A good backup plan

Published 11:53 pm Friday, January 14, 2011

Athletes are not generally known for their academic prowess. It’s the work they do on the field or on the court that brings them glory. It’s their talent for shooting a basketball or running a football or kicking a soccer ball that the very best rely on to earn their living.

But few athletes will ever reach a level at which they can earn a regular paycheck playing the sports they love. Most can play at the recreation league level. The good ones might play in high school. The best of that group can play at the college level. And a few will transfer that college experience to time with a semi-professional outfit. Only a very tiny percentage, however — the very elite — will ever suit up for a professional team. And only a vanishingly small percentage of that group will ever make it big in the pros.

There’s a reason everyone knows the names Brett Favre and Lebron James: They stand almost alone in the rarified air of their chosen professions not just because they are so much better than others who might aspire to their positions, but also because there’s not all that much room there for anyone else.

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That’s why educators and good parents encourage their young charges to pursue their hoop dreams, but also insist that they also pursue their studies with the same zeal they show on the court or in the field.

Zach Johnson, a junior center on the King’s Fork High School basketball team, has the type of drive that would make either his coach or his guidance counselor proud. He’s good on the court — scoring 20 points in a tough game this week — but he’s hedging his bets with a strong academic performance that has landed him a place in the Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars program run by the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton.

Students who complete the program earn college credits and could be invited to a summer program at Langley.

“It’s an introduction for us into the aerospace engineering field. It’s perfect for me. If basketball doesn’t work out, I want to have a career in aerospace engineering, making and designing aircraft,” Johnson said recently.

“Sometimes I’m up until 2 a.m.,” he added. “Last night (after the Lakeland game), I had to do some work on one of the modules after my regular homework. After the game, I was so tired. I got home, showered, ate, then had to work.”

Basketball may or may not work out for Johnson in the long run. But with that kind of work ethic, we’ve got a feeling he’ll be pretty successful, either way.