Inside Daron Roberts’ Inaugural Captains Academy


Daron Roberts circles the fifth-floor conference room in Bellmont Hall, decorated with memories of Texas football’s recent past. One hundred and twenty high school sports captains from seven AISD schools watch him as he wears a figure-8 into the rug. The 2016 Captain’s Academy, led by UT’s Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation, is all about honing leadership skills, namely empathy, vulnerability, and bravery. And the UT lecturer, founder of the CSLi, and former Lions, Browns, and West Virginia Mountaineers coach is just warming up.

“If you need to go the restroom, now’s the time to do it,” he says, not looking at anyone in particular. “If you need to pray, do it now.”

When the clock hits 9 a.m., it’s go-time. He praises everyone for being on-time—half the battle, Roberts, BA ’01, Life Member, says.

“You look good, you smell good … most of you do,” he says. He gets laughs. He makes everyone pull out their phones and follow @UT_CSLi on Twitter and Instagram. One hundred-plus new followers in 15 seconds is a savvy social media tactic.

“Now kiss your phone, massage it,” he says, as the phones all go into a box. They’ll come back out for pictures and tweets, but not now. You can feel the air sucked out of the room. Now it’s time for an ice-breaker, and it’s simple: “Start meeting people, start talking, start loving.”

The small groups set team goals, like “learn how to be a leader,” “don’t be judgmental,” and “respect each other,” all lofty notions in theory, but Roberts and his staff of volunteers are about to teach his charges how to put this all into practice. Assessing the mood in the room, everyone still needs a bit of waking up.

“With this age group,” Roberts tells me, “you’ve got to keep them moving.”

The students are led to another room to anonymously write on a piece of colored paper what they conceive vulnerability to be, crinkle it into ball or a paper airplane. They form an enormous circle and aim their papers for a box in the middle of the room, then each grab a paper of a different color from the rainbow pile that has formed on the floor to read aloud. They sit back down to watch a video on empathy and vulnerability. Then they head back to their small groups to talk about it together. Up and down. Back and forth. It’s like conditioning drills, but for their minds. I circle the room to eavesdrop on a few conversations, my cynical mind fully expecting some major goofing off and secret texting from high school kids who haven’t followed directions. What I hear and see is engaged young people: eye contact, smiling, and thoughtful conversation. They’ve woken up.

IMG_5180“The research says that kids need to be speaking to each other three times as much as they’re hearing an adult speaking to them,” Roberts tells me, of the small-group work. “We let them learn through engaging each other.”

“You guys are crushing it!” volunteer fellow Katherine Plevka says. She’s a bright and energetic Duke graduate and former swimmer who works in a psychology lab at UT. She caught a Roberts speech her first month on campus and was hooked on his mission.

“I didn’t get exposed to any of this leadership development until college,” Plevka tells me. “That’s why I’m here today, because I think it’s super important to do this work early. The sooner you can get kids learning this stuff, the more they’ll ingrain it and make it their own.”

Plevka rolls the video about empathy a second time, but now, the captains are viewing it through a different lens. They’re breaking down tape. The second time around, half the room claps.

During a short break, I catch up with a trio of captains from Travis High School. What’s it like being a room where everyone is a leader?

“It’s really cool because they all go through the same things we do,” Travis volleyball, softball, and golf team member Analyssa Reddy says. “People make it seem like we’re trying to tell them what to do. We’re trying to help them out.”

Four-sport athlete Jayla Cavil accepted her invitation to attend immediately.

“I thought it’d be a great opportunity to learn how to become a better leader,” she says, and Reddy jumps back in, “and we can take that back to our school.”

Breonn Watson thought there might be some cold shoulders being in a room full of his gridiron, court, and track adversaries from AISD. “We have our rivals here, thinking they’ll have an attitude,” he says, “but no.”

“We set aside our differences to come together as one and help each other build,” Reddy says. “I’m ready to come back in April [for part two]. It’s gonna be fun.”


Just before the program ends, Roberts has a surprise: Freshman standout linebacker Malik Jefferson will give a short speech, followed by a Q&A session. Roberts tells a story of a class he taught last summer, before Jefferson had seen a single snap as a football player.

“This is a different guy,” Roberts says he told his wife that night. “Malik is figuring how he’s going to impact the world. He wants to change the game as a leader away from the field.”

As highlights from his freshman season roll on dual TVs behind him, the high schoolers ask questions about Jefferson’s toughest obstacles as a leader, what leadership means to him, and what to do when your parents are either unable or unwilling to help in the transition from high school to college.

“It’s your peer group,” Jefferson responds. “You have to separate yourself. I had two best friends who were successful in high school as well, [one being freshman wide receiver] DeAndre McNeal.”

After the program is over, Roberts sits down the first time in hours. “This is as good as a first run as we could have hoped for,” he says. Roberts mentions that they’ll modify the program going forward based on reactions by the captains. The learning goes two ways.

“We get their feedback, collect that data, and tweak it based on what we’re finding works for them,” Roberts says.

One thing I need to know, one question that has been weighing on my mind all day is: On a campus as large as UT’s, what responsibility does a public university have to extend education down to high school athletes who may not play in college or ever enroll at the University of Texas?

“This is not a recruiting pitch,” Roberts says. “Sports is a proxy to teach lessons, a conduit to teach these lifelong lessons. We’re using volleyballs and basketballs as a hook. Sports is the entry-point, not the destination.”

Photos by Anna Donlan


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