Imagine playing a football game down five players on the field and without helmets. With a 6 v. 11 disadvantage and a direct road to Concussion City, there’s no way a team wins a game, let alone contends for a national championship.
That’s the logic Brittany Wagner, a nationally-known athletic academic counselor, is using when she makes the argument that without the absolute basics — adequate food, shelter and support — a student’s ability to learn is finite.
“I’m a firm believer that learning hits a plateau until social and emotional needs of a student are met. When you have students who are sitting in your classrooms and starving, who are homeless, who don’t have any support system around them, who have never had a hug or been told ‘good job,’ they’re going to have a difficult time learning,” she explained. “Their ability to do well in school is hampered, and I think that’s a big part of our education system in this country that we ignore.”
That’s why Wagner, the 40-year-old breakout star on the first two season’s of Netflix’s docu-series Last Chance U, which chronicled East Mississippi Community College (EMCC) and its dominant football program, departed the junior college to launch 10 Thousand Pencils in July of 2017.
In her new endeavor, she’s working directly with schools and programs all over the country to help them manage at-risk student-athletes. She consults and trains counselors and teachers, and creates academic support strategies with institutions all while delivering messages of hope and inspiration, sometimes directly to student-athletes.
In a sense, she’s the quarterback of a movement that makes the push for uber-talented student-athletes who struggle in the classroom to be viewed as human beings, first and, competitors, second.
“These athletes are people, and they have emotional and social needs that are not being met, and then we’re shocked when the ticker of ESPN is constantly reading off negative news about the things these athletes are doing,” Wagner said. “We’re not paying attention to who they are off the field. All we’re paying attention to is how many touchdowns they scored last night.”
Wagner’s branching out from a lone office in Scooba, Miss. to offer her academic counseling expertise and inherent compassion to a broader population demonstrates the very thing she preaches to her student-athletes: We all have the ability to be great and maximize our potential if we put in the work and dare to believe in ourselves.
Anything But Math
Although Wagner was born in Clinton, Mississippi, she grew up in a household you’re more likely to find in Boulder, Colo., or Sedona, Ariz, locations especially open to alternative practices like meditation, mindfulness, hypnosis and eastern medicine. Her father was a psychologist and her mother was the special education director for the local school district.
“I have a well-rounded balance of the grounded-ness of being raised in a state like Mississippi and the awareness of being raised by people like my parents,” Wagner said. “They instilled in me that everyone has a story; that everything isn’t black and white, and that has been very important for me in this career.”
Although Wagner had prime models in her family for careers in education, she had no intention of following suit.
“I never had any idea what I wanted to do with my life, especially as a young girl,” Wagner said. “I didn’t think I needed to know.”
She was a good student and enjoyed watching sports, at least the big games on television. She also played high school tennis and was offered a scholarship to continue competing in college. Still, by the time she reached Mississippi State University, she didn’t know exactly where to take aim as far as a career went.
“Honestly, I chose my major by flipping through the catalog and finding the major with the least amount of math,” Wagner said. “I was terrible at math and I was scared of it. I had this fear of ‘I’m not going to be able to pass these college math classes.'”
That major turned out to be sport communication. She entered that world originally thinking she would end up on ESPN as a sideline reporter.
“Back then, there weren’t a lot of women working in sports television,” she said. “Really, Linda Cohn was the only example out there for me.”
She worked in the athletic department at Mississippi State while earning her undergraduate degree and the applied for a graduate assistantship while she was pursuing her Masters degree in sport administration.
“The assistantship was in the athletic academic office. I had no idea what that even was,” Wagner admitted. “I took it because I wanted the opportunity to get my school paid for, and as I was there as a graduate assistant at 22 years old, working in that office alongside the football counselor, I realized that that was really what I was born to do.”
