Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson, less than a month into his academic career at the University of California-Berkeley, is still adjusting.
He's writing a paper for his Standard American English class at one of the nation's true brain wave schools. A few weeks ago, he experienced a setback by his standards.
"I received a 79 (percent) on my first paper in that class, it near killed me; I have to speak with him (the instructor) about it and find out what I need to do," DeBoskie-Johnson said.
Understand, DeBoskie-Johnson is not your average student-athlete. Rather he's an exceptional one who graduated with a 4.1 grade-point average (on a scale of 4.0) in December from Hamilton High in Chandler, Ariz., and enrolled early in college after signing a national letter-of-intent to play football for the Golden Bears.
DeBoskie-Johnson, with an iron-clad will to succeed, is self-driven, emblemizing the Franklin D. Watkins Memorial Trophy Award.
Like the rest of the finalists, he looks for an edge, continually striving for excellence.
"(The Watkins Awards) is like winning the Heisman Trophy for high school football players," said DeBoskie-Johnson, one of the five finalists for the award presentation Saturday in Los Angeles honoring the top African-American male student-athlete in football, basketball or baseball.
The award, sponsored by the National Alliance of African American Athletes (or The Alliance), was initiated in 1992 to promote academic excellence among young African-American males. It was named after an unsung football coach from Harrisburg, Pa., who worked miracles with black inner-city males, giving hope and direction, before succumbing to cancer in 1989.
Saturday night's black-tie affair is traditionally emotional. The keynote speaker is sports columnist William Rhoden of the New York Times and co-emcees are actress Claudia Jordan and comedian-radio personality Lamont King (a.k.a. Lazee Lamont).
The road to Los Angeles begins at the onset of a candidate's senior year when the nomination packets are mailed. Candidates must submit an essay and provide at least three referrals from a school official, media member and community leader.
Shane Battier, a Watkins finalist in 1997, penned an essay which encapsulated the award's core beliefs. Battier, who attended Detroit Country Day School in Michigan and later earned a bachelor of arts from Duke.
"My stature and character have always set me apart. Some call me an inspiration, a leader, and pillar in the community. Being a 6-8, intelligent, articulate, black man, I know I defy many stereotypes that modern society places upon me," Battier said. "I believe that along with my success on the basketball court, comes the responsibility of being a role model and teacher for not just today's youth but society as a whole. A responsibility that does not end with the end of my basketball career, but one that I will continue to uphold throughout my life"
Battier's words still resonate a decade later and for the finalists Saturday will be an initiation into an exclusive fraternity.
DeBoskie-Johnson will be joined by Matt Daniels, Brandon Moore, Kenneth Page and DeVier Posey at the Century City Intercontinental Hotel. All five have signed their national letters to play football in college.
"Even though the trophy goes to one of them, he (the recipient) represents them all because they are all winners and now a part of the Alliance," said Everette Pearsall, the executive director of the Alliance.
Matt Daniels, a senior from Fayette County High in Fayette, Ga. (near Atlanta), agrees as he looks to the future.
"Being an (Watkins) finalist is an honor because you are recognized for your abilities and intelligence from millions of candidates," said Daniels, who will attend Duke in the fall. "I'm looking forward to meeting people in the Alliance, sitting down with successful businessmen for their advice and talking with NFL players.
"Networking with successful people is always important; I want to hear how they did things," he said.
Brandon Moore, who attends Trotwood-Madison High in Trotwood, Ohio, was tipped off by a coach in October and completed the paperwork before the Nov. 1 deadline.
"I wasn't familiar with the (Watkins) Award but it honors African American student-athletes," he said. "It's a blessing to be considered one of the five finalists."
The finalists are proven student-athletes with impressive dossiers:
• Matt Daniels, Fayette County High, Fayetteville, Ga.: Daniels, an all-state safety, still found time to record a 4.0 GPA while claiming the highest grades at his school in chemistry, Spanish and World History; and was a Georgia Merit Scholar (top 5-percent of the state's scholars).
"I chose Duke because I want to make a difference in their program," he said. "Leaders are born; I'm comfortable leading others."
He also did several community services projects, delivering food and gifts to the homeless, mentored local fourth graders and was a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
• Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson, Hamilton High, Chandler, Ariz.: Graduated early and is enrolled at California-Berkeley. He maintained a 4.1 GPA at Hamilton and was presented the Arizona Principals Award of Excellence.
