JOHNSTON, S.C. - One startling statistic brought former pro football player Jeff Davis back to his alma mater to head an innovative program: There are more black males in South Carolina's prisons than its colleges.
The former Clemson Tiger and Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker is the field director for Clemson's Call Me MISTER program, which seeks to recruit 200 young black males to teach in South Carolina's elementary schools over a six-year period.
"I thought being a professional football player would be it for me," Mr. Davis said. "But at age 41, I feel like I'm just beginning."
Mr. Davis brought three college freshman enrolled in the program to talk with a group of young black males from Strom Thurmond High School on Thursday. It was the first time the group has visited a schoolsince its inception in 1999.
"Children identify with sports figures. But Jeff goes so far beyond that, saying not everybody can be an athlete and go on to school, but here's a program that can help you go on to school and help you become a teacher," Edgefield County school Superintendent Sharon Keesley said. "And if you do that, you can make a difference in someone else's life."
Of 213 elementary school teachers in Edgefield County, only five are black men, Dr. Keesley said. And only four of 73 secondary school teachers are black men, she said.
"The statistics are staggering," the superintendent said. "We need these young men as positive role models in our elementary schools. Less than one percent of the state's elementary school teachers are black males."
Mr. Davis said he knows it's not easy for young black males, especially when they grow up in a single-parent home as he did. He was raised in Greensboro, N.C., by his mother, grandmother and three sisters.
"No one would have thought that a big, tough linebacker would come out of that family," he said with a laugh. "My mother couldn't afford it, so I wouldn't have been able to go to college if it weren't for my athletic scholarship. I can't imagine my life without my education."
Mr. Davis said the program can provide financial support if participants attend a private black college and teach elementary school for at least four years after college. Benedict College, Claflin University and Morris College are involved in the program.
"Make sure you don't limit yourself. You're not in a box," Mr. Davis told a group of 10 students. "And don't give any excuses - about your race or how you were raised ... because someone has overcome those things."
Twins Howard and Heywood Jean, from Langley, are freshman at Claflin University in Orangeburg and are finishing their first year as "Misters."
"This program is giving us the opportunity to improve the perception of black males in South Carolina," Heywood Jean said. "It's one of the best choices I've ever made."
Thurmond High junior Tyron Bettis, 16, said he hopes to become a history teacher and that he liked what he heard Thursday.
"I was thinking about going to Clemson, but now I might look into one of these black colleges," he said. "This program is a good way for black males to have opportunities."
Reach Katie Throne at (803) 279-6895.