Adrian Branch found himself in an unfamiliar role recently.
The former DeMatha High School basketball star, who now plays for the University of Maryland, was on the other side of the whistle--officiating a benefit basketball game between athletes in the university's Volunteers for Youth program and the faculty of Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi.
Though the game's players aren't household words, they are superstars to their "little brothers" and "little sisters" from two Prince George's County middle schools, Buck Lodge and Greenbelt. The purpose of the contest was to raise money for the Volunteers for Youth (VFY).
These college athletes are friends to the 12- and 13-year-olds, people the students can look up to and on whom they can depend for advice, guidance or just a good time.
Any teen-ager attending the middle schools can take part in the program, although priority is given to youths who have family or school problems, or need extra guidance the Maryland athletes can give them.
"Athletes automatically command respect and admiration," said Patricia Aloot, child psychologist, VFY adviser and faculty member at the University of Maryland. "Role models are very important to a middle school student."
The VFY, begun in 1969 at Stanford University, became a program of the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 1977.
In the two years it has been in existence at Maryland, the program has grown from six to 28 athletes who are paired up individually with a middle school student. Participating athletes represent six men's sports (soccer, lacrosse, track, cross country, football and baseball) and five women's sports (field hockey, lacrosse, tennis, swimming and volleyball). The program also involves officials of the Maryland athletic department.
Participation in the program requires a substantial commitment from the collegians. Advisers emphasize that disappointment can be traumatic for the younger students.
But the biggest challenge the athletes face with their youthful counterparts is dealing with drug usage, according to Aloot. She said athletes taking part in the program have told her that the teen-agers are heavily exposed to the drug culture through television, movies, and popular songs, and are subject to peer pressure to experiment with drugs.
"It's important how the athlete handles the questions concerning drug involvement. The athletes must give their honest opinions and always keep open the lines of communication," she said.
Most often, however, the athletes spend time individually with the younger students, who are referred to the program through their guidance counselors.
"Sometimes we would go window shopping, or maybe just downtown, because Mark Yanone from Buck Lodge hasn't been there often," said Charlie Shapiro, a senior who runs track and cross country for Maryland. "We saw the movie 'Porky's'--I thought it was silly, but he liked it," he said, laughing.
Shapiro says he's seen changes in Mark since they've known each other. "When I first met Mark, he didn't look at the world with a proper perspective. He looked at life like rock star Ozzie Osbourne, living day to day," Shapiro says. "Now he looks more to the future. He didn't know what success was, but now he feels he can be a student without being frowned upon. He's really a smart kid, and he's starting to realize it."
Other young participants have gotten a different type of recognition. During half-time at a Maryland basketball game last year, football player Terry Ridgley and his 14-year-old friend Shawn Evans from Buck Lodge were interviewed by a local radio station reporter.
"Shawn has gained a lot more confidence," said Cynthia Evans, Shawn's mother. "He has learned to deal with people better and to express his ideas. He especially enjoys talking to Terry about sports, especially at Maryland." In addition to taking part in the benefit game and a spring picnic, the students went to Annapolis, where they visited the House of Delegates and received a standing ovation from House members.
"The program really impressed me, especially because the kids have volunteered their time," said State Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery). "Young adults and youths are constantly criticized for taking drugs and drinking, but this shows they do many positive things."
After the visit to the statehouse, the group of 50 invaded Annapolis' cobblestone streets and tiny shops and dined on seafood by the bay.
On the ride home, Mark Yanone reflected: "What a way to spend a Friday."