FROM ACADEMICALLY INELIGIBLE TO THE NFL

How identifying academic potential saved a student-athlete’s gridiron goals and inspired the start of Honest Game technology

“As a high school student-athlete, I dreamed of playing college sports. I had tremendous interest from colleges, but I was not on track to meet the NCAA academic eligibility requirements. Joyce, Kim, my family, and the entire team at Evanston Township High School aligned together and changed the trajectory of my life. Without their collective commitment to my academic needs, there would have been no NCAA college athletic scholarship opportunities.

My story is a cautionary tale for all high school student-athletes to make sure they take ownership of their academic journey and understand how they are tracking against NCAA college academic eligibility requirements.

Making it to the NFL was a big accomplishment for me, but my mother always placed more importance on education versus athletics. The fact that my journey inspired the creation of Honest Game to blow open the doors of college access and opportunity for millions of student-athletes is simply huge and would make my mother so proud.”

READ NAQUAN’S STORY

Naquan Jones had talent.

A student at Evanston Township High School, Naquan was rated one of the top defensive tackles by ESPN, Scout, 247Sports, and Rivals. He was attracting attention from top college programs across the country, with the hope of continuing his athletic career in the NFL.

So why did playing football at the collegiate level seem like such a pipe dream?

Naquan had talent, but he didn’t have the academic requirements necessary to meet NCAA academic eligibility. Even worse, he had no plan or path forward to course correct his academic ineligibility.

The Challenge

Nearly one million student-athletes are not on track to meet the NCAA academic eligibility requirements to play college athletics because of avoidable or recoverable errors. In the state of Illinois where Naquan was a high school student, a staggering 43 percent of all high schools are at risk of their students being academically ineligible to accept collegiate athletic scholarships because of these errors, which include enrolling in classes that do not meet NCAA requirements.

In Naquan’s case, he was short of NCAA required credits, he didn’t meet the GPA minimum threshold in specific NCAA accredited core classes, and he failed to meet the minimum ACT score he needed for academic eligibility. Without meeting these academic requirements, college recruitment interest and scholarship offers meant nothing.

Naquan’s academic path veered early in his high school career. Freshman year, his best friend Dajae “Dae Dae” Coleman was murdered in a mistaken identity gun violence tragedy. The entire community mourned the loss of Dae Dae, and it manifested in Naquan’s academic struggles with several failed NCAA core courses – including Freshman English.

It wasn’t until Naquan’s high school academic advisor and Co-Founder of Honest Game, Joyce Anderson, dug into his academic transcript that he realized he might not be able to accept an athletic scholarship at an NCAA sanctioned school because he wasn’t meeting the required NCAA academic eligibility requirements. The worst part was that the summer school courses he earned A’s in would not count towards his NCAA credits or his NCAA Core GPA.

The Opportunity

Joyce put together a detailed plan for Naquan that gave him a flicker of hope for his dreams of becoming a collegiate student-athlete. If he followed this plan and leveraged the support of the comprehensive academic tutoring program (at the time run by current Honest Game Co-Founder Kim Michelson), there was hope that Naquan could become an NCAA academic qualifier.

News of Naquan’s academic eligibility plan spread – all the way to Lansing, Michigan. The Spartans wanted Naquan on the team, and that opportunity coupled with his newfound motivation to achieve as much in the classroom as he was on the field made Naquan unstoppable.

Joyce recalls the meeting with Michigan State like it was yesterday.

“I’ll never forget Coach Dantonio and Coach Salem coming to Evanston Township High School,” said Joyce. “We sat in a small conference room with Naquan, his school counselor, his mother Germaine and his grandmother Candy, ETHS athletic director Chris Livatino and the ETHS football coach Mike Burzawa. I had my plans all prepared, but assumed the Michigan state team would be taking the lead and I’d just confirm our plans aligned with theirs,” recalls Joyce. “I was shocked when Coach Dantonio said ‘alright Joyce – it’s your show. Tell us what Naquan needs to do to get to Michigan State.’”

Joyce says it was at that moment she realized student-athletes needed to take charge of their academic planning, and that not even a school like Michigan State would have the time to guide them through their academic eligibility plans.

