College Football: Nabal Jefferson, Patrick Ward, Shane Zackery in line for academic honor
By Steve Millar For Sun-Times Media November 7, 2012 8:30PM
Patrick Ward, Northwestern offensive lineman. | Supplied photo
Tinley Park High School senior Trevor Rolette was named the Illinois boys winner of the Wendy’s High School Heisman. Rolette plays football and soccer for the Titans and also is a nationally ranked cyclist.
The group of state winners will soon be trimmed to 12 national finalists. If Rolette is among that group, he will earn a trip to New York City where the finalists will be honored Dec. 7. All national finalists receive $2,000 awards for their schools while one male and one female winner will each receive a crystal Wendy’s High School Heisman trophy, a $500 Wendy’s gift card and a $10,000 donation to their school.
Lincoln-Way Central’s Danijela Jackovich and Lincoln-Way East’s Nick Colangelo also were state finalists.
Updated: December 9, 2012 6:44AM
They may be star football players, but Nabal Jefferson, Patrick Ward and Shane Zackery certainly are not dumb jocks.
The college standouts with Southland connections — Northern Illinois’ Jefferson prepped at Marist, Northwestern’s Ward at Providence and Zackery attends St. Xavier — were named three of the 15 members of the 2012 National Football Foundation National Scholar-Athlete Class.
The senior honorees were selected among players in all NCAA divisions and the NAIA, and were chosen for their excellence on the field, in the classroom and in the community.
They also became finalists for the William V. Campbell Trophy, which recognizes the top scholar-athlete in the nation.
“It’s such a blessing to be able to be in such great company,” said Jefferson, a defensive tackle at NIU. “You go down that list and there are a lot of big names. It’s pretty eye-opening to think I’m going to be sitting next to them.”
Indeed, the list has plenty of star power, including Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley — expected to be among the top picks in the 2013 NFL draft — Heisman hopeful and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, and Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead.
Being grouped with those guys is especially surreal for Zackery. The leading receiver for defending NAIA national champion St. Xavier, Zackery was the only NAIA player selected.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Zackery, a Rockford native, said. “Those are guys I watch and guys I follow. It will be great to meet them. It means a lot to represent the NAIA. It shows the NAIA produces great athletes and students. It gives great exposure to St. Xavier, too.”
The finalists receive an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship and a trip to New York, where they will be honored Dec. 4 at the 55th NFF Annual Awards Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The Campbell Trophy will be awarded at the ceremony.
Kings of the classroom
Ward, an offensive tackle at Northwestern, has the second-highest GPA among the finalists with a 3.94. He majors in mechanical engineering.
“You’ve got to know football will end some day and you’ve got to put yourself in position to succeed in life, no matter what avenue,” he said. “To me, being strong academically is also just part of being a well-rounded person. That’s important to me.”
Those sentiments are echoed by the other finalists. Zackery holds a 3.71 GPA in business management while Jefferson has a 3.78 GPA and is an accounting major.
While many would consider crunching numbers boring compared to crushing opponents on the football field, Jefferson disagrees.
“I’ve always been interested in numbers,” Jefferson said. “Everyone takes part in taxes. The tax laws are constantly changing, and it’s interesting to try to keep up with them. I’d like to be a CPA and work with taxes.”
It should be no surprise that Jefferson is good with math. He, like Ward and Zackery, already has plenty of experience with division — as in how to divide time between football, academics and a social life.
That’s a challenge all three say they have struggled with, but have ultimately mastered.
“It’s really difficult,” Jefferson said. “I make a daily schedule with things I want to get done and I just try to do my best every day. It’s important to have a routine. Academics are the main reason I’m here, not football.”
Ward said his secret to success is working ahead.
“I try to front-load my work to the beginning of the week,” he said. “I want to get as much done Monday and Tuesday as I can so I can focus on football later in the week.”
For Zackery, putting academics ahead of athletics is nothing new.
“Growing up, my mother and grandmother always instilled educational values,” he said. “I knew that if I didn’t get good grades, they wouldn’t let me play football.
“I’ve been taking 18 credits a semester and it’s tough to balance, but if you stay on top of it, stay focused, keep your time managed and work hard, it can be done.”
Racking up wins
Northern Illinois, Northwestern and St. Xavier are a combined 24-4 this season, with the three standout scholars playing key roles in their respective teams’ success.
The Wildcats take a 7-2 mark into Saturday’s game at Michigan, are ranked 24th in the nation and are in contention for the Big Ten Legends Division title. At left tackle, Ward has anchored an offensive line that’s helped Northwestern rush for 236 yards a game.
“We’re really excited with how the season is going and we’re happy with where we’re at,” Ward said. “We have a lot of room for improvement, but we’re excited with the opportunities we’ve given ourselves.”
Jefferson has contributed 41 tackles, including 4½ for a loss, for a Northern Illinois squad that’s 9-1 and has won nine straight games heading into a Nov. 14 showdown with No. 23 Toledo.
St. Xavier, the defending NAIA national champion, knocked off then-No. 1 Marian University on Saturday, with Zackery contributing a 65-yard touchdown catch.
An All-American in 2011, Zackery leads the Cougars with 52 catches for 786 yards and nine touchdowns.
Making a difference
The last component of the National Scholar Athlete is community leadership, and all have made it a point to give back.
Zackery has hosted a free football clinic for underprivileged kids in conjunction with the Salvation Army Community Center in Chicago, and is heavily involved in church activities.
“I’ve always told myself that if I had an opportunity to give back, I’d do it,” he said. “I love to see kids get chances to better themselves. If they want to be lawyers or financial advisers or whatever, they can. I want to teach them that it’s important to get an education. You’ve got to have something to fall back on besides sports.”
Ward was a founding member of Northwestern’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a program that raises money for rare diseases.
“Each school raises money for a certain disease and ours is Niemann-Pick Type C, because it’s affected people associated with Northwestern, including (former coach) Ara Parseghian’s grandkids,” Ward said. “Football has given me endless gifts and this gave me an opportunity to give back.”
After his pastor and close friend, The Rev. Dan Mallette, of St. Margaret of Scotland Church on Chicago’s South Side, was beaten in a burglary in December, Jefferson returned home to organize 24-hour volunteer care for 80-year-old minister.
“He was always there for me,” Jefferson said. “I know he’d do everything in his power to help me, so this was just me returning the favor.”
Jefferson also has been a mentor for inner-city youth.
“It’s important to give kids hope,” he said. “I was in their position, living in the city and trying to make the best of my life.
“I want to show them that if they work hard, good things can happen to you.”