Growing up, I realized that I learned differently than the other kids around me. Everyone has their differences and adversities that they experience. Some come out about it; others don’t. Eventually, in life, there comes a point when you have to come face to face with yourself and build resilience. Ever since elementary school, I’ve struggled with having a speech impediment and finding my true self. It took a while to finally accept my flaws and strengths. I was born in Reston, VA, and moved to Winchester, VA when I was 15 years old, where I attended Millbrook High school. Most of the people that knew about my struggles as a student were my teachers or family; others may have thought of me as shy or quiet. Often, I got teased and bullied for not being as “smart” as the other students in the classroom, or people would look at me different because I had an individualized Education Plan (IEP), and a teacher’s aide. Being a teenager and getting bullied by students that didn’t know what I was going through on the inside made me feel undervalued as a kid. Not going to lie, it was hard trying to become a better version of myself while facing these daily challenges.
Imagine being insecure, coming into your freshman year of high school, and making the varsity basketball team where all eyes are on you. Looking back, I realize that sometimes individuals that are hurting inside feel the need to lash out at others to make themselves feel better; they must have been dealing with their own insecurities too. As a young man, all I wanted to do is go out on the court and play the game I love without having to worry about over-thinking how to keep my secret. Being on the court made me feel like I could be free to be me; it was my form of expression. Aside from playing sports, I was a kid who kept a small circle. I would mind my business, and hang out with family. I was never the type to make fun of other students, no matter what, and I learned who my real friends were.
When I was a junior in high school, I knew that after graduation I’d need an extra year of development, so my guidance counselor suggested that I attend a post-grad program. The post-grad program would allow me to use my accommodations from the learning plan for students with disabilities (IEP-Individual Education Plan). I’ve struggled with my learning disabilities since I was six, yet I always dreamed of attending college and playing college basketball. Although I would’ve loved to go to a four-year college straight out of high school, I knew that I needed an extra year of development both academically and physically. I was dedicated to advocating for myself and wanted to do everything that I could to be in the best possible situation for success, so I started preparing before graduation. After my four years at Millbrook high school, I felt confident, accomplished, and accepted. I finished with having the most points scored in men’s history at 1,523, and broke many other records as well. I was proud and honored to be the only person in school history to make the All-State team my senior year in basketball and football. My basketball coach, Coach Mankins had this very encouraging phrase that has stuck with me through the years- (P.A.C.E), Positive Attitudes Change Everything. A few weeks before graduating I wanted to share my personal story of overcoming, so I shared it with the local newspaper. My hope was that I could help others realize that they could overcome adversity, embrace who they are, and learn to accept others & their differences.
I attended Mount Zion Post Grad in Baltimore after Millbrook high school to improve my GPA, strengthen my body, and mentally prepare myself for the next level of basketball. Although I have a different style of learning, I’ve never let that keep me from my dreams of graduating from high school and college. After completing a year program at Mount Zion prep, I decided to take the Junior college route at Garrett Community College. During my time at Mount Zion Prep, I was able to play for Coach Rod, Coach B, and Coach Noddles. This was an eye-opening year with playing for coaches who teaches nothing but education, hard work dedicated. I learned that nothing comes easy and in life, you will need to work 10x harder because there is always someone who’s working to take your spot. I was very fortunate to meet some of my best friends through prep school. In practice, we pushed each other every day to become better players and we all connected like brothers off the court. Each player wanted to get better and the coaches help with making practice real competitive. I still talked to my teammates to this day and I thank Mount Zion staff for helping me mature as a young man.
While being kind of nervous to attend college my freshman year, I was blessed to connect with one of the best coaches in my basketball career. Coach Gibson who is a true role model made my college experience great. Coach Gibson preached about making smart choices off the court while being an athlete and how important it is to work on your craft. I believe Coach Gibson helped me become a leader by making me understand the role of a point guard on the floor. I didn’t know how important being an extension of the coach on the floor was; making sure all my teammates are on the same page on offense and defense. Coach Gibson understood how to push players and help us understand how to become a leader. He also helped me understand how important using your teammates is.
After two great seasons there I was honored to be listed as a first-team All-MDJUCO team, first-team all-region team and an All-American. Along with those individual awards winning the regional championship with my teammates was my favorite; which would lead to us qualifying for the National NJCAA tournament and were two games away from the National Championship game. I graduated in May of 2016 with my degree in General Studies and therefore closing my story at GC. After Garrett College, I attended the University of Pikeville (Division 1 NAIA) which is a member of the Mid-South Conference. I was a student-athlete with a two-year full-ride scholarship to play for the men’s basketball team and received a partial scholarship to play soccer while I completed my degree.
As time has passed, and I have matured into an adult, I’ve learned to manage & rise above the struggles. I want anybody who is going through challenges to know that you are not alone in this world and there is always something to be grateful for. Hard times in life help us grow and learn. Mental health and depression are real and should be addressed.
Being a student-athlete is not the easiest thing to balance and I don’t think people understand the magnitude, discipline, and responsibility that’s required to juggle it all. There was a lot of pressure for me to attend early morning classes, individual workouts, practices, study hall, late classes, and other activities that I was required to do, and then having to find time to study while balancing free time for a social life. It can be a lot of stress to handle if you don’t prepare yourself ahead of time. All student-athletes of any sport can relate to sleepless nights and early mornings. The pressure is “real”’! It doesn’t matter the level of college sport you play; it’s a life-changing experience and will expose your character on a whole new level. For me, it wasn’t the easiest route with the odds stacked against me. Some nights I felt “I’m not supposed to be here”, and even thought about quitting. Slightly, after having those negative thoughts, I would then refocus on my WHY & PURPOSE. Family is my number one priority and I always want to make them proud, especially my parents. If I had one thing that I could stress to others, it would be to keep a positive mindset.
I’ve realized that the energy you put out into the world is the same energy you get back, so I encourage people that no matter what challenges you may face, to always look at the positives.
My head coach, Kelly Wells, and assistant coach, Tigh Compton, at the University of Pikeville would always preach “stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready” and that always stuck with me. Even though it was said in a basketball term to be ready whenever your number is called; it was a term that could be applied to any situation in my life. I was honored to be the first player from a Pikeville men’s basketball team to win the Mid-South conference Champion of Character award. I was also blessed to receive two rings and win a conference championship. After three years at the University of Pikeville, I was able to graduate with my Bachelor’s Degree in Sports Management with a focus on youth development. From having a speech impediment, being teased and bullied, talked down on, people telling me I would never graduate high school or college, and all of the adversities throughout the years; ALL I had to do was believe in myself.
I’m the first person in my family to attend and graduate from a university. For me, it was bigger than myself. I wanted to break a generational curse and show others that if you believe in yourself, set goals, think positively, and surround yourself with positive people then you can do anything and be whoever you want to be in life. Combining my education, lived experiences, and training around Youth Mental Health First Aide, I help youth develop the skills needed to cope with depression and anxieties, learn to work as part of a team and acquire model leadership skills to make good decisions. Sharing my journey and the tools I have learned along the way has helped people open up about their feelings, and be more hopeful about their futures too.
I’ve always considered myself as a hard worker and very dedicated, but life has many rollercoasters. At the end of the day, it’s about growth and becoming a better version of you each day, while inspiring others to reach success on their own terms.
Rze Culbreath/Youth Ambassador
Founder: I’m Just Me Movement
Founder: National I’m Just Me Because Month,