DeBoskie-Johnson was a teenager with influence in Chandler. He tutored and read to elementary school children and was named volunteer of the year. He started several fundraisers including one to benefit a teammate who was paralyzed from the waist down following a football injury. He also coached in the Chandler Youth Football League.
"He was always committed in the classroom," former Hamilton coach John Wrenn said. "He's a class individual with goals. Academics were always a priority and he always found time to help out (in the community)."
• Brandon Moore, Trotwood (Ohio)-Madison High: Moore will graduate with a 4.25 GPA and attend Michigan with the goal of becoming an ophthalmologist or optometrist. He is a member of the National Honors Society.
An All-American tight end and one of the state's top shot putters, Moore enjoyed volunteering with children. He countless hours spent the last two summers coaching kids with the Northwest Track Club.
• Kenneth Page: A.C. Flora High, Columbia, S.C.: Page holds a 3.8 GPA and will attend Clemson in the fall. He nominated for the Wendy's Heisman Award.
Page, a talented offensive guard who played in the Under Armour All-American Football Game, found time for numerous activities.
He was the named captain of the Carolina Panthers Community Award and president of SECME and FCA. He was role model for local youngsters, speaking at several grade schools and served as a peer tutor. He also volunteered at local churches and coached youth football.
"This award encompasses mainly what you do off the field," he said. "I like working with younger kids and tutoring my teammates in math. I connect with helping others."
• DeVier Posey: LaSalle High, Cincinnati: Posey is a powerhouse in the classroom with a 3.4 GPA in a demanding college preparatory setting.
Posey, an All American who was named the Maxwell Award (nation's top high school wide receiver), will attend Ohio State. Posey is considered one of Ohiofs top sprinters this spring.
He helped coordinate food drives in Cincinnati to feed the homeless and took it upon himself to mentor three neighborhood boys. He also assisted senior citizens, aided a project to restore and beautify a rundown cemetery and was a church volunteer. Last fall he was a LaSalle ambassador welcoming the incoming freshman class.
"I'm not too heavy in one area (of life), I like to think Ifd be comfortable in any environment," he said. "Sports, academics, volunteering and my belief in God make me well rounded."
The Alliance's goal is simple: is to facilitate the development of African-American males in American society and is a working collaborative of three components -- Programs and Public Education; The Black Male Athlete Economic Cluster; and The African American Male Information Initiative.
"We want to change how African American athletes are viewed," said Pearsall, who played football at Geneva College in Pennsylvania and is currently the director of sales for a startup computer technology company. "There are great athletes who have 4.0 GPAs and we hope others will pattern themselves after them.
"We're trying to highlight these athletes and present them in a positive light. These are good people and we're rewarding them for being good servants to their communities," he said.
Dr. Alexander L Gabbin, a professor of accounting at James Madison University, chairs the executive committee and says the award is two-pronged.
"It recognizes the effort to help young black males, who if you look at all the statistics are at high risk in the inner cities. It also uses athletes who have credibility and visibility as roles models to address the problem; a problem that has not been fully addressed in this country," he said.
Previous Watkins Award winners have set a high standard.
Andrew Davis (2007) and Myron Rolle (2006) graduated early leaving for Oregon and Florida State, respectively. Twelve finalists have reached the NFL or NBA.
Several have received scholarships to high academic schools such as Notre Dame, Penn State, Stanford, Michigan and Northwestern.
The first recipient, Robert Tate, matriculated from Cincinnati. Ronald Curry of the Oakland Raiders, a two-sport star, went to North Carolina; and the 2003 recipient, Sam Cheatham, currently attends Northwestern.
Watkins finalists include LaVarr Arrington, Lorenzo Alexander, Justin Blalock, Marcedes Lewis, Ernie Sims III and Ted Ginn Jr.
"About 95 percent of them finish school, unless they've declared early for the pro, and many have earned master's degrees," Pearsall said.
Julie Posey, whose youngest son is a finalist, was "flabbergasted" when DeVier was named a finalist in December. She also noted the Alliance's portrayal of young African American is refreshing.
"To think my son is a role model for other African American males is a little intense for a parent," she said.
Page, a 6-4, 300-pound with a selfless demeanor, is still digesting the magnitude of the honor but he hopes "an award like this shows African American males should not be stereotyped as 'gangsters' rather as trail blazers who want to change the way people think."
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.