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Originally published January 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 15, 2009 at 1:04 PM

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A Seattle Times Special Report | Day 4 of 4

Linebacker discovered joy of learning but had to buck football program that emphasized eligibility, not education

For Anthony Kelley, a photograph on the wall changed everything. In the summer of 2000, before football season began, Kelley sat in the...

Seattle Times staff reporters

Husky football 2000 | Anthony Kelley

On the field: Kelley played in every game, twice winning team defensive MVP honors. Against California, he sacked the quarterback twice and forced a fumble.

Off the field: Kelley applied for a Mary Gates Scholarship, for money to study abroad. He became the first football player to win the honor.

For Anthony Kelley, a photograph on the wall changed everything.

In the summer of 2000, before football season began, Kelley sat in the office of Tom Williams, an assistant coach at the University of Washington. Kelley was in his third year at the UW, a 20-year-old linebacker with a dream of playing in the NFL.

Looking around the room, Kelley spotted a picture of his assistant coach in Spain. Williams had first traveled to Europe years earlier, he told Kelley. As an undergraduate at Stanford, he'd studied abroad in Italy.

An amazing experience, Williams told the young player. You should try studying abroad yourself.

But that's unofficial, the assistant coach added. Don't tell anyone around here I told you that.

At the UW, there's the upper campus and the lower campus.

The lower campus, on the shores of Lake Washington, belongs to the football players and other athletes. This is where they play and practice.

On the upper campus, academics hold sway. Students pack lectures at Kane Hall or study late at Odegaard Library.

Kelley arrived in 1998 unqualified, by the numbers, for the demands of the upper campus. He had an SAT score of 770 and a grade-point average that hovered around 2. The averages for his incoming class were 1155 and 3.65.

Kelley belonged to the lower campus, where other numbers mattered. In high school he played offense (824 receiving yards his senior year) and defense (102 tackles, with 15 sacks). He aspired to be another Charles Woodson, the two-way player who won the Heisman Trophy at Michigan.

Kelley grew up in Pasadena, Calif., in a gang neighborhood, not far from Rose Bowl Stadium. His parents split before he entered school, and his mom moved about, struggling to raise a young family. They spent six months homeless. Some nights they'd sleep in cheap hotels, other nights in their car. Kelley helped raise his younger sisters, while his mother worked full time and moonlighted with nursing studies.

In high school, Kelley moved in with his dad. Diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, Kelley struggled in class. But his junior year, a recruitment letter arrived from Nebraska. He saw a way out of Pasadena and began to study harder.

Kelley says his father told him: "You need to get good grades so you can get this football scholarship." His coaches told him the same thing. The motivation wasn't to learn. Classes were a way to play football.

Kelley graduated, but his transcript didn't meet the requirements of Division I football. The UW gambled on him anyway, making him one of the school's most prized recruits that year. Under NCAA rules, Kelley would have to sit out his freshman year and concentrate on classes. If he did OK, he could play the next year.

At the UW, Kelley's coaches told him: You need to get good grades to stay eligible.

Football players at the UW remain eligible by maintaining a "C" average or better. The university provides considerable help.

Players get assistance from four academic coordinators, two academic advisers, a learning specialist and a supervisor.

The UW also hires 80 part-time tutors to work with all athletes, regardless of sport. These tutors work five to 20 hours a week, typically earning $15 an hour. They attend the athletes' classes, take lecture notes and explain concepts during study sessions.

Most help goes to athletes who failed to meet the school's minimum admittance standards for regular students. Each year, the UW accepts about 30 such athletes as "special admits" — slots that tend to be filled by football or basketball players.

Those special admits with the weakest academic backgrounds often do OK their first quarter but then struggle, a recent university report found. Early on, the athletes cluster in the same classes, with juniors and seniors directing incoming players to classes considered easy.

On the 2007 football team, 20 percent of the players with declared majors selected American ethnic studies. The year before, it was 43 percent. For undergraduates as a whole, 1 percent major in that subject.

On the 2000 team, sociology was the most popular major. That's the field Kelley picked at first, because it seemed to be what other players were choosing.

At least seven of the team's players were allowed to create their major, instead of choosing from a regular degree program. These individualized majors included "Sports Management," "Multicultural Leadership" and "Media Presentation."

