Student-Athletes Dive Deeper into Leadership Roles

Designed specifically for student-athletes carefully selected by their coaches, the group is made up of 36 Wildcats who are believed to have high potential to influence and lead their teammates both on and off their respective playing field. On Wednesday evening, the group gathered for the first time to learn about the program and hear from special guest speaker, former K-State football safety Jon McGraw (1997-2001).
"We have a special opportunity here to engage students together, to work together and to develop a community of high performance leaders," said Ian Connole, K-State Athletics' Director of Sport Psychology, to the group.
Connole, along with K-State Athletics Director of Life Skills Cori Pinkett, opened the meeting explaining the new program to the student-athletes in attendance.
A two-year process, student-athletes begin the Leadership Academy as sophomores and first-time juniors (the Emerging Leaders program) and conclude it as returning juniors and seniors (the Veteran Leaders program). From sharing goals to hearing from guest speakers to exercises in which leadership skills are tested, the goal after two years in the program is to create student-athletes who will impact and influence their teams and be equipped to take on the world as leaders after their time at K-State.
"For me, we always talk about how I'm not being vocal enough," explained men's basketball sophomore guard Marcus Foster on what he hopes to get out of the program. "People look to me as a leader, so I've got to be vocal and lead all the time, even when the coaches aren't there. I've got to be a leader in the locker room when it's just us."
Similarly, cross country front-runner junior Mary Frances Donnely said she hopes to use the program to grow as a leader for her team as well.
"Cross country, it's all just so mental, so you really need someone to be a leader," explained Donnely. "Not necessarily a vocal leader, but someone you can look up to and say, 'Well, they're pushing through it, and they're pushing hard.' I think, for me, I want to separate from focusing so much on myself and start helping others prepare and do their best."
After Connole and Pinkett spoke with the group, McGraw, a second round selection in the 2002 NFL Draft by the New York Jets, took the attention of the young leaders and told them about his journey in sports. 
A graduate of Riley County High School, McGraw walked on to the K-State football team and, after "working his tail off," earned a starting spot as a safety for head coach Bill Snyder by his junior season. 
McGraw saw plenty of success at K-State and helped lead the Wildcats to a 35-21 win over the Tennessee Volunteers in the 2001 Cotton Bowl. During his NFL career, he spent three seasons with the Jets, two years with the Detroit Lions and closed his football career close to home playing five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Staying in Kansas City, McGraw now works with Vision Pursue - a group dedicated to teaching emotional intelligence to people of all ages and walks of life.
"We're helping bring awareness to and redesigning thought patterns to create the ideal emotional state for peak performance," McGraw explained about Vision Pursue. "At the end of the day, we're about performance, but the byproduct of that is that people enjoy performing, enjoy what they're doing and enjoy relationship experiences much more than in their old way of thinking."
The student-athletes sat wide-eyed as they listened to McGraw speak. McGraw shared his first-hand experiences as both a student-athlete at K-State and a professional athlete in the NFL. He talked about the different leadership qualities of coaches he played for, teammates he played with and how he used his unique leadership qualities to better himself both on and off the field.
"It was a good thing to listen to him," said Foster. "He's been through a lot. I go through a lot just playing sports here, and he took his sport on to a professional level - I know that's even harder. So for him to work as hard as he does - he's a leader, he was elected a team captain - that's a good deal. I would like to walk in his footsteps."
When McGraw was playing football at K-State, opportunities like the Student-Athlete Leadership Academy weren't available at the time, but he said he wishes they were. He said it took him some time to learn how to get into the right mindset to be a leader, so he is excited for this group of K-State sophomores and juniors who now have the opportunity to utilize the program.
"I think it's fantastic," McGraw said about the Student-Athlete Leadership Academy. "The more programs we have that cultivate leaders and really assist them in their role, I think it not only impacts them personally, but also with their teams. Hopefully it permeates with the teams and affects everyone in a positive way." 
Through K-State's new, unique leadership program, the next generation of Wildcat leaders is about to emerge - and now, they're better equipped than ever before.

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