Monday, August 17, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Love of the game helps push UVa's Sewell

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Virginia quarterback Jameel Sewell wants you to know a few things.

No. 1, he's lazy. Extremely lazy. Got that?

No. 2 -- and he really cannot stress this enough -- he doesn't like school. It's not really his thing.

Despite these facts, or perhaps because of them, I can't help but pull for the guy as he returns to the field this season.

Hear me out. Maybe if you listen to him long enough, you'll feel the same way.

"Conquer thyself," the old quote goes. "Till thou has done this, thou art but a slave." Sir Richard Francis Burton said that. Who is Sir Richard Francis Burton, you ask? I have no idea. But anybody with "Sir" before his first name has to be somewhat important, and in this case, you've got to admit he's got a point. It's tough to wield influence on the world when you don't know your own strengths and weaknesses.

Sewell knows his, now more than ever. There might not be a more self-aware athlete in the state than the fifth-year senior triggerman, who guided the Cavaliers to nine wins in 2007 but had to sit out last season because of academic suspension.

Why did he get suspended? Simple.

"Laziness," he said.

It was one of five times he would use the word "lazy" or one of its derivations to describe his attitude toward academics during a 30-minute interview Sunday. Asked why he would admit this character flaw, he smiled.

"Hey, you can't fake the funk for so long," he said.

In other words, why lie? Why deny it? So he doesn't. Instead, he's identified it as a problem and attacked it to the best of his ability.

"Even though I'm a very lazy person, I'm trying to get out of that," Sewell said. "I've been making a conscious effort to get away from my laziness, which was basically the reason I was academically ineligible for the past year. I've been doing everything I can to make progress."

Informed that the word "lazy" doesn't usually jibe with the phrase "two-year starter as a Division I quarterback," Sewell nodded and explained.

"I absolutely love football," he said. "I don't absolutely love school. So it was easy for me to be lazy in something that I don't have a serious passion for. That's just human nature for me.

"I know it sounds stupid. I cheated myself in the classroom. I would never cheat myself on the field, because it's more than just me out there. If I'm cheating myself, I'm cheating everybody else."

But in a major way -- and one that he now understands -- Sewell's nonchalance as a student did cheat the team. With Sewell gone, the quarterback position was unstable most of last year, with Marc Verica doing the best he could under difficult circumstances. Eventually, coach Al Groh turned to cornerback Vic Hall as his QB in the season finale against Virginia Tech.

Sewell followed every game on TV or radio, angry at himself that he couldn't contribute. He cried about it. He soul-searched. He read Bible verses (some, not all) that his mother sent to him. And he kept in contact with the team through it all, eager to return after his yearlong suspension ended.

"Off the field, it's like he never left," said senior linebacker Darren Childs, who roomed with Sewell last year. "He was always around, hanging out with the guys."

The best news for a lazy guy was that Sewell didn't actually have to do anything to earn his way back except wait. No classes. No tests. Just stay out of trouble, which he did.

This time last year, Sewell was looking for a job that would pay the rent. He found it, of all places, as a tutor for middle-school students in Charlottesville.

"Very ironic," he called it, and it is when you think about it. But it was just the thing he needed to help him appreciate his opportunities.

While Groh understandably seems hesitant to heap praise on a man who let the team down last year, new offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon clearly is thrilled to have the 6-foot-3, 225-pound speedster. Brandon said Sunday that his spread system is "built for a quarterback who can run" and that he "would like to see Sewell and Vic out there together."

Sewell's cool with the idea. He'd like you to know that. And he'd like you to know one more thing, something he told Groh when he was reinstated.

"I actually want to graduate," said Sewell, who added that he's 20 credits shy of a degree. "I do care about graduating now. So I do think of school in a different aspect.

"I'm not saying I love it. Not at all. But it's just something I've got to do to better my life."

There was no huge epiphany here. No zebra instantly changing his stripes. Just reluctant adherence to standards set forth by others, a guy doing something he doesn't like so he can do something he loves.

Sounds a lot like real life, doesn't it?

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