WVU student veteran and athletes 'speak out' to the WVU Board of Governors


Three West Virginia University student athletes and one student veteran presented at the November Board of Governors meeting. These four students presented speeches prepared as part of Veterans Speak Out and Student Athletes Speak Out, programs led by Dr. Carolyn Peluso Atkins, a professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders of the WVU College of Education and Human Services.

“This semester’s group had meaningful messages,” Atkins said. “While they are typically nervous about speaking before groups, they were especially anxious because of the particular attendees.  It is not often that students have the opportunity to speak before the Board of Governors. We appreciated President Gee’s invitation to do so.”

In 2010, Dr. Atkins launched Veterans Speak Out. This year, Jefferson Gwynn, an Army National Guardsman and WVU student from Wheeling, addressed the WVU BOG and the Alumni Association board of directors as part of the program.  In a speech titled, “Choosing Freedom,” Gwynn shared his thoughts on San Francisco’s 49er quarterback, Colin Kaepernick’s, action of refusing to stand for the National Anthem.  Kaepernick stated he would not stand for a country who “oppresses black people and people of color.”

Gwynn countered, “Do I agree that Colin Kaepernick and other have the freedom to sit during the National Anthem?  Yes.  Would I do that?  No.  Why? Because I understand that freedom doesn’t come free and I want to show respect to those who have paid for it.”

Gwynn, a third generation military member, understands that there are two sides to every issue, but stands his ground on the meaning of a “hope for a better tomorrow.”  Gwynn shared with the group what he feels it means to be American, stating that our flag represents our 50 states, the stripes the 13 union states, the star a symbol of the heavens, and colors representing purity, innocence, vigilance, perseverance, justice, bravery, and the patriotic blood spilled for this country. 

Gwynn concluded his speech reminding the audience to remember that “Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t carry just a piece of cloth to symbolize his belief in racial equality, he carried the American flag.”  Following the lunch, the three WVU athletes, wrestler Logan Wilson, baseball player Michael Grove, and football player Khairi Sharif, then addressed both boards and other WVU and Morgantown community members.

Sharif, an All-Big 12 Academic Second Team player from Houston, TX presented his speech “24 Hours.”  Sharif started playing football at age 6.  He focused on the meaning of perseverance in his speech, quoting the late artist Aaliyah, “at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again, try again,” sharing that the lyrics were embedded within his memory.

As a football player, Sharif was undersized and did not have the numbers or stats, but his work ethic was unmatched.  When he did not receive any offers on his high school signing day, his mother convinced him to persevere by attending a community college in California.  However, the team feeling he desired was not there. After enrolling at Houston Community College in 2014, he was encouraged to walk onto the WVU football team.

“The young man faced a lot of adversity to get there and a bit more once he got there, but he continued to work hard and persevere, 24 hours at a time,” Sharif stated in his speech.  “Now in case you haven’t realized, that young man is me.”

Sharif agreed with former Green Bay Packers Coach Coach Vince Lombardi, “Football is like life – it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication, and respect for authority.”  He concluded by quoting Eric Thomas, “Don’t think about what can happen in a month.  Don’t think about what can happen in a year.  Just focus on the 24 hours in front of you and what you can do to get closer to where you want to be.”

In “Living the Creed,” Wheeling, WV native Michael Grove spoke on three things he has learned in his time as an athlete in both high school and college. “First, I learned to swallow my pride and take responsibility,” stated Grove. 

The second lesson learned was taught by his WVU baseball coach, Randy Mazey.  Mazey required the team to learn the Mountaineer creed and the acronym PHACE the first time they met.  PHACE stands for pride, humble confidence, accountability, commitment, and energy. According to Groves, both the creed and the acronym emphasize the idea of team before self and believing in yourself, while also having humility.

The third lesson Grove spoke about was to enjoy every minute of the game. “It goes by too fast, in the blink of an eye.  Sports embody the very spirit of commitment and competitiveness.  It leads to friendships, brotherhood and memories that last forever.”

The final speaker was wrestler Logan Wilson, a Maryland native, who spoke about “Learning from Adversity.”  At a young age, Wilson was diagnosed with Lyme’s Disease that had been untreated for 8-12 weeks and had progressed into bacterial meningitis. He spent 16 days in Children’s Hospital in Washington, DC.

Despite the meager prognosis, Wilson continued to stay positive and strong.  “I’m reminded of the quotation you never know how strong you are until strong is the only option you have.”  Wilson credited his recovery to his dad’s continual commitment to his health.

“Parents often do amazing things for their children that are completely selfless.  Thinking only what’s in the best interest of their child.  [My dad] could have very well gone home and slept in his own bed and not had to eat at the hospital cafeteria.  He didn’t expect anything in return or want anything, just to be there for me,” stated Wilson.  “The quote that really sums up my experience is – ‘Hope is being able to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel, despite all the darkness.”

Student Athletes Speak Out began in 1990, the brainchild of Dr. Atkins. The program was initiated as an opportunity to emphasize character education to middle school students.  For the past 26 years, Dr. Atkins has worked with student athletes in the program enhancing their public speaking and confidence and encouraging them to share their stories. Dr. Atkins has worked with athletes such as Canute Curtis, Darius Reynaud, Pat White, Steve Slaton, Major Harris, Tavon Austin, Averee Fields, Amos Zereoue, Da’Sean Butler, Johann Herber and numerous others through her program. 

The speeches were live streamed during the event.  Those interested may access the speeches by visiting http://saso.wvu.edu.

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