The detailed recovery plan included getting Naquan approved for an NCAA Education Impacting Disability (EID), taking multiple courses after graduation and re-taking the ACT in the spring of senior year. The process started off rocky, when Naquan missed the April ACT re-take.

“I remember him coming into my office, head hanging down, his broad shoulders slumped,” recalls Joyce. “He said ‘Ms. Joyce, I didn’t go to the ACT last weekend.’ He needed to know he was capable of making this daunting climb uphill and that he wasn’t alone doing it.”

“As a high school student-athlete, I dreamed of playing college sports,” said Naquan. “I had tremendous interest from colleges, but I was not on track to meet the NCAA academic eligibility requirements. Joyce, Kim, my family, and the entire team at Evanston Township High School aligned together and changed the trajectory of my life. Without their collective commitment to my academic needs, there would have been no NCAA college athletic scholarship opportunities.”

With the support of so many, including his mother and grandmother, Naquan graduated high school, re-took the ACT in June, and earned the grades and test scores necessary to earn NCAA academic redshirt qualifier status. Without this step-by-step strategic plan, Naquan never would have had the clear path to meet the complex and constantly changing NCAA academic requirements.

“I have always believed in my grandson. I knew he had the talent and ability to do something great. I also knew how important academics were to his high school and college career,” said Candy. “My daughter, Naquan’s mother, passed away unexpectedly when Naquan was a junior at Michigan State. Supporting Naquan to achieve his dreams on and off the field was her main goal in life, and I have such peace knowing how immensely proud she would be of Naquan today. I am so grateful to Kim and Joyce and the entire Evanston High School community for their academic support of him and always seeing his promise.”

The Victory

During his time at Michigan State, Naquan racked up a total of 77 tackles – a standout college career which caught the attention of the Tennessee Titans. He signed with them as an undrafted free agent in May of 2021, and was named to their active roster from the practice squad in Sept. 2021.

“My story is a cautionary tale for all high school student-athletes to make sure they take ownership of their academic journey and understand how they are tracking against NCAA college academic eligibility requirements,” said Naquan.

When Joyce and Kim realized the major missteps in academic eligibility happening to so many students like Naquan, they knew there had to be a way of using technology to help student-athletes everywhere navigate NCAA academic ineligibility before it was too late to catch up. Thus, Honest Game was born.

“Looking back on this story, one element that sticks out like a sore thumb is all of the time, energy, and money spent by so many to guide Naquan through meeting the complex NCAA academic eligibility requirements,” said Kim “With Honest Game technology, much of that work is now automated, accessible early and free from human error.”

For student’s like Naquan, and for those looking to play at a D3 or NAIA school, Honest Game’s software can course-correct an academic career that might otherwise be cast aside. Honest Game’s College Athletic Report on Eligibility (CARE®) shows students a clear path to success with short term goals, right out of the gate.

“Understanding the step-by-step academic eligibility process for our student-athletes starting freshman year has almost tripled the number of our student-athletes going on to compete at the college level,” said Livatino. “I believe more students are able to take advantage of their college athletic opportunities because they are able to recover from academic challenges earlier and choose courses strategically. I’m grateful for the individualized attention and expertise that Honest Game provides each of our student-athletes.”

“Making it to the NFL was a big accomplishment for me, but my mother always placed more importance on education versus athletics,” said Naquan. “The fact that my journey inspired the creation of Honest Game to blow open the doors of college access and opportunity for countless student-athletes is simply huge and would make my mother so proud.”

Today, Honest Game has made over 70,000 post-secondary education dreams possible for students just like Naquan. What dream can it make possible for your student-athletes? Click here to learn more.

Overview

THE PROBLEM

Naquan was short of NCAA required credits, didn’t meet the GPA minimum threshold in specific NCAA accredited core classes, and failed to meet the minimum ACT score he needed for academic eligibility.

THE PLAN

A detailed recovery plan was put into action, which included a comprehensive academic tutoring program, getting Naquan approved for an NCAA Education Impacting Disability (EID), taking multiple courses after graduation and re-taking the ACT.

THE VICTORY

Naquan went on to rack up a total of 77 tackles at Michigan State University - a standout college career which caught the attention of the Tennessee Titans. He signed with them as an undrafted free agent in May of 2021, and was named to their active roster from the practice squad in Sept. 2021.

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