The University of Texas at Austin- What Starts Here Changes the World
Services Navigation


A Game Plan for Life: Longhorn student-athletes steer youth in right direction through unique program


There’s no denying the power of the press.  Through the media, we worship the rich, the powerful, the talented and the attractive.  For better or worse, these manufactured heroes are portrayed as role models.  And while their public deeds and misdeeds are showcased on every screen and every front page, rarely do we hear about positive influences they have on others.

But this is one of those stories, and it’s happening right here in Austin.

Will Matthews talks with students at Pearce Middle School

Will Matthews talks with students at Pearce Middle School.

In an effort to reach out to adolescents in at-risk schools, student-athletes from The University of Texas at Austin are acting as mentors in a new program unique among universities in the Big 12 Conference. The Longhorn Leaders program, a collaboration among the university, the Greater Austin Crime Commission, the Austin Independent School District (AISD) and the Austin Police Department, debuted in fall 2003.

The program is the brainchild of Dr. Michael Lauderdale, professor of social work. When Fred Ligarde, former FBI agent and one of the founding directors of the Greater Austin Crime Commission, approached Lauderdale, he requested the university’s help in working with AISD middle school children who are at risk.

Rather than proposing a one-time community outreach project, Lauderdale recognized the need to create a program based on personal, lasting relationships that would provide long-term effects for the children. To achieve this, he developed an upper-division social work course designed specifically for student-athletes, both male and female.

“The Greater Austin Crime Commission wanted to reach out to adolescents at a crucial time in their lives, when life-altering decisions are too often based on negative influences such as drugs, gangs, sex and peer pressure,” said Lauderdale. “It’s a time in their lives when few adults can penetrate the mindsets of young teens.”

However, both Lauderdale and Ligarde believe the adolescents will listen and respond to these highly recognized student-athletes. And that the student-athletes stories will resonate in the minds and actions of these young teens.

Alexis GarciaAlexis Garcia, Longhorn softball first baseman, is soft-spoken, reserved  and feminine.  Yet her words—like her talent on the field—are self-assured, confident and precise.

Having grown up in Covina, Calif., just outside of Los Angeles, Garcia lived in a suburb where problems blossomed from the “haves,” rather than the “have nots.”

When asked about her school experience, she reflected on the two biggest issues that plagued her peers and schoolmates—teen pregnancy and drugs.

Continue the full story on Alexis.

“At these early ages you already hear the excuses beginning to build. The kids know they are disadvantaged and they, early on, rely on this to excuse their bad behaviors,” Ligarde said. “They need role models—such as these athletes—to show them there are no excuses. When they hear that the athletes had the same hard luck stories, yet went on to achieve their dreams, the kids think twice about decisions they’re making and about placing blame. More than anything, this program is about convincing the students to make the right choices.”

And that message is important to the other partner in the program, the Austin Police Department.

Each time the athletes visit the schools they are accompanied by members of the Austin Police Department. They are not there to enforce anything other than a strengthened relationship with the kids. The officers attending are those assigned to the neighborhoods where the kids live, according to Ligarde.

“Their purpose is to convince the middle schoolers that they are not ‘the enemy,’ but rather a source the teens can turn to if they need help,” Ligarde said. Often children have problems with parents, family members and friends. They have no one to confide in, and they end up feeling helpless and isolated. The officers want the kids to understand that their role is not just to enforce the law but to provide protection and assistance.”

Lauderdale ensures that the student-athletes also provide more than just an authoritative voice.

The Longhorn Leaders course requirements include readings and lectures on adolescent development, peer pressures and counseling techniques. Athletes are required to familiarize themselves with issues surrounding adolescent interpersonal communication. Throughout the semester, hours are dedicated to creating video presentations, listening to other presentations, learning about leadership skills, visiting Austin middle schools and gaining a sense of what it means to be a role model.

