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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Awards banquet season always brings out some interesting stories

All across the Southland, dozens of football players are being honored this month for their academic and athletic contributions.

March 16, 2009|ERIC SONDHEIMER | ON HIGH SCHOOLS

The National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame recognizes high school football players who demonstrate excellence on and off the field, which is what makes its yearly awards banquets so rewarding.

From San Bernardino to Orange County, from the San Gabriel Valley to the San Fernando Valley, dozens of football players are being honored this month for their academic and athletic contributions.

Take the story of Justyn Williams from Los Angeles Loyola. He had a 3.78 grade-point average and is headed to Pennsylvania. He was the backup running back to perhaps the No. 1 running back in California, junior Anthony Barr, but never complained.

"It wasn't hard for me to do," he said. "I've always been the kind of person, team first. In the end, I wanted the best players to come through and for him to be my friend, I cherish that."

Even more impressive is that Williams bought into the idea of succeeding on and off the field, and now he's headed to the Ivy League.

"Growing up, I heard about schools like Harvard," he said. "I never thought I was going to go to an Ivy League school. It's astounding. Oh my gosh, I'm happy."

For a service project, Williams went to a middle school and tutored students in math.

"I wanted to let them know, they had opportunities," he said. "There are no limits."

In Orange County, Costa Mesa offensive lineman Juan Garces was honored at a banquet last week. He has painted three murals on campus, serves as a tutor for a second- and third-grader and wants to study medicine in college.

On Thursday, the San Fernando Valley Chapter will hold its banquet, and one of the honorees will be Donald Williams, a linebacker from Palmdale who will be receiving the most improved grade-point average award.

The first semester of his freshman year, his GPA was 1.33. Last semester, it was 3.62. His father, mother and grandmother have all died during his high school career, adding to his burden.

"We're his family," said Palmdale Coach Jeff Williams, who is no relation. "He learned a lot of life lessons. I treat him like he's my son."

Donald Williams said he was lazy and didn't do his homework early in high school. But to play football, he had to be academically eligible, and that's what motivated him in the classroom.

"Football is my outlet," he said. "It's my get-away card."

Three of the players being honored this week are Eagle Scouts -- Jackson Pfeiffer of Calabasas Viewpoint, Corey Rodrigo of Lancaster Paraclete and Tanner Maddux of Westlake Village Oaks Christian.

Saugus' Desi Rodriguez and Encino Crespi's Jeremiah McKibbins are headed to Air Force and West Point, respectively.

Robert Lamm, an offensive lineman from Thousand Oaks, has a 4.4 GPA, plays bass guitar in a band and is a candidate for valedictorian.

Then there's Gavin McCourt of North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake. He's a defensive back who also plays soccer and baseball. He has a 4.1 GPA with fives on his Advanced Placement exams in chemistry and Spanish. He was selected to participate in a scientific research project studying acoustic levitation.

Not bad for someone who one day might be running the Dodgers, since his parents are Frank and Jamie McCourt.

"Being the son of famous people didn't get to him, and at the same time, he wasn't using leverage to get something," Coach Vic Eumont said. "He was a kid doing something he loved."

Every honoree has a story to tell, and they deserve praise and admiration for their accomplishments.

--

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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