Celebrating Black Gopher student-athletes

In recognition of Black History Month this year, the University of Minnesota is “Celebrating Those Who Made Us Great” by interviewing (via surveys) former Black student-athletes. In this month’s “Sports Odds and Ends” we will publish as many of these interviews as space allows. This week: Tommy Watson, Rachel Banham, Chonquita Jones-Echhardt

 

Tommy Watson Photo courtesy of U of M

Tommy Watson

Sport(s): Football

Years: 1992-97

Hometown: Denver, Colo.

Occupation: Speaker and Author

Twitter Handle: @Drinspiration1

1) What is it you honestly miss most about the university?

The support. I came to U of M needing lots of support beyond football. I arrived on campus to play football while homeless, with my mother and father in prison, my grandmother (who was my last legal guardian) in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer’s, my younger brother in prison, my older brother involved with gangs, my oldest sister a crack addict, my second-oldest sister in foster care in Iowa, my youngest sister living with my aunt.

Between my junior and senior years of high school, I lived in five different locations and spent the last six months of my senior year of high school homeless. The University of Minnesota did a fantastic job of providing me with the resources that I needed to survive and thrive as a student-athlete. The university played a vital role in helping me become Dr. Tommy Watson!

2) If you could give the current student-athletes any piece of advice, what would it be? 

Get that degree! Maximize your time and build solid relationships. Everywhere I travel today, I run into my former teammates and alumni. It was one of my teammates who recruited me to live in Charlotte, N.C., where we have five other teammates also living. We get together on a regular basis, hang out and support each other’s families and activities. These relationships all started at the University of Minnesota 20-plus years ago.

3) Please share your favorite university or athletic event you’ve attended since you graduated and what made it so special to you.

I have been back to speak to athletes and serve as a mentor. However, one of the most memorable moments occurred when I returned for the opening of TCF Bank Stadium. It was amazing sharing the experience with my former teammates and legends that played and coached at the university many years earlier.

4) What are you grateful for?

I am forever grateful for being a graduate of the University of Minnesota and maintaining a relationship with the school. When I was a principal in the Twin Cities, I established a partnership with the university to have student-athletes come to my school monthly to mentor my students. My students loved it and loved the University of Minnesota. In fact, our school song was a modified version of the University of Minnesota’s fight song. I have a number of my former students attending the University of Minnesota today.

5) What does Black History Month mean to you?

Resilience! It’s the honoring of a group of people that has had nearly every obstacle imaginable placed on us and before us to keep us down and hold us back. Despite the obstacles and odds, we have been able to bounce back and thrive — and here we still stand today!

6) What occupies your time now?

Today, I travel the nation inspiring individuals and organizations to turn transitions into success as a speaker, author, executive coach and a consultant. The essential part of my message to audiences is sharing how the University of Minnesota helped me go from homeless to doctor.

 

Rachel Banham Photo courtesy of U of M

Rachel Banham (Maiden)

Sport(s): Women’s Basketball

Years: 2011-16

Hometown: Lakeville, Minn.

Occupation: Professional Basketball (WNBA)

Twitter Handle: @rachelbanham_1

1) What is it you honestly miss most about the university?

What I miss most about the university is the people. I loved being around such a supportive community and playing alongside a bunch of women who were like sisters to me.

2) If you could give the current student-athletes any piece of advice, what would it be?

My piece of advice would be to enjoy every moment. It flies by so fast and you have to soak it all in because nothing in your life is going to be like college, nor being on a team of people who understand your life in ways others cannot. Also, use all the resources that are available to you!

3) Please share your favorite university or athletic event you’ve attended since you graduated and what made it so special to you.

The most special moment for me after graduating was going back to watch the women’s basketball team take on top-ranked Maryland and have the privilege of getting my jersey retired!

4) What are you grateful for?

I am grateful for God, family, friends and good health.

5) What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black History Month means a lot to me because it’s a time to shine even more light on those who were strong, brave, and paved a way for all of us to live a more comfortable life.

6) What occupies your time now?

Basketball and working out occupy most of my time. But outside of that, hanging with friends and family and my dogs.

Chonquita ”CJ” Eckhardt Photo courtesy of U of M

Chonquita ”CJ” Eckhardt (Maiden – Jones)

Sport(s): Rowing and Softball

Years: Rowing (‘07); Softball (‘08-10)

Hometown: Chicago, Ill.

Occupation: Associate Director of Admissions at the Blake School

Twitter Handle: @ChonquitaJ

1) What is it you honestly miss most about the university?

I miss being a part of such a tight-knit group. My teammates were my family away from home. We had so much fun in practice, games, traveling, and we learned a lot from each other. I miss the pride and passion we all shared for a common goal. Being a student-athlete can be magical.

2) If you could give the current student-athletes any piece of advice, what would it be?

My advice would be to take advantage of all your resources. There is plenty of support to help navigate your journey. Go say “hi” to your academic advisors. Use the study halls to organize your academic responsibilities. It feels that much easier when you lean on the people there to assist your progress.

3) Please share your favorite university or athletic event you’ve attended since you graduated and what made it so special to you.

The first Homecoming after graduation was special to me. It reminded me of how amazing the university’s community was for me. There is so much Gopher pride. I felt it when I was a student and feel it just the same after graduation. I am proud of the culture and love taking part in the experience.

4) What are you grateful for?

Being in education, I always share how impactful being a student-athlete is for your development. I am grateful to have met so many different people. I am grateful for the community I still have after graduation. I am grateful for the skills I built in my time at Minnesota. I am better off with time-management skills, interpersonal relationships, and life-long networks from my time at Minnesota.

5) What does Black History Month mean to you?

Pride, fulfillment, growth, magic and beauty are a few words that describe Black History Month for me. There is still so much to learn about our Black History. This month also represents resilience. We should continue to navigate how we want our history. We should hope to continue pushing for a better society for ourselves and the people around us. It takes a village and I am proud of our village.

6) What occupies your time now?

Currently, I spend most of my time educating young people on their academic options, helping young students navigate the big world of high school and college experiences. I am also an avid CrossFit participant, so that is a ton of fun. More than anything else, enjoying my life here in Minnesota with my amazing partner, Amanda.

 

 

About Charles Hallman

Charles Hallman is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at challman@spokesman-recorder.com

View all posts by Charles Hallman →

One Comment on “Celebrating Black Gopher student-athletes”

Comments are closed.