National Football League defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, an exceptional athlete and no shabby after-dinner speaker either, surely enamored himself to Montana State University alumni Saturday night when he said former college football coach Dennis Erickson once gave him a sound bit of advice about a dozen years ago: “You don’t want to go to [the University of] Montana. You’re much better than that.”
It brought the biggest rousing cheer, albeit Bobcat led, at the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Yellowstone County’s Feel the Love Gala 2013 held at the First Interstate Bank Operations Center out on Sixth Avenue North just west of MetraPark. The event was held to thank supporters of the nonprofit organization, which has operated in Yellowstone County since 1976.
Edwards, a Carolina Panther moving into his 10th professional season, was born in Billings but grew up in Columbus. He was the event’s keynote speaker and described Erickson, who won a national championship at the University of Miami and also was a head coach in the NFL, recruiting him after a stellar prep career to come to Oregon State University.
Sure, Erickson wanted him in Corvallis, but the coach also saw Edwards’ potential to play big-time college football, not a smaller program, although a successful one, in Missoula. Erickson mentored Edwards to shoot for the stars, a right assessment, evidenced by Edwards’ $3.8 million contract last year at Carolina.
Edwards noted that a different bit of advice at that time may have led to another road in his life, perhaps one not as fruitful as the one he’s traveled. Someone led him down the right path.
Ten area high school juniors and seniors heard Edwards’ story on Saturday night, in between serving hors d’oeuvres and bussing tables for a ballroom full of Big Bro Big Sis supporters, following a nice chicken and pasta meal. The teenagers stood proudly when Edwards asked the crowd to acknowledge their work mentoring local elementary school kids since last August in the nonprofit national program.
They are part of 175 upper class students who make up the organization’s high school program guiding about 300 youngsters in Yellowstone County, many in single-parent households without a father figure.
The young mentors attend the Billings four high schools and Laurel and work with their “Littles” four days a week for an hour.
Edwards talked being drafted by the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in 2004 and being afraid to even walk up to superstar Ray Lewis and talk to him. He was fortunate though: Four current or future NFL Hall of Fame Ravens showed him the way nine years ago, including Lewis, Ed Reed, Jonathan Ogden and Deion Sanders.
But he spent most of his speech bringing it down to the level of the high schoolers, similar to the help he received as a young boy from his mother, Cass Wilks, “my rock,” who has always been there for him, and kept him focused both in athletics and in the classroom, he said. And as a fifth-grader, he watched Columbus High School win the high school state football championship in 1992 under then head coach Bryan Brown.
“I was the manager of the team, and it was just a great time to grow up and learn and watch that teamwork hard and see what they were able to accomplish,” said Edwards, who is African American. Less than 1 percent of the folks in Columbus are black, during Edwards’ time and still today. But that championship team and its coach, along with his mom, left an impact.
Who knows what influence high school football players and a cagey coach have on an 11-year-old boy? Or what soft words in Spanish from an honor student have on a first-grader who can’t speak a lick of English? Big Brothers and Big Sisters provides such a forum.
Kayla Hallock is a senior at Laurel High School, a good student who’ll attend Black Hills State University in South Dakota next fall to study history and Spanish. She wants to go on and teach, help in the right way.
“I only work with one young girl (most in the program work with two Littles) because her family just came to Montana and she doesn’t speak any English,” Hallock said Saturday night. “I really don’t know much about her background because I haven’t asked her about it, but I just talk to her and help her with her school work and language. I enjoy speaking with her in Spanish because I have studied the language for many years and I can communicate with her.”
One can only imagine what impact Hallock, a tall, attractive young woman with sparking blue eyes, fluent in Spanish, must have on the young Hispanic girl now living in a cold land foreign to her.
Similar perhaps, to Edwards seeing those savvy Columbus country boys 20 some odd years ago whip up on Frenchtown for the state football Class B title.
A positive one.
Those interested in volunteering with the Big Brother Big Sister organization can call 248-2229 or visit www.bbbsyc.org.