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LEARNING TO LEAD THE WAY

A new program for high school athletes exercises the mind.

On a high school campus where honors students regularly schedule advanced placement courses for fun, Ryan Mockabee has found a comfort zone.

Mockabee, a senior in St. Petersburg High's International Baccalaureate Program, is happy being a student-athlete - with an emphasis on student. It is a mind-set that isn't surprising for someone who plans to pursue a career in medicine.

"I'm really using my senior year to study hard and see what my options are," Mockabee said.

He wants the route to begin with playing football at an Ivy League school. That's where the athlete part enters the picture.

And next week, at least, football will provide Mockabee with skills to succeed in the boardroom, courtesy of the NFL.

Mockabee was one of 36 high school athletes (18 boys, 18 girls) nationwide selected for the inaugural NFL-Wharton Prep Leadership Program. The three-day program starts Monday at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in Philadelphia and offers leadership training and development programming from professors at the business school and NFL executives.

"For Wharton, this is the perfect blend of sports, academics and social impact," said Kenneth Shropshire, Wharton professor and faculty director at the Wharton Sports Business Initiative.

"We are excited about playing a role in developing future leaders impacted by sport, blending sports and academics at the highest levels."

Students were selected based on academic transcript, athletic experience, leadership activities, coach and teacher recommendations, and personal essays. All costs other than travel are covered by Wharton.

Mockabee's teachers and coaches say he has all the tools for greatness, but it is not always clear whether they mean on the football field - where Mockabee is a starting linebacker and captain - or in the classroom, where he maintains a straight-A average.

"I've had a lot of IB students come through here and play football," St. Petersburg coach Joe Fabrizio said. "Ryan has got to be the smartest kid that I've ever coached."

Fabrizio found out about the program a few months ago and thought Mockabee would be the perfect candidate for it.

"I know Ryan planned on looking at a few Ivy League schools this summer, and this gave him another avenue to look at," Fabrizio said.

For the NFL, the program is sponsored by its Player Engagement division, which offers current and former players career transition resources. In 2005, the NFL formed a partnership with several prominent business schools to establish the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program. Players receive tuition reimbursement from the league. More than 600 players have enrolled in the past seven years, including Bucs tight end Dallas Clark.

By reaching out to student-athletes early, the NFL hopes to help give those on track for pro careers the tools they need to handle the pressures and temptations. Students also learn leadership, inside and outside of athletics.

"I'm going to one of the best business schools in the country, and I know the program will help me grow as a leader," Mockabee said. "I'm a little nervous about going, but it will be a good thing for me."

The leadership program kicks off a busy summer for Mockabee. He also will attend football camps at Columbia and Yale, and may visit to Brown.

"Going to an Ivy League school is something that's always been on my mind," Mockabee said.

"I want to go into pre-med, but I'm trying to keep an open mind to opportunities. Maybe there is something I can still do in sports."

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