MSU athletes pass the ball forward as mentors
In the midst of a historical football season at Mississippi State University, the spotlight shines brightly on the Bulldogs, many of whom serve as role models both on and off the field. Senior football players Robert Johnson and Matt Wells connect with local youth while completing their internships in the MSU School of Human Sciences.
Johnson is an intern at Sally Kate Winters Family Services in West Point, a non-profit agency that provides emergency shelter services to children in need of a temporary safe haven. Matt Wells is an intern at the MSU Child Development and Family Studies Center on campus, an experiential child study laboratory sponsored by the School of Human Sciences for students majoring in Human Development and Family Studies. The facility serves children ages six weeks to five years.
“Student athletes have a considerable amount of pressure to perform on the field and in the classroom,” said Michael Newman, professor and director for the School of Human Sciences. “Robert and Matt are keenly focused on their goals and work long hours to achieve those goals. It takes a considerable measure of perseverance, discipline and drive, and each of them possesses these attributes.”
Both Johnson and Wells credit their desire to mentor young people as the reason behind their individual academic pursuits. Each of them had a mentor who helped shape their lives.
Johnson said his mother is his mentor.
“My mom was the one who introduced me to football,” said Johnson. “I have always loved the sport, which I’ve played since I was six years old. My mom has been my mentor every step of the way.”
He grew up in Hattiesburg as a Southern Miss fan, his parents having met and married on the University of Southern Mississippi campus. His close-knit family includes ties to Starkville, where Johnson’s maternal grandmother resides.
“That sense of family has been helpful during my time at MSU,” Johnson said. “My family has been a great support and stuck with me throughout my entire journey.”
Johnson, who ran track and played basketball in high school, also managed to find time to volunteer for the Boys and Girls Club. That volunteer work inspired him to major in human development and family studies, concentrating in youth studies.
Johnson said his coursework provided insight into essential fundamentals he has applied during his internship.
“My classes prepared me for one-on-one interaction with children of all different backgrounds and developmental abilities,” Johnson said. “I now have the skill set and training to care for children ranging in age from birth to young adulthood.”
Johnson said his internship provided lessons that are helpful on the field as well. Balancing both, he said, requires plenty of discipline.
“I am at the internship six days a week and dedicated to football seven days a week, so it’s important to manage my time wisely and maintain that momentum,” he said.
While he has NFL aspirations, Johnson said he would enjoy a career mentoring young people.
“I’m keeping my football hopes alive, but beyond that I would absolutely enjoy working in the field of childhood development,” Johnson said. “I’d also be happy coaching high school and Little League.”
Wells met his mentor, Ricky Sykes, in the fifth grade. Sykes was the physical education teacher and football coach at the middle school Wells attended while growing up in Monticello.
“I played basketball growing up. I am the second youngest of four boys and both of my older brothers were big into basketball,” Wells said. “Coach Sykes saw me as a fifth grader and talked me into playing football my seventh grade year. He encouraged me, and it resulted in a full scholarship to a Division I college.”
Just as Coach Sykes had a tremendous impact on the young athlete, Wells spends time at his internship connecting with kids, hoping to pass along a love for the game.
He created a sports-themed play area at the MSU Child Development and Family Studies Center. There, children learn about MSU football, golf, soccer, basketball and more.
Wells said staying focused helps him excel on the field and in academics.
“I have to stay on schedule when it comes to practice and completing my internship,” he said. “It’s critical to stay focused, prioritize and set goals.”
While Wells is focused on professional football first in his future career aspirations, he said he would love to coach and counsel youth at the high school level someday.
“My goal is to serve as a positive role model in order to improve the lives of young people I meet,” he said.
The School of Human Sciences in MSU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences offers a degree in human sciences with a concentration in human development and family studies and emphasis areas in child studies, youth studies, family studies, and family and consumer sciences teacher education.