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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Former ODU Football Player Rashaad Coward, now with the Chicago Bears, honored for his work with students

By Harry Minium

When he played football for Old Dominion University, Rashaad Coward was always among the first to volunteer to perform community service.

"He was one of the most active players we had in terms of community service," coach Bobby Wilder said. "Whatever he did, whether it was Special Olympics or our bone marrow drive or going into schools in the local community, he always did a fantastic job."

That's because Coward has never forgotten where he came from - a neighborhood in Brooklyn that was overcrowded and plagued by gang violence.

"Our mom kept us in the house so we wouldn't have to deal with gang activity," he said a few years ago. "Sometimes things happened to kids who just hung around the neighborhood."

When he enrolled at Sheepshead Bay High School, there was little focus on academics. Fortunately, his parents pushed him to study hard so he could go to college. Of his 22 football teammates, only he went on to college.

He graduated from ODU in the spring of 2017, after a senior season highlighted by ODU's Bahamas Bowl victory over Eastern Michigan, and planned to go into law enforcement.

But he's put off those career plans. Coward is an offensive tackle for the National Football League's Chicago Bears.

And he still hasn't forgotten where he came from.

Coward was recently selected as a National Football League Players Association Community MVP, an award given each week of the season to someone who goes beyond the call to aid those who need help.

Coward started the STEM + Literacy program at Lincoln Middle School in East Chicago, Ind. Last month, Coward delivered 100 textbooks and met with students.

He learned about his award after returning from Lincoln.

"I am truly honored to be named NFLPA Community MVP," Coward said in a news release from the Bears. "I was only answering a call to drive out to Indiana to support some of our youngest fans out that way, who root for us every week."

Coward talked with students about their home lives, how to deal with problems and why they should consider studying STEM-H (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and health) in college. STEM-H jobs, he said, are the jobs that will be most in demand when they become adults.

"I enjoyed spending time with the kids and talking to them about their favorite STEM subjects and learning about engineering with them," Coward said in a statement released by the NFLPA.

"I am blessed to be in this position and just want to inspire them like other players inspired me to pursue my dreams when I was young. I am excited to expose the kids to opportunities I didn't have when I was younger."

Coward began his fund drive for Lincoln Middle School through Athletes for Charity. He's asked fans to make a recurring pledge to donate money for every Bears touchdown and he will return at least once a month to the school to check in with the students and teachers there.

The NFLPA donated $10,000 to the school to get the charity going.

Coward dealt with family issues while at ODU. Both of his parents and a grandparent were diagnosed with cancer. He also struggled early on to keep up in class. But eventually the family members got better and the schoolwork became manageable, thanks in part to the tutors who work with the football team.

Unlike most NFL prospects, Coward stayed in school for his final semester in the spring of 2017.

His family told him from elementary school on up that getting his degree was his top priority.

"My main goal when I got here was to get my degree," he said just before graduation. "That would make my mom, my grandmother, my sister all so happy."

He made them happy, and is still passing on that family wisdom.

To donate money to STEM + Literacy, click on this link.

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