The Founder

Draft Does It Again
By Brett Grassmuck Staff Writer

His season on the field may have concluded, but Rams linebacker Chris Draft’s off-the-field commitments are never ending. On Friday, January 11, Draft hosted 300 kids, his "Draft’s Picks" from the St. Louis Public Schools at the Chase Park Plaza for a screening and discussion of Denzel Washington’s latest inspiring film, The Great Debaters.

“We got a chance to see The Great Debaters early because of (Rams running back and son of Denzel) John David Washington,” Draft said. "After watching the movie I was just like „oh my goodness, this is amazing. I have to share this with someone.

"The great thing about seeing a movie early is that you see it before everybody, but the problem with that is that you can’t really discuss it with anybody. That’s what we wanted to do today is be able to watch it together, discuss it together and really start to create that conversation that will start to make St. Louis better.”

The Great Debaters is based on the historic debate team at Wiley College, a small African-American college in Texas, in the 1930’s.

Washington portrays Professor Melvin Tolson, who utilizes the power of words to inspire his group to become one of the elite debate teams in the country and take on the champion team at Harvard.

The story of the film centers on the debates, but the themes run much deeper. The film follows this team as they overcome adversity in every aspect of their lives, making strides against segregation not only for their small school, but for their entire race years before the civilrights movement.

It was these messages that Draft wanted to share with the St. Louis Public School students, but it wasn’t just a day at the movies. Following the film screening, Draft hosted a discussion, moderated by Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, between the students and a panel of community leaders including Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce, Rams safety Corey Chavous, Rams vice president of marketing and sales Alec Coughlin, St. Louis Public Schools Special Administration Board member Melanie Adams, Diversity Awareness

Partnership executive director Reena Hajat and Who’s Who in Black St. Louis publisher Keith Antone Willis Sr.

"The discussion gave the kids a chance to express some of their opinions and just get their voice out,” Bruce said. "It also allowed us to give them an ear. Every time you give someone an ear, the truth will come out of them.”

The group of 300 students from around St. Louis was labeled as „Draft’s Picks, students that have emerged as the leaders amongst their peers at their respective schools, much like the students in the film.

"I wanted around 300 kids, and I wanted all the public high schools in St. Louis to be represented,” Draft said of his picks. "It really came down to the administrators and teachers who were able to pick their leaders, the ones that are these well-rounded kids that participate in athletics, that are taking care of their grades and are leading at that school. We wanted to have something that would say thank you for what you have done, and inspire you to do more.”

During the discussion, the panel and several of the students talked about aspects of the movie that inspired them, and just as the film focused on diversity, each person’s experience with the film was unique. For Draft, it all comes back to education and character.

"What it says is that you really have to be active in your research, and you have to be active in really trying to figure out exactly what is going on before you say that you can truly address a problem,” Draft said. "That’s what we wanted to do with the kids today is say, Hey, if  there’s a problem, if you see it whatever it is, let’s try to find out what the root of that problem is, research it, educate yourself about  it, and then you can stand up and make changes.”

Bruce has always been known as a man of few words, but that’s because he believes in the power of the words he speaks, which was another underlying theme of the film.

"It was a good movie,” Bruce said. "It lets you know the importance of our words in general.”

Chavous, on the other hand, is more vocal. He was the winner of the Rams Carl Ekern Spirit of the Game Award that is presented to the Rams on-field leader, so it was fitting that the young leaders were able to hear from the Rams vet.

"What I wanted to impart on these kids is that you all have an individual responsibility to yourself as to what you are aware of,” Chavous  said. "That awareness individually will allow you to be educated, the same way as the people in the movie were. I think that’s the connection between the two things. As for me, that’s just how I look at current events and how much I pay attention to those. I think that influences how I view the world and the direction the world is moving. So from a socially conscious perspective, that’s the thing I wanted them to be aware of.”

The discussion didn’t just focus on the movie, but aspects of the movie that pertained to current events. The topic moved to music and the influence that the hip-hop culture has on young African Americans.

"I thought the event was wonderful,” said Melanie Adams, who along with serving on the SLPS board, is the managing director of community and educational events for the Missouri Historical Society. "I think every time we have the opportunity for the students. voice to be heard and expand their horizon, it’s a wonderful thing. I wish it could have been all the students talking. We didn’t need us on the panel, just have the students talk to each other, because a lot of what they said was really poignant.” 

Adams, who was surprised that she had not heard the story prior to seeing the film, hoped it inspired the students to learn more about their history and actively seek out information.

"The movie is absolutely inspiring,” Adams said. "It’s a shame that’s how we learn our history. I knew nothing about that until the movie came out. One young man made a great comment. He said „talk to your grandparents... Our grandparents lived that history that they went through

in The Great Debaters. That’s one way, but also searching out information on your own. I think they said that a lot, reading books, finding ways to find out information, things you’re passionate about.”

When it was all said and done, Draft took a photo with each of the groups before sending them back to their buses, hoping that he had inspired them to stand up and make a difference.

"They might be young, but they’re leaders,” Draft said. "So, if they want to step up and make a change, they’re not too young. Don’t wait for someone else to do it. Don’t wait for the supposed leaders, the ones that are talked about as leaders, you’re a leader. You step up and get it done.”