Learns to take and give sage advice
By CHRIS WHITE
The biggest epiphany of Anthony Merritt’s football career came in a high school classroom rather than on the field.
A local businessman went around the room on career day at Shaw asking students what they want to become after they graduated. When Merritt told him he would be a professional football player, he said the businessman gave him a doubting look and told him he better have a good backup plan.
Merritt took offense, but that comment has proved to be some of the best advice the Columbus Lions defensive back has received as well as a message he preaches while volunteering at local schools.
“Maybe I was being a little bit of a knucklehead at the time, but I didn’t want to back down on my dream,” Merritt said. “I took it as a personal challenge when someone told me I couldn’t make it, and I got a good little bit of motivation out of that for a long time.”
To get a gist of just how seriously Merritt took that moment, look at his accomplishments. In high school, he was a member of Shaw’s undefeated Class AAAA state championship in 2000 and was named the Ledger-Enquirer All-Bi-City Defensive Player of the Year in 2001 and 2002. He was a four-year, multi-position starter at North Alabama, where he was named a finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy, a four-time All-Gulf South Conference player and a three-time All-American while setting Division II and North Alabama records that still stand. And he was close to making the cut at a 2007 New Orleans Saints training camp before a tearing his quadriceps.
That injurymade Merritt consider for the first time that he indeed needed a backup plan, and now he is working with kids to offer the same advice.
“Now I’ve been a witness to both sides,” Merritt said. “I’ve seen that if you apply yourself right, you can do whatever you want to do. But I’ve also seen that you’re just an injury away from needing a backup plan.
“I’ve experienced that, I’m a living testimony to that, and I think I’m the right person to address that with kids.”
‘Thanks, Mr. Merritt’
In the same way he prepares for football, Merritt takes on his community service with dedication. In his three seasons with the Lions, he has become the team’s most active volunteer, Columbus coach Jason Gibson said.
“I’ve got a stack of letters in my office somewhere, and every single one of them says, ‘Thanks, Mr. Merritt,’ ” Gibson said. “The kids love him, and he loves going out to talk to all of them. Whenever I tell the guys a school is asking for a volunteer for something and there are kids involved, Anthony Merritt is the first one to grab his jersey and ask what time he needs to be there.”
Although the Lions have a program that sends players and coaches to community events and schools throughout the area, Merritt is quick to add to his schedule and stays busy with volunteering through the offseason with several other Lions players, including Gerald Gales and Ryan Babb.
After college, Merritt said he wanted to fill a void that existed when he was in school. It led him to become a corrections officer at a juvenile detention center, and he estimates he has been to every Bi-City area elementary and middle school at least once in the past year.
“Growing up, we didn’t really have a lot of football players in town who came to talk to us about taking advantage of the opportunities we had,” Merritt said. “I remember (former Carver player and current NFL player) Roderick Hood talking to some kids, but he was only a few years older than me then. I want to be someone who tells young kids they can make it in anything if they want to.”
While time consuming, Merritt said he gets as much from volunteering as he can give.
“Every time I go out and meet these kids or give out free tickets, I always tell them to come down to the field after the game and speak to me, shake my hand or give me a hug,” Merritt said. “Just playing my high school ball here and growing up here, I feel like I have a different connection to the city. And any time I meet the kids who are also from here and I can encourage them, that’s something special for me.”