Without question, some players on the team took academics seriously. At least four had double majors. Two players, Kyle Benn and Ryan Fleming, were named to the Pac-10 All-Academic football team in 2000. Both majored in business administration.

But Rock Nelson, an offensive lineman, exemplified the mind-set of many players on the team. "I was a football major," he says. "Class was not important to me."

J.K. Scott, who was a backup quarterback, says: "Most of the talk with the guys, and this isn't everyone, was, 'What are the easiest classes we can find?' For everyone there, it's football first, and education second, as an afterthought."

The idea of studying abroad captured Kelley's imagination.

He took it to Sarah Winter, his adviser.

"She almost broke down in tears because she was so happy that I was thinking about the idea," Kelley says.

The 2000 season was Winter's third as an academic coordinator at the UW. She used to teach English in Ohio. Now she worked one on one and in groups with Kelley and other football players.

She'd meet them in the Conibear Shellhouse on Lake Washington, where the crew team launched its boats. As she listened and taught, she came to see the athletes as vulnerable and isolated from other students.

Demoralized, sometimes in tears, many flirted with failing grades. "The personal cost for so many of them was so very, very high," she says. "They had a real struggle with personal failure. It would be repeatedly, on a daily basis, an inability to meet expectations."

One player on the 2000 team left the UW barely able to read or write, Winter says. She would go through textbooks with him, looking at pictures, reading captions, trying to capture main ideas. For essays, he would dictate while she typed.

The Shellhouse became a safe haven for players, a place they could vent. Some players walked in and dropped their heads on their desks, exhausted. "They were scheduled from before the sun came up until 8 or 9 at night," Winter says.

After the 2000 season, Winter quit. She saw only hype surrounding "special admits," a misplaced belief they were rising above. "They are running a business at the expense of the kids," she says. "I felt like I was feeding the business, rather than helping."

The faculty athletics representative in 2000 was Robert Aronson, a law professor. Charged with protecting the educational welfare of student-athletes, he resigned the post in 2004 and wrote an 11-page letter telling why.

The "pressure to win" compromised academics and integrity, Aronson wrote. The athletic department pressured the admissions office to accept student-athletes who were unlikely to succeed in the classroom. Then, teams demanded too much of their players' time, preventing them from growing as students.

Of the players on the 2000 team, about two of every three graduated, according to the latest NCAA figures.

On his annual evaluation for 2000, head coach Rick Neuheisel received a mark of "below expectation" for the grade-point averages his players were getting.

Together, Kelley and Winter discovered an opportunity for him to spend a quarter in South Africa. The academic program would begin after the football season and allow Kelley to examine changes since apartheid's fall.

While the team made its march to the 2001 Rose Bowl, Kelley wrote an application essay and prepared for his interview. He and Winter kept their efforts low key: "It was like a renegade operation," she says.

Obstacles surfaced. Kelley had never had a driver's license or a checking account, much less a passport. He had no experience overseas, no money and no family support.

Needing a plane ticket, he applied for a Mary Gates Scholarship, an award that helps undergraduates cover research expenses.

He became the first football player to win the honor and was awarded $3,000.

Neuheisel seemed caught off-guard by the news, Kelley says. Asked about Kelley's planned trip, the coach told one newspaper, "I'm all for it," but added, "I don't know that it's something that we could have happen widespread."

Kelley says: "I'm pretty sure he didn't want me to go. And my defensive coordinator at the time wasn't too fired up about it. But Tom Williams was like, 'Go ahead, do your thing.' "

"I really didn't know what I was getting myself into. Because when they tell us as an athlete that we get to choose our own classes, I figure, you know, if it was in the off-season and I was working out, it would be fine."

In the 2000 season, Kelley had started three games and twice earned defensive MVP honors. Now, coaches feared he might fall out of shape or lose focus.

Williams and other coaches also told Kelley of another concern: Kelley was seeing Tonya Britt, a woman he'd met in San Jose. Britt had two young boys. Before dating, Anthony and Tonya had e-mailed each other for months.

Williams says he was wary of the relationship, fearing it would not work out in the long run. Some other coaches felt the same way, Kelley says, "because she was older, and she had kids."

But Kelley liked Tonya's children. "And you can't help what happens in life," he says.

Kelley stayed with Tonya. And he held to his plans for South Africa.

A few days after the season ended, Kelley's tutor drove him to Sea-Tac Airport. "He was a little nervous, a little quiet," Winter says. "He had his Walkman on as usual."

