From Chronicle of Higher Education:

He hid them in a shoebox under his bed. “My own little secret,” he said.

Inside the box, he kept 10 thin paperbacks he was given as a child. For years he didn’t touch them. But as he reached 19, they became a lifeline.

Each night after dinner, he closed his dorm-room door, reached under his bed, and opened the box. Resting his head against the blanket his grandmother had made him, he pulled out the books: “First Grade, Level 1, Ages 6-7.”

Quietly, so none of his teammates would hear, he read aloud, moving his finger across the page.


The words are tattooed on his arms: “Family First.” But 23-year-old Dasmine Cathey looks after far more people than that. A buddy who just spent four years in jail. A local gang leader looking to join a church. A friend of a friend who had lost a brother. They all remind him a little bit of himself: abandoned at some point by family or friends, too weak to stand up for themselves.

Among Dasmine Cathey’s tattoos are two prominent words: “Family First.” It’s a reflection of his many commitments outside college.

Most mornings the University of Memphis football player rises just after 5 to drive one of those friends to work. He pushes his 6-foot-4 frame up from the recliner he sleeps in, steps quietly past his brother resting on the couch beside him, and readies himself for the day ahead.

On this day, a cloudy Wednesday in late February, he climbs into a beat-up van parked on the front lawn and drives up the road to fill the tank with just enough gas to make it through the morning. By early afternoon, when his first class of the day meets, the fifth-year senior will have logged more than 50 miles shuttling family members and friends to where they need to be.

Unfortunately for Mr. Cathey, all of that motion has not helped him get where he needs to be. With less than three months until graduation, he hasn’t shown up for classes in weeks. Last semester, during his final season of football, he failed three courses. That dropped his GPA below the 2.0 required to complete a degree, putting extra pressure on this semester’s grades.

On paper, three classes are all he has left. But for a guy who could barely read three years ago, every class is a mountain.


Growing up, Dasmine Cathey hated everything about school—reading, writing, even the smell of books. To him, school was nothing but a needless burden. Once you learned about your ancestors and your heritage, he figured, what else did you need to know?

He still remembers the day a middle-school teacher asked him to read aloud in class. As he mumbled through, clearing his throat on words he didn’t understand, he heard snickers around him. “How can you be so good at sports but so dumb in school?” a classmate asked.

His sixth-grade teacher suggested he enroll in a tutoring program to overcome his reading problems. Mr. Cathey’s parents didn’t have enough money, so an aunt helped cover the cost. He took classes for two or three months before dropping out. “You need the money more than me,” he told his mother.

By high school he still hadn’t read a single book. It took him hours to wade through a handful of pages, and by then he’d forgotten most of what he’d read. But outside of class, things were looking up. He was a finalist for Tennessee Lineman of the Year in football and played on a state-champion basketball team at Ridgeway High, in suburban Memphis. And so he got a pass. Few people seemed to care if he was learning.

If not for football, and his hope of one day playing professionally, he never would have set foot in a college classroom. He had offers from other colleges, but he stayed close to home so his mom could watch him play. His first year, there wasn’t much to see. His poor high-school grades and test scores forced him to sit out the whole season. Without his sport, he felt lost.

It was the job of Joseph P. Luckey, and the university’s eight-person team of academic advisers, to get him eligible to play.

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