of them went to another private high school. Darius and four other kids went to Dr. Phillips, and (Saint Andrew) did a very good job of preparing them.”
Cook’s youngest sons, A.J., 13, and Nicolas, 8, now attend Saint Andrew, thanks again to Step Up and the scholarship program.
According to Sojourner, A.J. is also a gifted student-athlete.
“He balances (sports and academics) really well,” Sojourner said. “Nicolas is a great young man. Their family is just very involved in the community. They’re always at our fundraisers and volunteering for activities at the school.”
Nowadays, when he isn’t working or studying, Darius said he most enjoys attending a local ping-pong club, where he takes lessons and competes against high-level players.
While his future aspirations are formulating, he has a general idea that his communications talents will come into play.
“At a young age it was cultivated that I had good skills in talking to people and handling situations,” he said. “I’ll find what’s best for me, based on my skill set.”
Geoff Fox is always looking to tell a great story about our scholarship programs. Have Step Up students, partner school, therapist, teacher or other related news you to see a story about? Please reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.