His father always told him he could be a role model, but Jay Colbert wasn't so sure -- until a car accident temporarily derailed his football career.
After missing all of last season, the 5-foot-8, 200-pound running back from Gaithersburg High School is one of the most productive players for the Howard Bison. Equally impressive are his contributions outside football. Colbert has spent the past two semesters working with troubled District youths.
"He's a young man of great character, an outstanding young man," Howard Coach Rayford Petty said. "He's doing all the things to be a productive citizen in life."
Colbert, who has carried for more than 100 yards three times this season, leads the Bison with 609 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He also ranks among the top three in the MEAC in all-purpose yardage (first), punt returns (second) and kick returns (third). His production is not surprising; it is just a year delayed.
As a junior, Colbert earned first-team all-MEAC honors after becoming the first tailback at Howard in 15 years to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. He seemed poised for greatness his senior season until April 25, 2003. On that day, he and a friend were driving back to school when they were hit head-on by a car that crossed over the double yellow line. Colbert was wearing a seat belt, which prevented more serious injuries. But as the car was about to be hit, Colbert instinctively raised his hands to his face to protect himself. The force of the impact threw him forward, slamming his wrist into the windshield.
At first, doctors thought the wrist was broken and put Colbert in a cast. But when it hadn't healed properly after six weeks, they took more X-rays, which showed a dislocation. The doctors performed surgery, breaking the bone and inserting four pins to set it.
"Mind you, this is six weeks into the summer," Colbert said. "Now I've got to tell Coach that I think I'm going to miss the season."
Colbert wore a cast for 21/2 months. By the time the cast came off, he had lost all strength in that hand. He could barely move his fingers.
"They had to go through and pop each joint," Colbert said. "That was the hardest -- standing there you can hear it go pop. That was tough."
Not being able to play, it would have been natural for Colbert to avoid practices and team functions. But his teammates had voted him captain, and Colbert took that seriously. He attended every practice and game, giving pointers to his teammates.
During his time on the sideline, Colbert learned what his father meant about being a role model.
"I never really paid any attention to that," Colbert said. "Then after I was a captain, I said I guess I am. I always wanted to help teens in the inner city. They don't have the resources, and they don't have the opportunities that others do. I figured instead of just throwing them away in the jails, maybe I'll go out and help them any way I can."
Last spring, Colbert interned with a D.C. probation officer. He saw what happens to juveniles in the court system. He learned how most need discipline but also someone willing to listen.
"That's the problem," Colbert said. "A lot of them just feel like they don't have anybody they can really talk to except their peers. But their peers don't always have their best interests."
This semester, he has an internship with Choice Academy in Northeast, an alternative public school where students who have been suspended or expelled are sent. Colbert works with the kids in group and individual sessions.
"The nice thing is that he is male," said Costella Tate, a mental health coordinator at Choice. "He can really relate to our male students and talk with them about what it means to be a man. Most of us working in this field are females. To be able for him to sit and converse with them is just such a blessing. . . . He's just warm and open, and the kids can really relate to that."
Colbert, who often provides Howard football tickets to the kids at Choice, has found the experience mutually beneficial.
"At first, I was nervous," he said. "I just told them some things that I can relate to them, some things that I couldn't relate to, that I was learning from them because I'm from Damascus. I told them you all are teaching me a lot of things."
Football means a lot to Colbert, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and a minor in psychology, and is working toward a master's degree in social work. His dream is to play in the NFL. But almost equally important is his desire to work with young people and help them make good choices in life.
"My father always tells me, 'Don't forget where you came from,' " Colbert said. "I definitely will help where I can."