On a Wednesday afternoon in late November, the Vanderbilt football team split up practice between offense and defense. The offense headed off to the newly christened indoor practice facility, while the defense was left to run through drills outside.
The Vanderbilt defense, like the team as a whole, brings together players from all walks of life. The starters alone hail from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio and Texas.
But more than just geographic differences, the team brings together people from all sorts of backgrounds. The one unifying thing for the Commodores is the nose-to-the-grindstone mentality head coach James Franklin looks for and instills in his players.
For players like redshirt sophomore safety Jahmel McIntosh, redshirt sophomore defensive end Jimmy Stewart and senior cornerback Steven Clarke, an opportunity to play at Vanderbilt means more than just playing at the highest level of college sports. For players who come from lesser means, it is also a chance to receive an education at the highest level of academia.
“The college experience and what this can do to change kids’ lives is unbelievable,” Franklin said.
Without this opportunity granted to them by a football scholarship, it’s hard for many of these kids to imagine where they’d be. But they certainly wouldn’t be outside Dudley Field in the mid-40s November air doing what they love.
Safety Jahmel McIntosh
Jahmel McIntosh grew up on Hadley Street in Cleveland, Miss., on the corner of Johnson Avenue — not the nicest neighborhood in the Magnolia State.
Since his parents weren’t around for most of his childhood, McIntosh spent most of his time with his best friend Wayland Coleman-Dancer, whose family took him in at a young age.
McIntosh didn’t play Pop Warner football growing up because he was overweight, but he finally got a chance to start playing in seventh grade. Playing alongside his best friend and under the watchful eye of Cleveland High School football coach Casey Gilbert, McIntosh started to consider playing football at a higher level.
But there were obstacles in his way. Even after attending camps at Ole Miss, Alabama and Southern Mississippi, McIntosh still played in the shadow of teammates Coleman-Dancer and Randy Payne at Cleveland High. Bouncing between houses didn’t help either, as he was emancipated at the age of 15.
By his junior year of high school, things suddenly clicked for McIntosh. He realized that he didn’t have the money to pay for college, so football was his only option.
Unfortunately, not too many kids out of the Mississippi Delta make it to Division I football because of grades, so McIntosh put all of his effort into studying and football.
“It was my only option,” McIntosh said. “When I think about it, my story is really a blessing to be where I am and receive an education from Vanderbilt.”
McIntosh received his first scholarship offer from the University of Memphis in the spring of his junior year, but then he was hit with another hurdle. Gilbert, whose house he stayed at for most of high school, switched from coaching Cleveland to Pascagoula High School, and McIntosh had to find a new home.
Even though he didn’t want to be a burden, McIntosh finally decided to live with a friend from Itawamba High School for his senior year. However, the Mississippi High School Activities Association thought he was recruited to play at Itawamba, and McIntosh was ruled ineligible for his senior year.
McIntosh needed to play his senior year to prove to colleges he was worth a scholarship, so his only choice was to transfer back to Cleveland High School after three weeks to keep playing.
By the time Franklin was hired at Vanderbilt, his staff was already in touch with McIntosh. Assistant recruiting coordinator Norval McKenzie was particularly interested, and he asked for a highlight tape. Luckily a family friend, D.D. Hardy, was able to come up with one, but it was very low quality.
“I sent it to Coach Franklin,” McIntosh said, “and he was like ‘Man, I think that’s some great film. All I see is a white dot, and I think it’s you because you play defense. Do
you think you can get us some better quality film?’”
Eventually, McIntosh got a better tape, and McKenzie went down to offer him a scholarship. At that moment, McIntosh knew had found the right school.
Defensive end Jimmy Stewart
Jimmy Stewart grew up with his mom and two brothers in Cape Coral, Fla. Neither his father nor stepfather was around, and they didn’t pay child support.
Until the age of 6, Stewart and his family lived in a trailer. When Tropical Storm Charley hit the Gulf Coast in 1998, they had to stay in a shelter. Unfortunately, a tree was knocked down by the storm, splitting his trailer in half.
