Leading the leaders

High school student-athletes attend workshop

Marcus Tucker, a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a former Northern Michigan University football player, talks to participants during WednesdayÕs Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Service AgencyÕs Student-Athlete Leadership Workshop. A variety of speakers shared their experiences to help the local high schoolers. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — How hard is it to try a new sport, or even a new haircut?

Those were some of the challenges faced by high schoolers who took part in Wednesday’s Student-Athlete Leadership Workshop at the Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Service Agency.

However, those may be minor obstacles compared to what might face them later in their high school years.

The theme of this year’s workshop was “Leadership is doing what is right when no one is watching.”

Students from Westwood, Ishpeming, Negaunee, Burt Township, Gwinn, Munising, Republic-Michigamme and Marquette Senior high schools listened to a variety of speakers who gave advice on being leaders as student-athletes.

Kelly Sager, MARESA regional school health coordinator, urged the students to look upon the workshop as the opportunity for them to listen to “some pretty amazing people here that had some pretty outstanding experiences” and use that view as the goal for the day.

“You’re going to get out of it what you put into it,” Sager said.

The speakers, who ranged from a Northern Michigan University basketball coach to a wide receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers, had little trouble garnering their interest.

One of them was Charles Belt III, an NMU hoops coach who grew up in an environment very different from the Upper Peninsula students: urban Chicago.

“I went through some stuff that you all probably are going to never experience in your life — I hope you never experience,” Belt said. “And I’ve seen some stuff that you probably will never see.”

That “stuff” included the fatal stabbing of his sister.

So how did he end up as a successful university coach when past influences come into play?

“At the end of the day, though, you choose,” Belt told the students, who he noted belong to what he called the “mass shooting generation.”

He has some knowledge of that, having two bullet holes in his side from a basketball game in his younger days.

Although he acknowledged being angry over the incident, at the end of the day he chose not to respond negatively.

“When I got mad, I worked,” Belt said. “When I got angry, I found a way to channel it into something that was going to help me do something positive and be successful.”

In the same vein, he told the students to do something with their talents.

“Your gift, your talent, is God’s gift to you,” Belt said. “What you do with your talent is your gift back to God.”

Belt’s facing challenges wasn’t unique among the presenters.

Ishpeming High School teacher and coach Jeff Olson, whose son, Daniel — a star-athlete at IHS who committed suicide in 2012 after a battle with depression — talked about mental health and reducing its stigma.

“This is a very common medical illness,” Olson said. “When people say mental illness, everybody freaks out.”

It’s also nearly 100 percent treatable, he said.

However, more doctors who specialize in this medical area are needed in this region, said Olson, who works to educate people about mental illness.

“Ninety percent of suicides are completed from non-treated or under-treated mental illness,” Olson said. “So, if we want to eliminate suicides, if we want to decrease suicides, we have to treat the source.”

That means asking for help.

As leaders in their schools, students can play a part, he said, by understanding that mental illness is treatable, getting the issue out in the open and encouraging fellow students suffering from the disease to get help.

“As long as you understand, that’s going to help a lot of people,” Olson said.

Olson’s talk hit home with at least one student.

Negaunee High School sophomore Leo Helppi said: “It’s like a good experience being here, learning about all this stuff. That was a great message from coach Olson — suicide prevention. I really liked that. I’ve experienced things like that before in my life.”

NMU basketball players Kenton Mack and Chloe Tompkins also gave leadership advice to the workshop participants.

Tompkins put a big emphasis on support from fellow students.

“If you know someone who’s struggling, just listen,” she said. “Don’t try to tell them how to feel. Don’t try to tell them that their issues aren’t big enough or they shouldn’t be depressed over what they’re depressed over.”

Mack stressed the importance of perseverance and bouncing back.

During his NMU career, he suffered a torn meniscus.

“As someone who really just loves the game and wants to be out there helping, it really sucks when you can’t,” Mack said.

It wasn’t exactly a high point in his life when coaches sat down with him and told him he wasn’t going to play, which he called the most frustrating thing he’s ever experienced.

However, he did end up getting in some playing time.

“It was a really enjoyable season for me,” said Mack, with the recent end-of-the season meeting with the coaches focusing on how he could keep his status and go on from there.

“That shaped up for any challenge that’s going to come at me in life,” Mack said.

Mariah Dunham-LaPointe, a former basketball player at the University of Wisconsin and NMU who later became a coach and started her own company, Level Up Express, talked about taking risks with Dustin Brancheau, a personal trainer and owner of AdvantEdge Sports Training.

They’re in their positions because they got out of their comfort zones, she said.

“We made choices,” Dunham-LaPointe said. “We made risks and we stuck our necks out a lot and it got us to this spot.”

For instance, she decided to transfer from Wisconsin to NMU, which led her to coaching and insurance careers. At Level Up Express, she trains athletes.

“It’s not about what you do,” Dunham-LaPointe said. “It’s about how you make people feel.”

Brancheau said the risks he took led to subsequent steps in his life. He was faced with the options of being a graduate assistant at the University of Iowa or buying AdvantEdge at a “substantial amount of debt” — and an uncertain future.

After the purchase price was reduced, he took it as a sign and accepted the risk.

“From that moment on, I never looked back,” Brancheau said.

One presenter who has achieved success on the national scene was Marcus Tucker, who now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

How did he make a quantum leap from a Division II player, albeit a talented one, to the NFL?

Headed into his senior year and hoping to hear from Division I football schools, Tucker was told he was academically ineligible for that season.

“And it shook my whole world,” said Tucker, whose life had primarily revolved around sports.

Apparently, something had to change.

He switched from football to playing basketball on a scholarship at downstate Lake Michigan College. However, his passion remained with football.

“Whatever your passion is, that’s what you should seek,” Tucker said.

He eventually earned a 30 percent scholarship to play at NMU, where NFL prospects were low.

That turned out to be one of the best decisions of his life.

“If you don’t take those risks, you’ll never know what’ll happen,” Tucker said.

During his tryout for the Steelers, he made a fully extended, diving catch.

That catch changed his life, allowing him to make the team.

“It doesn’t matter how you get there,” Tucker said. “It doesn’t matter by what means you get into the building. It’s about what you do with your opportunity.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.