Johnny Knox, other top athletes inspire Arlington students
When Steve Hull says he wants to invite a few of his friends to talk to the students at Vanguard, a Northwest Suburban High School District 214 alternative program, he should mention that his friends are highly recognized professional athletes.
Hull is in his first year as an instructional assistant at Vanguard, a school for about 100 students who are struggling at their main high schools, but last year he was a receiver for the New Orleans Saints until injuries ended his career in his first season. While it's a big change from being in the NFL, Hull said he loves making a difference for students.
"I just felt really passionate about being here," he said.
That's why on Friday Hull invited former Chicago Bear Johnny Knox, Olympic bronze medalist Aja Evans and former NFL player Kerry Neal to talk to his students about adversity.
"We've all had experiences in life to deal with," Hull said.
'We're all struggling'
Johnny Knox worked his way up from junior college to the NFL where he spent three years as a Chicago Bear before a devastating injury in 2011 left him nearly paralyzed and ended his football career.
But Knox's experience overcoming obstacles started off the field. He told the students about growing up in Houston, Texas, and how difficult it was when his parents divorced during high school.
"Everything went downhill for me after that," Knox said. "I felt like I was on my own. I had to grow up real quick." Knox was emotional while telling his story and had to stop talking several times.
"A lot of times, we hold so much in thinking it's only you having all these struggles," Evans chimed in. "We've all had journeys that have led us to this place, and it's all about how you learn from those situations and move through."
Knox told the students how he had to make his own recruitment tape and take it to colleges hoping for a spot on the team and promising to work hard once he got there.
"It doesn't matter where you go. It's what you do with it," he said.
In 2010 when he was rising to the height of his NFL career and his life looked perfect from the outside, Knox said he lost a close friend to suicide.
"You never know what everyone is going through," he said. "We're all struggling."
After Knox's back injury he didn't know if he would ever walk again, but he said he knew he had to persevere for his children -- now 7 years, 4 years and 7 weeks old.
Knox was able to walk on his own Friday and looked healthy, but he said he is still recovering from the spinal injury and the resulting surgeries and nerve damage.
"That was the worst thing that ever happened to me, but I couldn't give up," he said. "You can't ignore your struggles. You have to overcome."
Two different paths
Kerry Neal grew up in a single-parent home in a small town where the two main attractions were the stop light and the jail, he said. At 16, his best friend was shot and died right in front of him.
"I could have went down two different paths, but I chose the better route," Neal said. "It wasn't easy at all."
Neal said he turned his grades around and set his goal on getting out of his hometown and going to college.
He went on to start all 50 games of his college career on the Notre Dame football team and played for the Indianapolis Colts for one year. He now trains high school and college athletes at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park.
"I look at you guys and I see myself," Neal told the students. "Your struggles make you who you are as a person."
South Side to sled hill
Aja Evans grew up on the South Side of Chicago and ran track and field at the University of Illinois. While she was training for the Olympics, her coach approached her about trying a completely different sport -- bobsled.
In 2014, she was a member of the U.S. team that won the bronze medal in Sochi.
Growing up, Evans said, sports kept her on the straight and narrow.
"Around me, there were shootings, people getting robbed. I had to take two trains and a bus just to get home from practice," she said.
When a coach asked her to try bobsledding, she said she was intimidated; the sleds can go as fast as 90 mph. After her first time down the hill, Evans called her mom and said she wanted to give up.
Evans' mother told her to get back up the hill and try again. Three days later she set a course record at Lake Placid and made the U.S. National Bobsled Team.
Bobsled was a predominantly white sport dominated by European countries until recently. In 2014, Evans was among three black women to medal in the sport.
After the Olympics, Evans went to Arizona to train in track and field again, but she tore her ACL and had to take a break. Even that setback was a learning experience, she said.
"I learned things about myself I didn't even know were there," she told the students Friday.
She is studying for her master's degree and starting a foundation to provide mentoring and scholarships to Chicago Public School students. She also wants to go back to the Olympics and win a gold medal.
Vanguard Principal Kate Kraft said the day was great for her students, who need to hear about perseverance.
"Students don't end up at Vanguard by accident. It's usually because of some significant obstacle in their road to success," Kraft said. "But once they make up their minds to overcome, they can go on and thrive."
Without their education, all three athletes told the students, they would likely be a statistic and not have gotten to where they are today.
"It's scary to think about the other path I could have taken. I could have been like my friend who was killed or I could have wound up in prison," Neal said.
Students said hearing that life is hard for everyone, even sports heroes, was inspiring.
"It was really like, wow, I'm not the only person going through something," said Isaiah LeBron, a senior at Vanguard. "It was motivational to see them be able to do something with their lives.
"It just makes me want to do better," LeBron said. "I just hope that whatever I do I am able to be successful."
Sophomore Savannah Stegman said she wants to have a career in medicine one day, but she knows she has a lot of difficult school ahead.
"It just makes me want to keep going because they are all so amazing," she said. "I feel a lot better now."