“Many of our athletes are surprised by what they are getting out of this program,” said Brian Davis, associate director in men’s athletics. “Sure, they can walk into McDonald’s and have people recognize them and ask for their autographs. But this is the first time some of them really understand what it means to be a role model. And it’s the first time they were talking about their lives and about what leadership means. Not their stats. Not their game. But their own personal stories of how they got to where they are today.”

Derrick JohnsonAt an imposing 6 feet 4 inches and 235 pounds, UT linebacker Derrick Johnson commands attention. 

But don’t let appearances fool you. He’s a gentle giant whose words reflect a man of introspection and thoughtfulness.

At least off the field, that is. 

Johnson, the youngest of four children, moved from Waco to Austin to attend The University of Texas at Austin. When he was 3 years old his parents divorced and his mother raised him and his three older siblings.

Continue the full story on Derrick.

“It’s a great feeling to know that we can influence younger generations,” said UT All-American linebacker Derrick Johnson. “Many of the students know us from television, so they get real excited and give us their undivided attention. Now they also know us for our leadership. And it’s good to have that influence.”

Four middle schools, chosen by the Austin Independent School District, participated during the 2003-2004 academic year. The schools—Martin, Pearce, Bedicheck and Webb—were chosen for their high populations of at-risk children.

“The program was extremely well-received in the schools,” said Robert Mendoza, Partners in Education representative in the AISD. “We had a few athletes scheduled to speak at Parents’ Night at Pearce Middle School. They normally have about 30-35 parents show up. Four hundred showed up that night.

“This was a tremendous benefit we hadn’t expected. Anything that will make parents become more involved in their children’s lives is extremely valuable.”

During fall 2003, the university athletes visited each middle school twice. During spring 2004, Lauderdale increased the number of visits to five to build upon the growing relationships between the athletes and the students. During each session the students watched videos and heard personal accounts of the athletes’ lives. They learned about the hardships, temptations and dilemmas these young adults had to overcome to achieve their dreams of getting into college. And they learned that each and every one of these “famous faces” was once just like them—young teens with difficult decisions to make about their futures and about their lives.

Lily Garcia, counselor at Bedicheck Middle School, was skeptical at first.

“I was doubtful that these popular athletes could have a significant effect on our kids. I figured our students wouldn’t relate to their stories.

“I was wrong. They presented themselves as ordinary people—not athletes. They shared stories of hardships and pain. It had an extremely positive impact on our students. I saw immediate reactions to the presentations and, during the past year, long-term effects on behaviors and attitudes.”

The behaviors the kids are emulating resonated in the words of almost every athlete. Words such as respect, value, self-confidence and integrity.

Derrick Johnson meets with students at Pearce Middle School

Derrick Johnson meets with students at Pearce Middle School.

“I told them that one of the major contributors for me, a black male, making it out of the ‘hood and into college was respect. Respect for your family, your parents, your guardians and your elders—always. No matter what,” said Longhorn running back Selvin Young.

The fact that college athletes deliver these messages is a crucial factor in the success of the program, according to Lauderdale.

“The athletes speak this message not as authorities but as preferred reference groups,” he said. “If the chief of police was to talk to them, or the mayor, or the UT president, they likely wouldn’t listen. But when it comes to athletes, these guys are their heroes. And they DO listen.”

It’s not always easy.

“Both the athletes and the students we visited learned valuable lessons we didn’t foresee going into this program,” said Lauderdale.

“During football season we lost to Oklahoma, and our athletes were extremely despondent. I knew they were going to have a difficult time, and I asked a number of the football players if they could handle delivering their upcoming presentations. They were adamant that they didn’t want to let the seventh-graders down, so they went on with the presentations. Both our athletes and the middle-schoolers in attendance learned the important lesson of overcoming disappointment and fulfilling responsibilities.”

