MAXWELL:  Against the odds, this jock wins on the academic field

8/20/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Ben Hanks, a 6-2, 220-pound All-SEC outside linebacker for the University of Florida, used to be seen as a certified, dumb black jock.

Now that he has graduated with a bachelor’s degree in recreation/parks and tourism in just over four years, everyone knows that Hanks, still black and still a jock, is not dumb at all. In fact, he may prove to be one of the smartest, hardest-working athletes ever to attend UF.

Hanks, 23, was born and reared in Miami’s Overtown, known as “The Hole,” one of the state’s poorest neighborhoods that has been one of the deadliest arenas of racial violence nationwide. His early childhood, like that of many others in Overtown, was a series of problems at home, narrow escapes on the streets and poor academic performances and failures in the classroom.

He always was athletically gifted. As a child, when he and his homeboys often used a coffee can or a milk jug stuffed with rags as their pigskin, he dreamed of playing college and professional football. Few people, including his uncle, Sheldon Hanks, the defensive coordinator at Miami High, believed that Hanks would finish high school, let alone attend a prestigious university.

“When he first got to Miami High in ninth grade, he was ineligible to play football from his grades in junior high,” Sheldon Hanks told the Miami Herald. “He got eligible after that but didn’t get the message about hitting the books hard until the beginning of his senior year when it looked like he had a shot at getting a scholarship.”

But the real turning point came a year earlier, when his relationship with his mother, who gave birth to him when she was 15, began to disintegrate. At that time, the family _ Hanks, five other siblings, his mother and her parents _ lived in a two-bedroom apartment. This also was the time when the lure of the streets was at its peak, threatening to destroy the boy’s dreams.

“He was steering down the wrong track and he didn’t want to listen to me anymore,” Hanks’ mother told the Herald. “One day he wanted to do something and I wouldn’t let him and he told me he was running away.”

Several black adults intervened on his behalf. Sheldon Hanks had the most influence, though, establishing his troubled nephew in an apartment a block from the mother’s home. After the move, no one had any more serious problems with Hanks. Being on his own apparently made all the difference. The next term, after his exploits on the football field grabbed headlines and after the University of Florida offered him a full scholarship, Hanks figured out that life does exist beyond Overtown after all.

Now, he was hitting the books seriously. To get a scholarship to UF, he had to meet the terms of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Proposition 48, requiring a 2.0 grade-point average in 11 core courses and a 700 on the Scholastic Assessment Test. Although he had a 2.0 GPA, Hanks scored too low on the SAT. As a result, UF withdrew the scholarship offer.

Determined to succeed, he retook the SAT, making 700 on the seventh try. “I never really heard it directly,” Hanks told the Herald, “but I heard that people said I probably cheated on the SAT, that I wouldn’t succeed, things like that. Basically, they just wanted to call me a dummy.”

Dummy or not, Hanks and the coaching staff persuaded university President John Lombardi to admit Hanks conditionally. Because his high school courses were mostly no-brainers, Lombardi redshirted Hanks and demanded that he attain a 2.3 GPA in regular courses during his freshman year. He earned higher than a 2.3. If he had not, back to the streets of “The Hole” he would have gone.

Coach Steve Spurrier, who won the 1966 Heisman Trophy wearing jersey No. 11, liked Hanks from the beginning. After Spurrier won the Heisman, the university retired his jersey. But to further encourage Hanks, Spurrier took No. 11 out of mothballs and let his new linebacker wear it. Now, Hanks worked overtime both on and off the field.

Coincidentally, during the first term of his sophomore year, a clinical psychologist determined that Hanks had a learning disorder _ perhaps accounting for some of his earlier problems in class.

What did Hanks do?

He refused to play the victim or feel sorry for himself. “I spent a lot of my free time studying in the academic center, usually after practice between 8 and 12, and if I didn’t finish what I needed to do then I would go there in the morning,” he said in the Gainesville Sun. “I wanted to show these people that I can achieve.”

On Aug. 12, Ben Hanks graduated from the University of Florida with a 2.4 GPA _ becoming the first in his family to get a college degree. According to the Sun, he also is one of two players to receive the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics Award for 1995. The award honors players who beat academic problems.

After crossing the stage and picking up his degree, Hanks reflected on the meaning of his success: “As a society, they judge people too much by what they’ve done in the past and not what they’re capable of doing if they are given a chance. I proved a lot of people wrong. Not only did I do what was expected of me, I turned some heads and showed what can happen if given the chance to achieve. Since people didn’t think I would achieve in the classroom and I did, regardless if I play pro ball, getting my degree is the biggest thing to happen to me in my life.”

This fall, Hanks will play his fifth year with the Fightin’ Gators as a graduate student. His immediate goal? He wants to become certified as a teacher. And, of course, National Football League teams are following his every tackle, knocked-down pass and interception.

Is Hanks’ achievement significant? Here is what his mother told the Herald: “Last Saturday his friends threw him a big graduation party. People in Overtown are still talking about it. They said it was the party of the decade . . . It was just real special.”

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.