Bound For Greatness: Former arena football player talks to kids about bullying
Published 12:01 am Tuesday, April 21, 2015
A former professional football player spoke to Carter County students Monday about bullying, self-confidence and the importance of dreaming big.
The Bound For Greatness program visited the Carter County school system for two days and is aimed at preventing bullying while inspiring the next generation of community leaders. The keynote speaker for the program was Duane “D” West, a motivational speaker, television personality and former football player in the Arena Football League for the Florida Bobcats.
The program targeted students in the sixth through eighth grades in Carter County.
On Monday morning, the Bound for Greatness program was held at Happy Valley Middle School, where those students were joined by the sixth- through eight-grade classes from Central Elementary. On Monday afternoon, the program moved to Hunter Elementary School for those students as well as the middle school grades from Keenburg and Unaka Elementary schools. This morning, West will speak at Hampton Elementary, where the students will be joined by those from Little Milligan. This afternoon, West will travel to Cloudland High School, where he spoke to the sixth- through eighth-grade students.
While many people might think of a professional athlete as someone strong and confident who must have been popular in school, West said that was not his experience in his youth.
“I was teased and bullied every day,” he said. “I didn’t like to go to school when I was your age.”
As a child, West was small in stature, standing only 5 feet, 2 inches tall when he was in his freshman year in high school. Not only was he teased about his slight frame, West said he was teased for his big feet which led him to be embarrassed and ashamed.
In an effort to avoid more teasing, West said he would wear his shoes too small to try to hide the size of his feet. That inclination to hide the source of his embarrassment stayed with him not only during his middle school and high school days but followed him through college into his adult life.
In addition to his small stature, West faced other challenges as well that often left him the target of bullying. Not only was he born into poverty in an inner city area, he was a special needs student who failed early grades in school and had to attend summer school in order to be able to advance in grades.
“I couldn’t read and write on my grade level,” he said.
Then, when West was in the sixth grade, another obstacle landed in his path — his family lost their home and he became homeless for a time.
During his youth, the bullying pushed him to a breaking point.
“When I was your age, I wanted to quit, I wanted to give up,” West told students at Hunter Elementary Monday afternoon. “I gave up on my dreams.”
It was then that West decided he wanted to end his life. He climbed onto a ledge atop a building with the intention of jumping to his death.
“I was lucky that I had a grandma who loved me enough to talk me down,” West said with tears running down his face.
Through the love and support of his family, West decided it was time to turn his life around and go after his dream.
With his learning issues, West said he often felt stupid and would refer to himself that way. Then he met a teacher he credits with saving his life by helping him see his own worth.
West attended college where he majored in psychology and despite the difficulties he had with reading and writing as a child, West became an author. After college, West got the opportunity to live another childhood dream by playing professional sports.
And, he did it all despite his size and his too-big feet, though he still carried the scars from the emotional trauma of being bullied.
“I became an author with a shoe that was two sizes too small. I became a first-generation college graduate in a shoe that was too small,” West said. “I played professional sports with my shoes too small.”
It wasn’t until about 10 years ago when at the age of 40 that West finally set the too-small shoes aside and told his mother the truth about his shoes and how he had struggled mentally with being teased.
The hateful words said can stay with a person well after they have left school, for both the victim as well as the bully, West said.
“Everything you do matters,” he said. “Your history will follow you, so if you treat people bad it will come back on you.”
West challenged the students not only to not be bullies themselves but to take a stand against bullying as a way of leading their community.
“Bullying, we’re not going to have that. We cannot tolerate that,” he said. “We all have to have a stake in this. We cannot let one go down. Too many lives are being lost and too many children don’t make it.”
“This is about lifting each other up, not tearing each other down,” he added.
In addition to speaking out against bullying, West encouraged the students to stay in school and work every day to accomplish their dreams.
“Education is your lifeline,” West said. “These teachers love you, they care about you and want you to succeed.”
Dreams can be accomplished no matter what obstacles life puts in the way, West said, adding his own story was an example of someone who started with nothing achieving their dreams.
“It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish,” he said.