As Kelley walked through security, Winter thought: "Wow. He really made it. Nobody is getting him off that plane."

Kelley figured that as an African American, traveling to South Africa would be a sort of homecoming. He was wrong.

"I wasn't looked at as being black," he said. "Because, for one, I spoke English. I didn't even speak the language. And then, I was associated with America and the way America is perceived by them: As the land of the free. Money. And white."

Kelley started an after-school athletic program in a ghetto just outside Cape Town, teaching girls basic stretches and different sports. The girls, though often hungry, showed up every day, eager to learn.

Their enthusiasm forced Kelley to look at himself. He attended a great university, with opportunities that eclipsed theirs. "It was really unfortunate I didn't have the same attitude," he says.

When he showed up early one day, the girls were drumming on their desks, dancing and singing to their own rhythms. He'd never heard anything like it. Teach me, he asked them, and he bought them new drums.

When it was time to return to Seattle, Kelley made the girls a promise. He would return, and the next time, he'd bring them to America, to see the country and share their talents.

He didn't know how it would happen — he was a student, and broke. But something had changed. For Kelley, academics had come alive.

"I had a chance to engage. To feel, touch and smell what I was reading in these books. That's when I had the big idea of education as an engaged experience."

When Kelley returned to the UW, he asked professors for lists of books he should read — not for class study, but simply to learn. His vocabulary expanded. He began to find joy in reading dense texts and writing essays. He started a journal and wrote poems.

"I was opening up to this new world," he said.

With that came a realization.

"I actually can write. I actually can read. I actually can have intellectual conversations and actually forge some ideas that can be very productive. I didn't realize I had that kind of potential. It was kind of like being reborn into a new world that had been closed off for so long."

Kelley discovered that his love of learning came with a cost.

In 2001, he told his coaches that he wanted to return to South Africa, after the football season. They weren't happy, he says.

"My credibility and my commitment to the team started to be questioned. And it was ironic in the fact that you wanted me to be a student athlete."

To Kelley's mind, he was breaking a code.

"There are these unwritten rules that you have to follow to make sure that the coaches are OK. And I really just looked at it as an issue of control. They didn't have immediate control over me."

Kelley understood the dynamics. Coaches get paid lots of money, but they have to win. Players, meanwhile, become entranced by a possible NFL career. Coaches know how strong that lure is, and use it to motivate.

But Kelley now knew he could succeed without football. He'd tell the coaches: If I don't make the NFL, I'll be fine. "They couldn't use that to manipulate me. And so I did what I had to do. And whatever they did was fine with me, because I had a class to get to, you know what I mean?"

In 2001, Kelley's statistics started to slip. He recorded 19 tackles, down from 30.

In December 2001, he married Tonya. With two children already, they added a third, taking in Tonya's goddaughter, whose family was having drug problems.

The following month, this family, five strong, traveled to South Africa.

Kelley had won a second Mary Gates Scholarship.

His teammates wondered about the millions of dollars Kelley might be sacrificing by focusing so much on his homework. "The thing was, amongst my peers, it was really like 'AK, you're crazy,'" he says. "But at the same time, they would say, 'AK, I wish I could do what you did.' "

Williams, the assistant coach, said it's unusual for a young player to shrug off the possibility of a pro career.

"Guys generally pursue the dream of playing in the NFL until it completely dies. Then they say, 'Now what do I do?' Anthony made that decision before all that came up."

One of Kelley's good friends on the Rose Bowl team was Anthony Vontoure. His story is the flip side of Kelley's. Vontoure never blossomed academically. He chased the NFL dream until his options ran out.

Vontoure attended high school in California, where he had a 2.5 GPA and a below-average ACT score. He struggled off the field, serving two months at a juvenile ranch for hitting a teenager over the head with a brick.

In an essay to the UW, Vontoure wrote: "I hope to graduate one day and say I'm a Washington Husky and I love what I've become."

As a freshman, in 1997, he started each day with malt liquor, slept constantly and often missed class, according to his roommate. When he missed an anthropology exam and made little effort to do his classwork, the professor didn't dock him. Instead, Vontoure was given an alternative assignment — writing a four-page paper, dealing with sports.

