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A sign of better things ahead

For Dallas Lincoln High School football players Tabari McGaskey, Jhaylind Owens and Marvin Knox, signing a national letter of intent Wednesday wasn't just about getting a free education.

It represented hope for a better life. Hope for their families. Hope for their children who haven't been born yet.

Their hope for a better future has zero to do with any dreams of playing professional football.

If it happens, then so be it.

But they're not going to college hoping to become professional athletes. They're attending college so they can learn to be successful men.

That's so much more important.

We should be way past the time when young, African-American teenagers believe the only way they can have the car they want, the house they want and the family they want is through professional sports.

That's a con.

Earning a college degree or learning a trade can be the gateway to everything they want in life.

All it requires is for them to make the same types of sacrifices they made on the athletic field in the classroom. Then, if they beat the odds and become professional athletes, they can have the best of both worlds.

McGaskey, ranked eighth in his academic class, is a linebacker who signed with Rice.

Owens, third in his class, and Knox signed with Langston (Okla.), which produced former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson.

Life at the corner of Hatcher Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, where Lincoln High sits, is perilous.

Drugs. Gangs. Guns.

Temptation resides everywhere.

The school -- which has fewer than 700 students -- and the neighborhood is shrinking. Development is something that happens elsewhere -- not in south Dallas. The median household income for folks in Lincoln's neighborhood is $16,000, and nearly half live below the poverty line.

Less than five percent have college degrees.

It takes strong young men capable at scoffing at peer pressure to ignore the lure of the streets and focus on their grades and SAT or ACT test scores long enough and hard enough to get a scholarship.

Many kids who attended inner-city schools such as Lincoln, Dallas Madison or Dallas Pinkston are the first members of their families to attend college.

Think about that.

Almost 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, we still have kids who are first-generation college students. What they must do is take advantage of the opportunity.

They can't let the system use them without getting their degree. A degree increases the odds they will become responsible contributors to society capable of supporting their families.

"I was raised by a single parent and I just want to do all that I can for her," McGaskey said of his mother, a teacher in the DeSoto Independent School District.

"My mom always made sure I focused on my education. She made me quit football in the eighth grade because I brought home a bad grade in algebra. All that made me do is work harder because I knew how much I wanted to play football."

McGaskey, who said he wants to be a pharmacist, is lucky because his mom, a graduate of Fresno State, insisted academics take precedence over football.

Owens and Knox are equally supportive. Each comes from a supportive family that has stressed education.

Owens' father, Ernest Owens Jr., graduated from Lincoln and played football at Jackson State. His mother, Natacha Lewis, graduated from Paul Quinn.

A defensive lineman, Owens is still exploring his options because he might wind up with an academic scholarship from Troy in Alabama.

"If he needed papers typed, I was here to help him," his mother said. "I never wanted him to have an excuse. College was a must.

"I wanted him to have all the opportunities he could possibly have. The only way to do that was to stay in those books."

Knox, a defensive lineman, wants to study business and finance. Making money is his motivation.

It's the reason his mother, Alma Knox-Timms, said she never worried about whether he was studying hard and focusing on his grades. She said he's always been driven to succeed.

"This puts me on the road to success," her son said.

Now, all McGaskey, Owens and Knox have to do is stay on it.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.