Derquazia Smartt has seen more A's than the first 20 pages of the phone book. Teachers beg to have her in class. She can't remember the last time she made a B.
"Never,'' she said.
But on the day she announced her choice of college -- her official signing day -- only one person was there. Not a reporter, not a photographer.
"My mom,'' Smartt remembered.
In high school, Robert Parr scored more points on his ACT than the Vols scored in three different football games last season. When he accepted an offer to enroll in UT's College of Engineering -- about as easy to get into as North Korea -- Parr didn't get much ink in the press.
"Just me and my family,'' he said.
If only Parr and Smartt had been good at football.
Today is National Signing Day, a time when high school seniors announce before crowds of breathless adults the place they'll play college football.
It is pure spectacle: Something minor is given massive importance. ESPNU runs 11 straight hours of TV time, bloggers get hand cramps, while across the country, valedictorians shake their big-brained heads and say: What about us?
"It's ridiculous,'' said Smartt.
Smartt and Parr are two of our area's best and brightest. Graduating high school last year as valedictorians, Smartt (Howard High) and Parr (Cleveland) represent our most promising future, our best chance at a new America.
Yet, quite frankly Scarlett, nobody gives a ----.
"A student such as myself is lucky to get a congratulations,'' said Smartt. "It's not viewed as anything big.''
Compare that to Vonn Bell of Ridgeland High.
Bell, a teenager so fantastically good at football that he's on a first-name basis with some of the best college coaches in the nation, will choose his future college this morning.
Not sometime. Not before lunch. Not after math class. But at 10:05, to be precise. Like it's a space launch or something.
ESPN will be there. His decision will be Tweeted, messaged, reported, praised and cursed, all by 10:06.
The kid is ... a kid. A teenager. Such attention borders on neglect, a willingness to exploit and over-burden the psyches of 18-year-olds with respect deserving of heads of state, not someone still looking for a prom date.
It is also a form of academic beheading: We symbolically chop off the head -- the origin of our thoughts and words -- in order to exalt the body and athletics. The mind is discarded to celebrate the body.
Remember Smartt? She had two scholarship offers. One was academic. The other was athletic.
"I chose academics. Education comes first,'' said Smartt. She's currently majoring in Criminal Justice (thinking about a double major in English too) at Tennessee State University.
Remember Parr? He walks the Knoxville campus in the big shadow of big football players.
"We're watching them on TV,'' he said. "They're not watching us.''
Parr's solution: double-down on the way we promote academics.
"I think the hype for academics could be a lot more,'' he said.
During National Signing Day, will anyone mention GPA? ACT scores? Interpretations of "Moby Dick"? (Nick Saban, a modern-day white whale).
"It has to do with entertainment,'' said Derek Roberts, a Polk County High valedictorian who's a freshman at Vanderbilt. (Only one B in his life; seventh-grade English. "I remember it thoroughly,'' he said).
OK. Fair enough. I admit: The Sugar Bowl is more fun than the Spelling Bee. And I genuinely wish Vonn Bell the very best.
But at what point do we stop distorting our priorities just because of entertainment?
"I think sports are great entertainment, can teach valuable lessons, and can help to bind people together,'' said Andrew Peace, who graduated with a 4.24 GPA from Boyd Buchanan and is now at Vandy.
"However people should realize that sports cannot sustain a society,'' he said. "Only academics can.''
Somebody, give him some attention.
David Cook is the metro columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. A graduate of Red Bank High, Cook holds a Master's Degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English literature degree from University of Tennessee-Knoxville. For the last twelve years, Cook has been a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...
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