Kei Harris should be either on his way to prison or dead. Kei is a young man who was abused by his step father during his childhood and is a student at La Joya Community High School in Avondale, AZ. Evan Lawson has struggled with weight problems and ridicule from his peers during his early years at Minot High School in Minot, North Dakota. Bobby Keeney witnessed the unspeakable tragedy of seeing his young sister killed in an accident at a very young age, and then struggled with learning disabilities in school in Tuckerton, New Jersey. Kyle Muka has exemplified amazing leadership skills despite being undersized at Pioneer Valley High School in Northfield, Massachusetts. And that's just a few of the stories. A new reality show? Well its not a show, but it is certainly reality. They are some of the national semi-finalists for the first ever High School "Rudy" Awards.
Most know the "Rudy" story. A person who overcame great odds to achieve his goals, and achieve them through athletics. It is such a poignant story not just because of this time of year, but because in this TMZ obsessed world perhaps many have forgotten about why people play team sports. Not for the NFL, but for the core values that are attached and the life lessons that can be learned.
So a few weeks ago, as Michael Ingram accepted the Heisman trophy, the finalists for the High School "Rudy" Awards were announced. They are a group of real life overachievers who deserve a bow. In addition to those mentioned, the "Rudy" honorees come from all over the country, all walks of life, and all have amazing stories of how they have overcome great challenges to play high school football. A $10,000 academic scholarship and the inaugural RUDY Award goes to the winner, with $5,000 scholarships going to each runner-up. The selection committee included Jim Mora Sr., former Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints Head Coach; Andrea Kremer, NBC Football Sideline Reporter; Shaun Alexander, former Seattle Seahawks running back and NFL MVP; Drew Bledsoe, former New England Patriots quarterback and four time Pro Bowl selection; Jenn Brown, Inside the NFL Special Correspondent / ESPN GameDay Correspondent; Mike Smith, the 7th all-time winningest High School Football Coach in America; and Andy Beal, President CBS MaxPreps, Inc.
These kids never had to be the stars, but they inspired and led by example and made indelible imprints on all those who they touched. The award and the program is in its early stages, and naturally started with football, given the ties to the awards namesake and the sport. If the right brand support can be found, the ability to take the "Rudy" to other sports is a natural. It celebrates all that is good about competition at its base level, and hopefully with media support can grow beyond its first year. It is also very interesting that the awards come along at a time when interest in high school sports is at a premium. ESPN has launched its series of local stations covering high schools, MSG Network in New York has launched MSG Varsity, and others will soon follow. The "Rudy Awards" could be a great fit for any programming partner, locally, regionally and eventually nationally.
The fact that the award finalists are announced on Heisman Weekend should also not be lost. As the finalists paraded through New York and across CBS for college football's most coveted individual award, the "Rudy's" remain at home watching and enjoying. While the Heisman does involve both character and athletic ability, the "Rudy's" are all about character, with the biggest ability being inspirational. Are there parallels and potential connections between the two in the future? Perhaps. Are there awards already existing with similar platforms like the Arete Awards, shown on CBS every fall? Yes. But from a branding standpoint the casual sports fan and marketer understands what "Rudy" is, and the stories that follow make it a natural for those looking for a platform that transcend sport. There may be one Heisman winner, but the "Rudy" award could create a much bigger local footprint at a time when sports are becoming more and more local.
Just ask the kids who are on the list and those around them if they are worthy. You will get quite a number of inspiring answers.