TAMPA — For all his multisport athleticism, USF quarterback B.J. Daniels, like many African-Americans, didn't take to swimming at a young age.
"I took swimming lessons when I was 11," he said. "I started kind of late. Now I'm comfortable in the water. These kids started younger than I did, and I'm happy they did."
These kids were part of a summer outreach program at the Bob Gilbertson Central City Family YMCA, where Daniels and USF basketball player Justin Leemow worked as counselors this summer. And if Daniels was late to swimming, he was precocious in the pool compared to Leemow, who grew up in New York City with fewer pools around him and didn't learn to swim until he was 16.
"I'm okay. Pretty good," Leemow said of his current swimming abilities. "I'm not going to drown."
That is the first hope of Mike Brown, the district vice president and executive director at Central City who has overseen several water safety programs in his 22 years working with YMCA. A survey last year by USA Swimming showed that 58 percent of African-American children age 6 to 16 cannot swim, nearly twice the percentage for white children. Nationwide, the fatal drowning rate of African-American children ages 5 to 14 is 3.2 times that of white children in the same age range, according to 2005 research numbers from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The outreach program's first goal is to introduce inner-city kids to the pool to lessen the risk of drowning. Brown said having successful young athletes such as Daniels and Leemow working as counselors — even if they might still be swimming novices themselves — is invaluable.
"These guys are not just counselors, but role models for these kids," Brown said. "You go out there and you see how they're influencing young kids. For them to have strong, young African-American men to look up to is important, and they were with us all summer."
The program is much more than just swimming, with faith-based devotional sessions, arts and crafts, and outdoor activities such as pickup basketball — Daniels was a backup guard with Leemow on USF's basketball team when both were freshmen last season.
"It was a great experience," Daniels said. "I got to spend time with some kids downtown, and I really enjoyed it a lot."
The connection between Brown and the two athletes is Mike Charles, a past president of the USF Bulls Club who remains an Iron Bull donor and on the booster club's executive committee. Charles is also on the board of directors at the Central City YMCA and saw an opportunity to give two USF athletes a summer job while contributing to the YMCA's goals.
"I saw it as a win-win, helping the YMCA by getting a USF athlete or two over there," Charles said. "You put them in an environment where they're comfortable, working in athletics, but they help the kids most by telling them that doing well in school is how they got to where they are. They're great role models for inner-city kids who are 5, 6, 7 years old."
Charles was careful to check with USF, making sure the jobs were within the NCAA's guidelines for summer employment of student-athletes. The two NCAA criteria are that athletes be compensated "only for work actually performed" and "at a rate commensurate with the going rate" for similar jobs in the area.
Charles said he paid the two athletes $12 an hour for working three eight-hour shifts a week, and Steve Horton, USF's associate athletic director for compliance, said he talked "extensively" with Charles and YMCA officials to make sure the job was as described.
Brown said the benefits of swimming can be far more than just saving lives in a state with water everywhere — it can also allow young African-Americans to be qualified for part-time jobs as lifeguards. It's why the Central City YMCA puts much of its donations toward discounted and free memberships for families that can't afford membership dues.
He said Daniels and Leemow were ideal ambassadors for his outreach program this summer, and he hopes to have more USF athletes helping next year.
"When the kids get out of the pool, you catch them mixing and mingling with (Daniels and Leemow)," Brown said. "You watch the interaction with the kids, and it's worth all the money we've invested."