Leading From Scooba
It’s uncommon for an athletic academic counselor to steal the hearts of millions of television viewers each week, but as Wagner was pushing EMCC football players in their studies with the intention of enticing bigger football programs to extend scholarship offers, she widened the lens of just how important academic counseling is in sports. And, little did she know, a nation would get behind her efforts.
“Honestly, I didn’t think anyone was going to watch the show. I didn’t have Netflix so I didn’t have any concept of how big it was and how many people did have Netflix,” she said. “I thought, who’s going to watch a show about a Mississippi junior college? My second thought was, if people do watch this, they’re watching it to see football and they’re going to fast forward through my part. Why would they want to see the academic side of it?I had no clue the show was going to be the success it ended up being. Humanity shocked me and people really took to me and the players’ stories. Twitter wasn’t exploding about the football scenes. The interviews weren’t about us winning or not winning a national championship. People were talking about the human interest stories behind these kids and my part in it.”
That’s when Wagner’s wheels began spinning and 10 Thousand Pencils was born. So, after eight years at EMCC and helping more than 250 football and men’s basketball players reach the next level, she pursued a calling to cultivate something with her larger platform.
“I needed to do justice to this opportunity. If I just sat there in Scooba and continued working with a handful of athletes, I didn’t feel like I would be making the most out of what the show had given me,” she explained.
Not Just A Football Player
Since the inception of 10 Thousand Pencils, Wagner has taken her message to at-risk student-athletes, adults who work with student-athletes, and even to major corporations like Coca-Cola.
“The message is always the same: We all have the ability to make a difference in someone else’s life. We all have the ability to step up our ‘games’ to unlock possibilities,” Wagner said.
But, what about those student-athletes who lack the aforementioned basics, like sufficient nutrition or a loving home? Because of that, what if those young men and women rely solely on sports to define who they are? How does that affect their confidence in the classroom?
“When you grow up in a situation where the only two hours of your day, when you have peace of mind, is when you’re throwing a football, I think that’s your therapy. It becomes who you are, and it becomes your release,” Wagner said. “Naturally, we’re going to run to the things that benefit us in that way. For a lot of guys at EMCC, that was the only aspect of their day where they felt like they were good at something.”
Then, there’s the added pressure, piled up chin-high, that comes with being a standout athlete.
“I think that for some of these guys who live in small rural communities or go to these low income schools where there’s not a lot of hope or success coming out of those areas, and when they’re an athlete who has the potential to be phenomenal, everyone is riding that bandwagon,” Wagner said. “Everyone is looking at that kid to give the rest of the kids behind him the hope that there’s something else out there. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one young person. When the conversation surrounding you is nothing but football, then that becomes the only thing you think you can do. When your teachers are even saying ‘how many touchdowns did you score last night’ or ‘how many yards did you have,’ then of course, that’s the only thing you think you can do. I think it’s so important to empower these student-athletes with the language that ‘hey, you’re not just a football player.'”
Relationships That Breathe Life
Wagner started 10 Thousand Pencils to work with adults so she could impart her deeply-rooted wisdom and, subsequently, send more counselors like her out into the field. But, she also wanted to continue personally working with student-athletes on a daily basis.
That’s why in conjunction with her company, she launched The Last Chance Foundation, which has been fully funded by private donors so that student-athletes who couldn’t typically afford Wagner’s services can still receive one-on-one help navigating academic life. Currently, she’s working with five local students, and has intentions to grow the foundation.
“I hope the foundation can work with 500 athletes someday, and I can hire tutors and counselors all over the country to work with these players,” she said.
After all, it’s the relationships that breathe life into her job. Many of Wagner’s former student-athletes will tell you how much she impacted their life. But, without a doubt, the reverse is true, beyond measure.
“I think that’s the part of the story that they don’t understand. They will one day, when they’re a parent or when they’re in a position where they’re making a difference in people’s lives,” Wagner said. “But, they don’t understand that they impact my life just as much, if not more, than I impact theirs. I am truly a different person for having known each and every one of them.”
And that makes it all worth it.