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Annual forum helps students reach potential

College athletes selected for Leadership Forum explore untapped talents, skills

William Isabell, cornerback at Central State and a history major, was one of nearly 300 student-athletes selected by schools and conferences to attend the annual NCAA Student-Athlete Leadership Forum in Phoenix on April 7-10. (JUSTIN TAFOYA/NCAA PHOTOS)

When describing William Isabell, the word “ambitious” is an understatement.

The junior cornerback at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, has goals, ones with distant deadlines: The history major wants to become a mayor, then a governor, and when “2036 rolls around, I can try to put my name on the ballot for becoming president.”

While he works toward that date, Isabell was among nearly 300 NCAA college athletes who attended the annual NCAA Student-Athlete Leadership Forum April 7-10 in Phoenix. Athletics administrators at schools and conference offices nominated the young leaders, with a representation from all three NCAA divisions and various sports and majors.

LaChina Robinson, a former basketball player at Georgia Tech and current TV analyst, speaks about social media branding at the NCAA Student-Athlete Leadership Forum in Phoenix on April 9. (JUSTIN TAFOYA/NCAA PHOTOS)

Isabell and his new collection of peers – as well as 70 coaches, faculty and athletics administrators – came to the forum with distinct leadership styles. At the four-day program, they heard about social media branding from LaChina Robinson, a former women’s college basketball player-turned-TV analyst, and engaged in better communication tactics with body language expert Justin Patton. The participants also had the opportunity to interact with leaders from within college sports: national Student-Athlete Advisory Committee members and NCAA national office staff. The college athletes in attendance peppered these leaders with questions about current NCAA legislation, the future of college sports and how to get involved in the process to ensure their voices are heard.

“It is so unique to see such a young group of people that were ready to take on accountability,” said Robinson, who played basketball at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “A group that is ready to step up and take their schools and their teams to that next level.”

Isabell is active on Central State’s campus – he is the student government association liaison for athletics – and was recently elected vice chair for the conference SAAC in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. His conference SAAC advisor, Assistant Commissioner Kelly McBryan, nominated Isabell for the forum.

“You think you’re a great leader until you meet other great leaders,” Isabell said after the forum. “I always tell people, ‘To be a great leader, you have to once be a great follower.’”

The forum was a collaboration between two NCAA national office staff groups: governance and leadership development. The curriculum identified differing leadership qualities and strategies, and also provided instruction in how to evaluate the differences and similarities across all sports, campuses and cultures. Leading the curriculum were 18 administrators and coaches selected by the membership, who underwent effective facilitation training before the forum. When participants broke into smaller group sessions, called “color teams,” they entered thoughtful conversations on issues such as athlete identity, social justice and trust.

After the first night, Isabell called home to his mother. “I told her I never really felt this way around people that I just met,” he said. “I felt they had the same mindset as me.”

His path to Central State wasn’t the easiest. Born in Mississippi, Isabell is one of eight children in his family and grew up in Gary, Indiana. He had a steady hand in his high school football coach and formed an all-inclusive personality through his mother, who has cared for many foster children in addition to her own. “I’ve seen so much, so many families, just do the kids the way they do them, and I’ve been around many of them,” Isabell said. “I think I’ve been around at last 30 to 40 foster brothers, literally.”

Leadership through service was a consistent theme at the forum, one put into action April 9, when the student-athletes and administrators at the forum assembled jump ropes, filled lunch boxes, and wrote positive notes earmarked for 5,000 Phoenix schoolchildren.

It took a day or two for Isabell to find a level of comfort within his color team. He had a story to tell, but he wanted to hear others first. As he and his group went through the discussion-based activities, the conversations were slow to start. But as the topics shifted from leadership style to team dynamics to social justice, the stories emerged.

“When they shared those personal stories, no one disagreed. They agreed and built off each other,” said Lamarr Pottinger, assistant director of student-athlete services Jacksonville State University and one of the facilitators for Isabell’s team. “The family atmosphere built up to say, ‘We are leaders, we are student-athletes, and we can really make a change, positively, on our community.’”

William Isabell’s team participates in one of the leadership-based activities at the 2016 NCAA Student-Athlete Leadership Forum in Phoenix. (JUSTIN TAFOYA/NCAA PHOTOS)

“I leaned toward them,” Isabell said, “and was, like, maybe I can tell them some things about myself and about my family and situations that I have and tell them very heart-to-heart stories.”

For Isabell and his new peer group, the plan is to make the world better for others. Isabell didn’t wait for his return to Ohio to put change into action. Walking around downtown Phoenix at night, he saw homeless dotting the street corners. On his last night in the city, Isabell stopped and talked to a homeless man – asked where he was from, what he was going through. The man asked Isabell what his dreams and aspirations were. Isabell bought the man a hot dog.

Isabell’s stated platform for the 2036 U.S. presidential election: Curb poverty.