Displaced, Stewart had to move into Salvation Army temporary housing. After nearly a year they finally found a two-room apartment, where Stewart shared a room with his brothers.
Stewart started getting into football at age 9. His grandfather, who played at Bowling Green in college, helped pay for Stewart and his brothers’ league fees and equipment.
By the time he reached high school, Stewart realized he could play in college, which was enormously important for him because his mom, who struggled to find a job until he reached high school, could not afford college tuition.
In 10th grade, Stewart was already 6-foot-3, and his mom had locked down a steady job and a house. Within a year, he got his first two offers from Colorado State and Utah State, but it wasn’t until his senior year that he heard from a major conference school: Maryland.
Stewart committed to Maryland that fall, but when Franklin left College Park for the
head coaching position at Vanderbilt, he and his staff reached out to Stewart again. Nervous about going back on his commitment, Stewart agreed to take a visit.
“Everybody back home was like ‘Oh Vanderbilt, such a great school,’ and all I hear is great about Vanderbilt and the education,” Stewart said. “I was like, ‘This is a great opportunity for me.’ ”
Once he visited Nashville, Stewart fell in love with the coaching staff and switched commitments on Signing Day.
Defensive back Steven Clarke
Steven Clarke was born in Jamaica, where he lived with his parents, two brothers and sister. At the age of 9, he moved to New York, before moving to Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. three years later.
Neither of his parents went to college, and his dad was the only breadwinner as a construction worker, so the Clarke family lived on small margins.
“There were a lot of things I wanted, but I understood my place and what I had to do to get those things,” Clarke said. “It never was a thing I had to beg to get something or got jealous because someone else had it; I just knew I had to put my head down and work hard.”
Clarke didn’t actually play football until eighth grade; his older brother started playing earlier, and Clarke didn’t want to be home alone, so he picked up the sport.
In high school, Clarke just played for fun until he got offers at the end of his junior year from Miami and West Virginia. When he realized Division I football was well within his reach, he ran track to keep in shape and improve his speed.
Vanderbilt had been in the picture for Clarke since the end of his junior year, but the school never offered him a scholarship. Finally, Clarke got the chance to take an official visit after a strong showing in the Dade vs. Broward All-Star Game, and everything changed when he stepped on campus.
“It was hands down I wanted to commit since the first day,” Clarke said. “I decommitted from Miami — I got a lot of trash for that one — but I haven’t regretted the decision. Even though it’s a lot of hard work, I still feel like I’m here for a reason.”
When it comes to recruiting, Franklin looks for a certain type of player. He looks for blue-collar types, types that want to take advantage of every opportunity they get.
“I want to bring people here … that are going to be very appreciative of being a part of this football program, and being on a scholarship and being at Vanderbilt,” Franklin said. “That’s important to me. I don’t want people who are going to take it for granted.”
Oftentimes, but not always, this can mean players from modest means. At the same time, plenty of players could afford to come to Vanderbilt on their own. You just wouldn’t be able to tell the difference based on the team’s work ethic and demeanor.
Franklin is able to give these kids an opportunity to get a top-notch education to set them up for a bright future after football, an opportunity they would never normally be able to access. With criminology degrees, both McIntosh and Stewart hope to become
detectives or go into law enforcement, while Clarke hopes to become a guidance counselor with his human and organizational development degree and work at the Martha O’Bryan Center in Nashville.
“This scholarship speaks volumes,” McIntosh said. “When you can say you have a scholarship to Vanderbilt, … that demands respect. You can sit down in front of somebody, and you can talk to them and they respect you as much as you respect them.”
But even more than just changing these players’ lives, a scholarship to Vanderbilt changes entire families by setting a precedent.
“To this day (my dad) said he’s proud of me because he didn’t go to college,” Clarke said. “In my head, that’s not good enough. I want to go farther than what he expects me to do.
“Now I feel like I set the bar. Everybody else after me has to go either to this school or a school that they consider to be better academically. After all that is said and done with, I want to go back and go to grad school also to get a Masters. So now (my daughter) has to get a doctorate because whatever I get she has to do better.”