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Shattering Stereotypes

Shattering Stereotypes

Track and field standout Isaac Matthews says he has worked hard to overcome the myth that he can’t both be a dominant athlete and at the top of his class.

By David Pluviose

Top Male Student – Athlete
School: University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Year: Senior
Major: Mechanical Engineering
Cumulative GPA: 3.88
Fall 2006 GPA: 4.0
Sport: Indoor & Outdoor Track and Field

Any highlight reel documenting the accomplishments of Isaac Matthews both inside the classroom and on the track would make for a true crowd-pleaser. Though holding down a 3.88 GPA as a mechanical engineering major would be a full-time endeavor for most students, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County senior still finds time to serve as treasurer for the school’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. He’s also a motivational speaker for NASA Sharp students, a mentor and tutor to high school and middle school students and a concert cellist. And he’s a member of an NAACP outreach program to encourage and motivate minority youth.

Matthews’ passion to excel is also evident in his performance on the track. Matthews finished seventh in the 800-meter run at the 2005 America East Indoor Championships; finished eighth in the 800 at the 2004 America East Outdoor Championships; and among other accolades, he was named a Toyota Athlete of the Week in 2003.

Matthews also holds a Meyerhoff scholarship at UMBC. The Meyerhoff program was specifically designed to populate high-demand science, technology, engineering and math fields with minority scientists who are both world-class scholars and social-conscious mentors, says LaMont Toliver, the program’s director. Toliver likens Matthews to a modern-day renaissance man.

“When you talk about a prototype for a scholar-athlete …  if you were searching for a well-rounded intellectual with the potential to be the Paul Robeson of our time — he’s that well-rounded. He’s an accomplished cellist, athlete extraordinaire, scholar, a leader within the UMBC community as well as the Meyerhoff community. You expect this coming from the director, but if it were not true, I wouldn’t say it. I think the world of him,” Toliver says.

Matthews gets similar kudos from the head track and field coach at UMBC, David Bobb. He says Matthews “epitomizes the student-athlete because he always puts academics first. It’s just a joy to see a young man do what he has done in the major that he has done it. It’s always a plus to see someone handle and balance academics and athletics.”

Matthews says he brings a holistic approach to his roles as athlete and scholar. Though some say athletics has the potential to detract from classroom performance, Matthews says he excels in the classroom due in part to the welcome diversion that
track provides.

“I don’t think I could do well in academics without having an outlet such as track to give me [relief] from a lot of the stresses that are involved in academics,” he says. “Of course there are stresses in athletics, but those stresses, I think, keep me and my body sound and my mind sound as well — it gives me that balance that I need.”

However, what’s most striking about Matthews is his aversion to discussing his achievements in favor of discussing his passion for mentoring those following in his footsteps. As a young Black student, Matthews says he has struggled to shatter stereotypes that say he can’t both be a dominant athlete and at the top of his class.

“For me, it started off with teachers saying a ‘B’ is good. If you get ‘A’s, they don’t think you’re Black anymore. I feel like I did good work. I deserve an ‘A.’ I expect an ‘A,’” he says.

“It becomes an issue like being academic either pulls away from you being Black, or pulls away from you being a man — it’s very difficult. It’s something you face just because of the social construction of our nation and even the world,” he continues. “There are more Black doctors than there are basketball players, but you don’t see the image that ‘OK, you should go be doctors.’ You see the image of ‘You make quick money’ playing basketball. It’s one of those things that’s perpetuated in urban settings and worldwide. As the numbers increase, as you have more Black engineers, professors, that image can be defeated by the numbers.”

Matthews speaks with a sense of purpose when he talks about mentoring young African-Americans to achieve their full potential, not just on the court or the track, but on college campuses and in cutting-edge industries. He relates a story about mentoring two young Black males who immediately passed him off as a bookish “geek” upon meeting him. When Matthews queried them about their hobbies and future goals, their aspirations revolved around playing basketball, something they assumed Matthews wasn’t interested in.

“So I said, ‘Let’s play basketball.’ We played and I pretty much spanked them,” he says. “It’s funny the look that they gave me, ‘How do you do that? How do you play basketball and do well in school?’

“What do you mean how do you do it? You can do both. It’s not uncool to do well in school, as a matter of fact, when you get older, it’s going to be a cool thing to do, having opportunities and being able to do a lot of things you want to do. You may not like school, but it’s a tool. Mechanics don’t really say, ‘I love this tool,’ they just love to fix cars. And school is the tool to be able to do whatever you want to do.”

Matthews declines to “take credit for anything that I’ve done, just because I feel like I have a responsibility to at least be a role model or a leader for those who may not have role models or leaders.” And it is this quality, Toliver says, that sets Matthews apart from his peers as the 2007 Arthur Ashe Jr. Male Sports Scholar of the Year.

Past Arthur Ashe Male Sports Scholars of the Year*

2006: David Castillo, Florida State University, Football: He has been accepted into Florida State University’s Medical School and will begin classes with the new term this summer.

2005: Chris Hill, Michigan State University, Basketball

2003: Nathan Irvin, University of California, Riverside, Track & Field

2002: Ben Foster, Wofford College, Football

2001: Archie Craft, Langston University, Football

2000: James Greer, Howard University, Football

1999: Kareem Abdul Jabbar Jr., Western Kentucky University, Basketball

1998: Patrick Stephen, Northern Illinois University, Football

1997: Kelvin Saulsbury, Rust College, Basketball

1996: Jacque Vaughn, University of Kansas, Basketball

1995: David Simmons, Coe College, Wrestling

*Arthur Ashe Sports Scholar Award was not presented in 2004

–David Pluviose

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