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Pope to all athletes: Have your academics in order

Former UGA and Americus-Sumter star Leonard Pope, left, is presented an appreciation award by South Georgia Tech President Sparky Reeves during Tuesday’s Black History Month celebration. (Nadine Pope/Special to The Herald)

Former UGA and Americus-Sumter star Leonard Pope, left, is presented an appreciation award by South Georgia Tech President Sparky Reeves during Tuesday’s Black History Month celebration. (Nadine Pope/Special to The Herald)

BY TIMOTHY THREADCRAFT

SPECIAL TO THE HERALD

AMERICUS — It was quite fitting that former Americus-Sumter tight end Leonard Pope began his speech with a nod to Carter G. Woodson — who founded the Journal of Negro History that would later bring about the celebration of Black History Month — at the South Georgia Technical College Black History celebration on Tuesday morning.

After working in years for Kentucky coal mines, Woodson earned his high school diploma in two years at the age of 22. He would go on to earn his doctorate at Harvard.

The theme of South Georgia Tech’s celebration ceremony was “Then A Dream, Now A Reality,” and Pope is no stranger to dreams deferred. Pope was among key players in Americus-Sumter’s back-to-back state titles in 2000 and 2001, earning All-State honors — and his college, and professional future, looked bright.

However, after he earned a scholarship offer from the University of Georgia, Pope hit a bump in the road before enrolling. Though he passed the Georgia High School Graduation Test, his SAT scores fell just 20 points short of qualifying (on a scale from 200-800).

“It hurt, man, because every Friday night after a big game, I couldn’t go hang with my friends like everyone else,” he told the huge crowd on hand. “I was getting up early Sunday morning trying to get test prep in Cordele or Albany. I tried everything, but still couldn’t get the score. It was a bitter pill to swallow.”

Despite signing his national letter-of-intent with the Bulldogs, Pope instead had to enroll in Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., where he worked tirelessly to improve his academic standing.

“(At Hargrave), we had 13- and 14-year-olds telling us what to do!” Pope said with a laugh. “We had to march to the beat of a drum, wearing button-ups every day, in formation and everything. We had to practice in a cow pasture.”

After excelling on the field and in the classroom, Pope’s invitation to join UGA was still there — much to the relief of Pope’s family.

“From Hargrave to UGA was the hardest. Those 20 points almost killed us over that year, but we made it,” beamed Karen Pope, Leonard’s mother. “He’s come a long way. The whole process has been like the offseason in the pros: It’s hard for the guys to concentrate. It’s a day-to-day struggle.”

Pope was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 2006 and went on to play in a Super Bowl with them against the Pittsburgh Steelers before being picked up by the Kansas City Chiefs two years ago. Then last year, the Steelers called Pope and asked him to come in for a tryout.

They signed him less than a week later — and every day, he told the crowd Tuesday, he feels thankful for the opportunity.

“The NFL stands for Not For Long,” said Pope, who majored in consumer economics at UGA. “I would advise that all aspiring athletes have their academics in order and enroll in college prep (courses), because a diploma goes a really long way. You’ve got to give back to your community while you still can.”

Pope does plenty of that.

He holds an annual Kids Day in Americus each year to encourage children to get out and exercise, and he also routinely helps out at Phoebe Sumter Medical Center, where he was born 29 years ago. He donated thousands of dollars to Americus after the 2007 tornadoes that killed nine people and injured dozens.

Pope also had at least one unplanned bit of community service he performed recently.

During the 2011 NFL lockout, Pope — who was back home attending a birthday party of a friend — saved the life of Bryson Ross, a second grader at Sumter Primary School and son of a childhood friend who had fallen in a nearby pool and was drowning because Ross couldn’t swim. A fully-clothed Pope — with his cell phone in his pocket — didn’t think twice, and he jumped and saved the boy.

Pope said he still thinks about that day all the time. He told the crowd Tuesday that everything happened so fast, he only remembers hearing Bryson’s mom cry out for help.

“We’ll be close for life because of it. I have two daughters of my own, so I wouldn’t want anyone to leave mine stranded in a situation like that,” Pope said.

Ross was actually was on hand Tuesday at South Georgia Tech to sing during the Black History celebration as a member of the school’s choir — and Pope had no idea he would be there.

“It was pretty cool for them to see each other again,” Pope’s aunt, Nadine, said.

The 6-foot-8, 264-pound Pope, who caught just three passes for nine yards last season in Pittsburgh — although two of his three catches were for touchdowns — said Tuesday that hopes to be re-signed by the Steelers next season. But he knows there’s likely to be a lot of changes since Pittsburgh had such a down year.

“We went 8-8 this year, and that isn’t a losing season, but in the eyes of the Steelers it is, because you know, we’re in the playoff hunt just about every year,” he said Tuesday. “I signed a one-year with them last year, so we’re gonna see what happens in the coming months. I mean, I love coming to work with guys like (QB Ben) Roesthlisberger, (LB) Troy Polamalu and (DE) James Harrison. It’s a great work environment. Right now, I can only keep working out and hope for the best.”

Either way, Pope won’t give up keeping his NFL dram alive — a lesson he learned early on in his football career and one he hopefully imparted on those who came to hear him speak in Americus on Tuesday.

“I’ve still got to keep preparing, working out,” he said. “Like my mom said, it’s an every day grind. But that’s the only way you reach your dreams.”