According to the responses received about the program, the students learned more than a few valuable lessons from the experience. When asked to write about what they learned from their visits with the athletes the phrases “to live your own life and make your own decisions,” “to work hard at your goals” and “to think about the future when you make choices” appeared dozens of times. Numerous students wrote they were amazed the athletes were surprisingly like them and that these sports stars had overcome the same obstacles and peer pressures they, themselves, were facing. Many wrote that the program, referred to as “training” by some, changed their lives.

“I don’t have to be perfect, but I have to make the right decisions to be a good person, and most of all a successful person, “ wrote one seventh grader. “Just by talking to us, they changed my opinion and my future. I am very thankful.”

Amy Maverick Crossette

Photos: Chris Carson

Alexis Garcia

Alexis Garcia, Longhorn softball first baseman, is soft-spoken, reserved  and feminine.  Yet her words—like her talent on the field—are self-assured, confident and precise.

Having grown up in Covina, Calif., just outside of Los Angeles, Garcia lived in a suburb where problems blossomed from the “haves,” rather than the “have nots.”

Alexis Garcia rounds a base during a softball game

When asked about her school experience, she reflected on the two biggest issues that plagued her peers and schoolmates—teen pregnancy and drugs.

“I grew up in an area where there were a number of wealthy students,” she said.  “Many of them had the means to buy drugs. It was a big problem in our school, along with teen pregnancy.

“One of my best friends got pregnant at age 14.  She began to hang out with a bad group of kids, and when she found out she was pregnant all her ‘new-found’ friends deserted her.  She had to rely on old friends to help her through the pregnancy.”

Alexis grew up in a household where both parents were members of the Los Angeles Police Department.  While her parents were involved in her life and helped guide her to make the right choices, she learned a valuable lesson that is missing in many kids’ lives. 

“When we went to the schools and did our presentations, the kids were totally respectful of the athletes and the other speakers, but when the policemen started talking, the kids ignored them and were acting up,” she said.

“I stood up and reminded them that these officers were there to protect them and to help watch over them,” she said.  “It’s sad that they’ve learned to disrespect police officers and authority in general. “

Did she think the Longhorn Leaders program had any effect on the kids?

“Just the fact that we cared enough to show up and talk to them obviously made a big difference to the kids,” she said.  “That’s what they need the most at this time in their lives.  Just for someone to show they care.”

Derrick Johnson

At an imposing 6 feet 4 inches and 235 pounds, UT linebacker Derrick Johnson commands attention. 

But don’t let appearances fool you. He’s a gentle giant whose words reflect a man of introspection and thoughtfulness.

At least off the field, that is. 

Derrick Johnson on the field during a Longhorns football game

Johnson, the youngest of four children, moved from Waco to Austin to attend The University of Texas at Austin. When he was 3 years old his parents divorced and his mother raised him and his three older siblings.

A strict disciplinarian, she taught Johnson values such as self-respect, good study habits and responsibility. Her legacy lives on not only through her own children, but through the hundreds of children she taught, mentored and cared for during her 33 years as a sixth-grade-teacher.

“My mother was very involved in my life and taught at the school I went to,” said Johnson.  “I learned from her that if you want to be successful, you have to separate yourself and have a plan and a sense of direction in life.

“She knew that I would do the right thing when she was around. However, she made sure that I learned to do the right thing even when she wasn’t around. There’s a crucial difference in those two things.”

While his mother played a vital role in his success, so did Johnson’s extended family.

“My mother was from Palestine, Texas, and is one of 21 kids. Family has always been extremely important to me.  They have always been my support system.”

When asked if he thought the Longhorn Leaders program would make a difference,  he paused a moment for reflection.

“It’s automatically assumed that everyone knows the difference between right and wrong.  But, that’s not necessarily true,” said Johnson.  “If you do a lot of bad things, your perceptions of right and wrong change.  You begin to have a different concept of what’s acceptable and what isn’t.  It’s our job to help kids recognize the difference.”

Office of Public Affairs
P.O. Box Z
Austin, Texas
78713-7509

512-471-3151
Fax 512-471-5812


  Updated 2014 October 13
  Comments to utopa@www.utexas.edu