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UMW president Rick Hurley shakes hands with UMW student and men's basketball player E. J. Willis during
Chris Carroll, 12, of Gloucester, takes a swing during a game of game
FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Sports are a universal language.
Whether kids are kicking a can down the road or adults are discussing their favorite football team, the experience brings individuals together.
There are none more familiar with this concept than student-athletes from the University of Mary Washington, who were able to test this theory at the school baseball diamond.
The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and the Virginia Attorney General's Office came to the campus Saturday to pair at-risk youth from the Boys and Girls Clubs in the Richmond, Lynchburg and Tidewater areas with student-athlete mentors from UMW.
The objective of the College Day Experience, said participants, was to provide role models for the youth and encourage them to attend college through interactive sports and old-fashioned conversation.
This was a new experience for some of the college students who had just turned 21.
Some first meetings, like any, started out with a little trepidation.
"After we got our food, we felt like we were going to a lunch table, like 'Hey can we sit with you guys?'" said senior basketball player Carol Dye. "[The kids] were like 'Sure!' It started there."
Dye, 21, found herself being in what she thought was an unlikely position of someone to emulate.
As a younger sibling, Dye had always been the one looking up to her older sister. Now she was the example.
"I never would have thought that I would be meeting younger kids like this and being someone they're looking up to," she said. "Or telling them about the wonderful opportunity I had to go to college."
After the initial ice-breaker, it was time for the two groups to hit the field as "opposing teams" for a game of "quickball."
It's basically a faster form of baseball.
One team stands in line and is slow-pitched a ball. After one swing, the batter runs the bases whether he hit the ball or not. The result was a lively game with a lot of laughing, energy and fun for both the mentors and mentees.
Student-athlete and junior E.J. Willis saw the game as his way of steering kids off a path he barely avoided himself.
As the child of a single mother growing up in Washington, D.C., he saw sports as a way of relating to others once he made the decision to go to college.
When he joined the basketball team, he said, that choice changed his life.
"When I first came into Mary Washington, I wasn't really open to people," Willis said of his basketball teammates. "Two years later, I see these guys as my brothers. I developed relationships with them like I would do with my own family."
Willis used his love of sports to bond with the kids.
He asked them what sport they played to introduce himself and was convinced meeting a college basketball player such as himself would sway their decision to pursue higher education.
"People can relate to sports," Willis said. "Sports can teach you a lot of life lessons."
When all the joking and fun that comes with quickball gave way to the serious pitch about college life, Willis took time to relate his life experience to influence the younger participants to avoid the hard road he had taken.
In a speech, he talked about sports being the tool to a good education and not an end in itself.
"I wish I had somebody like me to tell me the same things that I told them," he said of his experience.
Life decisions can be difficult for young people in college.
But when called upon to mentor kids, the answers were clear enough for everyone involved.
Sean McCollum is a freelance writer who lives in Fredericksburg.