By Mark F. Gray, AFRO Staff Writer, [email protected]
The toughest part of University of Georgia football prospect Nakobe Dean’s moment to make African American sports history was navigating through the road blocks head coach Kirby Smart set up for a kid who enrolled early in Athens so he could compete to make an impact next season.
On the football field, Dean made 176 tackles and led Horn Lake High School to a 15-0 record and its first-ever Mississippi 6A title. Dean received the Butkus Award, presented to the nation’s top high school linebacker, was also named the Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year and played in the Under Armour All-America Game.
With the select fraternity that is the Franklin D. Watkins Award nominees, his blue chip athletic prowess is just part of the story. Dean, who graduated with a 4.3 grade-point average, is a member of the National Honor Society, volunteered as an elementary school mentor with Toys for Tots and is a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. His narrative personifies what intercollegiate athletics is supposed to be about, yet UGA’s rules wouldn’t allow him to speak to the media and they made his travel to Washington challenging.
Dean became the 28th standard bearer for the Watkins Awards, which is like the Black high school Heisman trophy award, during the annual National Alliance of African American Athletes Watkins Award ceremony in Crystal City, VA. The soft-spoken, Mississippi native was forced by Smart and officials at UGA, not to speak on the record since they have a rule where incoming freshmen aren’t allowed to talk to the media. The Bulldogs also held a “mandatory practice” on Thursday which caused Dean to miss his scheduled flight to the nation’s capital and tuxedo fitting for the event, forcing him to play catch up with all the events that celebrate the entire body of his work that earned him the coveted honor in African American sports.
“Nakobe Dean is an amazing young man,” said J. Everette Pearsall, executive director of National Alliance of African American Athletes. “We were very impressed with his contributions in the community, his excellence in the classroom and his success on the football field. As the Standard Bearer of the Watkins Class of 2019, we know that he will continue leading by example at the University of Georgia.”
The other members of the Watkins Class of 2019 were Jaylen Coleman of Charlotte, who signed with Duke University; Aeneas DiCosmo of Montclair, New Jersey, and Elijah Higgins of Austin, Texas who signed with Stanford, and Roschon Johnson of Port Arthur, Texas, who has already enrolled at the University of Texas. While Texas sent their video crew to chronicle Johnson’s experience as he was able to eloquently express his process of choosing where he would play college football, Dean had to verbally walk on egg shells because the of his program’s narcissistic gag order.
“Ever since I was little, my parents told me that education will take me farther than my athletic ability and I’ve hung my hat on that,” Dean said. “I want to thank the Watkins Award for having me here and allowing me to have this experience.”
While in the D.M.V., the trip included tours of Under Armour headquarters in Baltimore and the National Museum of African American History in D.C. In the history of the ceremony, none of the athletes was denied their first amendment right to free speech.
ESPN analyst and former NFL player Ryan Clark spoke totally unscripted and electrified the audience stressing that the members of this year’s Watkins Class use their special abilities to make the most of their opportunities. “In the end, you don’t want regrets,” Clark said. “And you have no limitations.”