On the football team, Vontoure often lashed out at coaches. They sent him to counseling and learned that he likely had bipolar disorder. Vontoure's teammates felt a need to protect him. They'd buy him sandwiches to make sure he was eating, or drive him to a pay phone, so he could call home.

On the field, Vontoure excelled. "The most talented kid I've ever had," says Chuck Heater, the team's cornerbacks coach. In 1999, Vontoure was suspended a game for violating team rules; the next week, he returned an interception for a touchdown. In 2000, he was suspended for another game. Afterward, Neuheisel said he would have played Vontoure if needed.

Vontoure left the UW in 2001, without a degree. His final grade-point average was 2.00 — just enough to play, down to the decimal point. Six times he was placed on probation, when his cumulative GPA dipped below a "C" average.

Of the 145 credits he earned, 25 were in Swahili, a notoriously easy class packed with football players. His highest grade, a "B+," was in a class called "Sexuality in Scandinavia."

After leaving the UW, Vontoure enrolled at Portland State, only to drop out.

In May 2002, Vontoure and Kelley saw each other at the funeral of Curtis Williams, a teammate who had been critically injured during the Rose Bowl year. On Williams' casket, Kelley placed two copper bracelets from South Africa.

Days later, Vontoure came to Seattle and visited Kelley. Vontoure seemed adrift, Kelley says. "I could see in his eyes that he was crying out to me for help, but really, he didn't know how to articulate that."

Two weeks later, Vontoure died of a heart attack while struggling with sheriff's deputies in California. The deputies were called because Vontoure was hallucinating, screaming about "green men in masks" coming to kill him. An autopsy showed cocaine in his system.

It had just hit Vontoure that he wasn't going to make the NFL, a friend told police. The friend feared Vontoure might kill himself: "Because football is all he's got. That's all he knows how to do."

Inside Vontoure's car, a detective found a Huskies magazine from October 2000, the Rose Bowl year. In the apartment where Vontoure was staying, the detective found empty liquor bottles and a letterman's jacket with a "W" over the left chest and the word "football" embroidered in purple.

Anthony Kelley kept his promise.

After returning from South Africa in the spring of 2002, Kelley, along with his wife, began raising money to bring the African girls to Seattle.

The Kelleys hosted a '70s party, a spaghetti dinner and an auction. Tonya's goddaughter sold lemonade for 50 cents a cup.

The media picked up the story. The UW hailed Kelley as the ideal student-athlete. Rick Neuheisel donated $5,000. So did Bill Gates Sr.

The Ipintombi dancers, as the troupe would be called, arrived in Seattle in June. They performed at the Paramount Theatre, among other venues.

The same month, Kelley graduated from the UW with a bachelor's degree in the comparative history of ideas. His final GPA was 2.83. Because he graduated in four years, he earned back his lost year of football eligibility and was able to play the 2002 season.

He played, but his football career was fading. He recorded 11 tackles in 13 games.

The leader of the Ipintombi dancers was a young girl named Siya Manyakanyaka.

During his second trip to Cape Town, Kelley said, Siya's father approached and told him: "My daughter won't be able to make anything of herself here. And so, if there's anything she can do with you, I give you permission to take her."

Siya was 13 at the time. Kelley adopted her. His family numbered six.

These days, Kelley is pursuing a master's degree in education at the UW. His grade-point average, as a graduate student, is 3.65.

He also runs a pilot program at the university in which he is leading a group of about 20 students, a third of them athletes, to study overseas.

He wants other athletes to venture off the lower campus — to go up that hill, and beyond — just as he did.

Kelley left with the group this month. They are spending 10 weeks in South Africa. Four of the athletes are football players. Kelley says he has made sure they will have access to workout facilities, to head off any concern from their coaches.

Kelley coaches football, basketball and track in Seattle's public schools. His wife and kids pitch in. He helps manage the apartment complex where they live and gets a stipend for his work at the UW.

One of the Kelleys' children is now in college, with a second, Siya, planning to start in the fall. Last year, he and his wife took in another girl, Tyteanna, now 2, making theirs a family of seven.

Kelley recently allowed Roosevelt High School to auction off his Rose Bowl helmet, to raise money for a student-exchange program.

One day, Kelley would like to open an academic, sports and arts complex in South Africa, to help impoverished children.

But until then, he plans to stay at the UW and earn his Ph.D.

He wants to become Dr. Anthony Kelley.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com; Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or karmstrong@seattletimes.com

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