Nov. 12, 2010
MADISON, Wis. -- It's one thing to make a move and struggle with the language and how it's being communicated as an athlete. It's another thing to make a move and struggle with the language and how it's being communicated as a student.
Combine the things, and you have a better understanding of what Culmer St. Jean had to deal with and overcome to be a starting linebacker and honors student at Wisconsin.
A Scholar-Baller, if you will.
St. Jean is a fifth-year senior who's on track to graduate in December with a degree in consumer affairs. Saturday, he will be making his 25th career start when the Badgers take on Indiana at Camp Randall Stadium. "I've seen a lot,'' he said. "It has been a four-and-a-half year process."
In retrospect, maybe the biggest challenge for St. Jean was adapting socially to a campus and a community that didn't look like - or feel like - what he left behind in East Naples, Fla. This would not be a side of Naples that many are familiar with. This would not be the flashy Naples.
"It's middle class to lower middle class and it's kind of stuck between Marco Island, which is really upscale, and North Naples," St. Jean said of East Naples. "It's a very diverse area. Hispanics. Blacks. Haitians. Cubans. Every race. It's fun, too, because everybody gets along for the most part."
St. Jean was born in the Bahamas. His parents, Dirogene and Ydora, were born in Haiti. Culmer St. Jean speaks Haitian Creole when he's home. "Our next door neighbors were Jamaicans on one side," he said, "and Cubans on the other side. My high school was literally a melting pot."
St. Jean went to Lily High in East Naples. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the school is a courtyard called Nation's Square. That's where you will find the flag of every country that is represented in the enrollment. "My senior year, I think there were 164 flags," St. Jean said.
Consider the culture shock for St. Jean during his freshman year in Madison. "I was so used to seeing so many different races and hearing so many different languages," he said. "It was hard just trying to find a social place to hang out with people of the same culture and the same liking."
Made him try harder - which was also his approach while he was learning how to play linebacker during his redshirt season at Wisconsin. More often than not, he got frustrated with his lack of progress. It was a challenging transition for St. Jean, who was the starting quarterback on his high school team as a junior and senior. He played safety on defense and only one game at linebacker.
"Coming here (Wisconsin), I thought I was going to be a safety, that's what I had my heart set on," St. Jean said. "Going to linebacker was tough. You want to do things and you know you can do it but actually applying it on the field was the most difficult part. I was kind of down and upset.
"I think I was instinctive as far as being a football player. But as far as gap responsibility and understanding leverage and stuff like that at the linebacker position, I was clueless."
It was like they spoke a different language, and St. Jean needed a translator for all the nuances. So he went to school on some of his teammates, notably Jonathan Casillas, DeAndre Levy and Elijah Hodge. "Being on the sidelines with them, I'd always ask questions," St. Jean said. "We'd trade information. They'd ask me what I saw, and that helped me a ton."
The picture began to crystallize for St. Jean during the bowl practices leading up to Wisconsin's matchup against Arkansas in the 2007 Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla. "The practices gave the older guys some time to rest and the younger guys some time to play," he said. "We scrimmaged a lot and the game slowed down for me. I was playing outside linebacker and Levy would always coach me up."
But he struggled to balance athletics and academics. He was adjusting to a new position on the practice field and a new environment in the classroom. "In high school, I don't think I read a whole book," he said. "The researching and the formatting of papers were challenges. I definitely fell behind.
"I had never experienced that much work at one time and you had to turn it in and it was expected of you - and that was the minimum that was expected. My initial thoughts were, `Man, I don't know if I can do this for four or five years.' But I challenged myself and I started meeting with tutors on Saturdays and Sundays just to make sure I got my work done, and I was able to play ball."
St. Jean roomed with cornerback Niles Brinkley and wide receiver Xavier Harris, and they took many of the same classes and competed against each other to see who could get the best grades. It all worked wonders for St. Jean, who has carried a 3.3 grade-point average over the last three years.
"My mom wanted me to graduate - it's important for her, and important for me," said St. Jean, who will be the first person in his immediate family to earn a degree. "Everybody back home is proud. I just hope my accomplishment can help kids in my high school and community. Maybe they can look up to me and see that they can achieve and how to get it done no matter what the situation."
St. Jean was one of 20 student-athletes who were recognized nationally for their academic improvement. In conjunction with the National Consortium for Academics and Sports, the Scholar-Baller program names regional winners for its Academic Momentum Award. Their focus is on the "student" in the student-athlete. St. Jean and Northern Illinois' Alex Kube were the co-winners in the Midwest.
St. Jean credited his parents for being his inspiration. His mom was a housekeeper. His dad was in construction until he injured his back. Both worked 9-to-5. Both made sacrifices so that their children could have a better life. "They taught me the value of hard work and what it took to get what you wanted," he said. "They're one of the reasons why I handle my business the way I do."
There have been struggles and adjustments.
There have been moments when he has asked for help.
There have been moments when he has challenged himself to be better.
There has been life-and-death adversity, too.
St. Jean has mourned the loss of a grandparent and one of his closest high school friends, Ereck Plancher, a University of Central Florida football player, who died after a voluntary strength and conditioning workout in the spring of 2008. Plancher was 19.
Culmer St. Jean is 23. He has been motivated by Plancher, among others. Reflecting on his senior teammates who each have stories of their own, he said, "Having the season we're having is very important and special to all of us because it wasn't easy getting here."