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UW's Tindal spends time mentoring at-risk children

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Jeff Potrykus
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tuesday, August 8, 2017
MADISON--Derrick Tindal loves comic book superheroes. Spider-Man holds a special place in Tindal's heart and Wisconsin's senior cornerback is driven by one touching scene from the 2002 movie: Ben Parker senses that his nephew, Peter Parker, whom he doesn't know is Spider-Man, is struggling to make the right choices in life and needs heartfelt advice. As the two sit in a car, Ben Parker says: “Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.” Tindal doesn't claim to have superhero powers. Yet he believes his place on the UW football team makes him a role model for many, particularly impressionable children still learning to make wise life choices. “People look up to me,” Tindal said after a recent practice. “Kids look up to me. I just want to go down the right path and do the right things. I want to keep my name out of the newspapers and stay out of trouble.” Tindal, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, acknowledged without prompting that he isn't perfect. His passion for school work doesn't match his passion for football. There were truancy issues back home, where he grew up in a rough area of Fort Lauderdale. “I never thought about college until 11th grade,” he said. “That is when I finally realized that I could really do something. I want to help kids realize that early. “Not that you can just make it in football, but that you can make it in whatever you want to, whatever you apply your mind to.” Tindal, who is majoring in human development and family studies, hopes to one day start a program for at-risk students. He is intrigued by working with children who have seen their parents or other family members spend time behind bars. “That has been a big drive of his because that's how he grew up,” said LeAnn Bird, an academic advisor/learning specialist at UW who has worked with Tindal for three years. “He really has a heart for that.” Tindal has spent the last three semesters working with children. He received class credit for working with students with disabilities at Madison West High School in the spring of 2016. He worked with a variety of students last year at McFarland High School. One semester was part of his degree requirement. The other was volunteer work, on his time. Tindal, who lost his mother to cancer when he was a freshman in 2013, politely declined to talk about his father's past legal issues. However, he did talk about his extended family. “My whole family, the boys in my family, they are known for going in and out of jail,” he said. “When people heard the name Tindal, they thought somebody is going to jail. “Me and my older cousins took it upon ourselves to change the name so it's not just known for going to jail. “I want to be known not only as a great athlete but as a great person who cares about people.” Tracy Gibbons, a case manager at McFarland High School, has seen that caring side. No packed stands. No TV cameras. No spotlight. Just a college senior and impressionable students in need of mentoring, particularly from an older black male. “I've just got a special place in my heart for kids that have challenging problems,” Tindal explained. “All kids, really. Not just kids with problems. “I had people who helped me out, helped me make the right decisions. I didn't make all the right decisions. I was a kid. I wanted to do what was fun. “I just want to be there for them and mentor them to show them somebody cares besides their mom and dad. I figure like if they see me doing well in school and in football and taking my time to help them, that when they do make it in whatever they want to be in life that they can do the same things I did and help somebody out.” Gibbons, one of the advisers working with McFarland High School's Black Student Union, has seen how Tindal can reach black males at the school because of their shared experiences. “A lot of my boys of color were struggling with concepts I wasn't quite understanding,” she said. “I didn't have similar stories.” Tindal's interaction wasn't limited to the school grounds. He makes himself available to Gibbons and the students via FaceTime. “I would text D.T. and he would visit with the students on FaceTime,” she said. Tindal offered blunt words to one boy who responded to taunts by getting physical. “Derrick laid into him,” Gibbons said. “You can't touch other people. You have to respect yourself. It is stronger to walk away. It is stronger to use your words.” Tindal used action to support another student, with autism. According to Gibbons, students were performing karaoke in the cafeteria last spring when the freshman boy with autism took his turn on the stage. The performance wasn't well received by the other students and Tindal, sensing what was happening, decided to turn the solo act into a duet. “He hopped up and got on stage with this kid and started singing and dancing with him in front of the entire school,” Gibbons said. “He caught on that this is not doing him any favors right now. “Then the football players joined in. So all of a sudden there were a whole bunch of kids up there and the school applauding and dancing along.” Tindal's dream is to play in the National Football League. A professional career would give him a grander stage from which to mentor young people. His relationship with the students from McFarland High School was on display when Gibbons brought a contingent to UW's next-to-last practice of the spring. The McClain Center resembled a family reunion replete with hugs, high-fives and group photos. That day wasn't about football. It was about touching the lives of others. “He really does connect to these kids,” Gibbons said, adding that UW's senior jokes he wants to be known as Professor Tindal. “School is not his thing. He is doing this so he can have a better life. Football got him out of where he was. Without football, I don't know. …He would have dropped out. School wasn't easy for him. “But that is why he works with the kids. He tells them that. He says it wasn't easy … I had to tell him a couple times: 'Don't be so honest. Bring it back.' “But he was just trying to talk to them and let them know: 'This is your choice. If you don't graduate, what are you going to do? Then what?' “He has a heart of gold. …He will do anything for the people he cares about.” Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.

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