The Cellular South Gameplan Program

As national signing day approaches, some of the top athletes from across the nation will be announcing their plans for continuing their playing careers. There is talk of statistics, 40-times, and even how much guys can bench press, but there is little discussion of the most important aspect of a student-athlete's resume - academics.

Mississippi is highly rated when it comes to producing Division I-caliber talent on the gridiron. Unfortunately, it is also high on the academic casualty charts. Many of the state's top high school players never play a down of college football. Not because they do not have the talent - because they are unable to meet NCAA academic initial eligibility.

One of the state's great corporate citizens is hoping to change that. The Cellular South Gameplan program, which is entering its second year, is a program designed to inspire, prepare and inform high school student-athletes about the possibilities of reaching their dreams through academic excellence.

"This program is not only about getting athletes to meet NCAA eligibility," said former Mississippi State basketball player Orien Watson, who help found the program for Cellular South. "It's about getting more kids to go to college, regardless of whether they receive an athletic scholarship. One of the main points that we make is the importance of obtaining a college degree, and how it can help the student, their families, their communities and ultimately the state of Mississippi."

"It's amazing to see the look on some of the faces when we tell them that someone with a college degree will make over $1 million more than a high school graduate," added Watson. "If we can inspire a few more students to further their education, then we would have had the impact that we are seeking."

The Cellular South Gameplan kicked off last spring with a series of workshops across the state. The workshops are available to student-athletes in middle and high school and focus on key areas such as high school graduation requirements, NCAA core course requirements, ACT and SAT testing, the college admission process and the importance of character on and off of the field.

The workshops, which are available at no cost to schools on a by-request basis, have reached over 3,000 student-athletes at 25 schools across the state. A DVD-based workshop has been produced and is being provided this month to every middle and high school in the state. The DVD, which features one of Mississippi's greatest high school athletes in Mount Olive's Steve McNair, will reach over 90,000 student-athletes in Mississippi through its important partnerships with the Mississippi Department of Education and the Mississippi High School Activities Association.

Another important goal of the program is providing information to school administrators and coaches about the stringent NCAA academic requirements. Representatives of the program visit schools and also are on hand at many of the state's education forums.

"School administrators and counselors in particular are very appreciative of our efforts," said Watson. "Some of our state's administrators were surprised to hear that the NCAA core course requirements changed from 14 to 16, or that the NCAA Clearinghouse had been transitioned to the NCAA Eligibility Center. Without this program in place, some student-athletes would be working toward the old requirements. By the time they realized it, it would be too late."

In addition, the Cellular South Gameplan began a "Select" program during the fall. This program works one-on-one with some of the state's top student-athletes, most of which have received athletic scholarship offers. The participants are selected based on a variety of factors including coaches' recommendations and recruiting service and media rankings.

"The Select program is geared toward helping these student-athletes realize the opportunity that is in front of them," said Watson. "We sit down with these select athletes, their coaches and parents and we do two things. First, we evaluate their transcripts and test scores to determine where they are in meeting NCAA eligibility. Then, we develop a Gameplan for success, and if the student-athlete follows it, they will meet the requirements."

"These select student-athletes can serve as role models for their younger teammates. If these kids go on to represent their communities and have great college and possibly professional careers, it will help to motivate others."

Watson says that there is hope that through the Cellular South Gameplan, all student-athletes will be able to receive this type of one-on-one support in every school district in the state.

"These kids can read the newspaper or a Web site and see how good they are on the field, and they receive pressure from their communities to go to this college or that college," added Watson. "We don't get into that. We are working with kids that are being recruited by schools from the WAC to the Big East, in addition to the SEC. We don't care what college they choose to attend, we just want them to be able to take advantage of an opportunity given to them by their athletic ability."

"In some cases we are the only ones there to help them focus on their academics. That's why the Select program was put into place."

Cellular South recently hired a full-time staff member committed to the program, and has contracted former Millsaps head coach David Saunders, who is also working with the Select program.

"Coach Saunders brings a wealth of knowledge to the Cellular South Gameplan," said Watson. "His experience on the recruiting trail allows him to better identify with student-athletes and what they are going through during this important time in their life."

Invitations have already been extended to the state's top juniors, and they have been invited to an ACT workshop in advance of the February testing date.

For more information on the Cellular South Gameplan, and Cellular South's commitment to education, visit

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