TALLAHASSEE – A virtual graduation ceremony is a poor substitute for Andre Ewers’ realization of a generation-changing goal, nearly six years in the making.
For a young man whose notoriety was attained by running faster than most who have donned a Florida State track & field singlet, the robed stroll across the Donald L. Tucker Center stage and handshake with President John Thrasher was more than ceremonial.
“It’s been a sad journey for me since learning that [graduation] has been cancelled, even though I understand with the virus pandemic going on,” said Ewers, one of 21 FSU track & field graduates who were set to walk this weekend. “For me, walking across that stage is really just me painting my milestone.”
Saturday’s originally scheduled graduation ceremony would have been Ewers’ first. He did not participate in his middle school ceremony and could not walk with his 2014 Piper High School classmates because he did not pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). And he was already in Tallahassee completing his Butler (Kan.) Community College degree online before enrolling at FSU in January of 2018.
Still, there was a sense of satisfaction when he submitted his online “Sports & Society” final exam Thursday, fulfilling his last requirement for his social sciences degree.
“I (sat) there for five minutes before I submitted the paper,” Ewers said. “I was in a pause for a minute because I was like, ‘Wow, I’m done. I’m really done.’…It hit me. I started doing a goofy dance, like, ‘Yes, I’m done with undergrad.’
“It was definitely an extraordinary feeling knowing that the milestone will forever be there and that will change generations in the future and pave the way for my son. That was definitely the real feeling.”
Ewers’ son has been the source of motivation throughout the process. Born Dec. 2, 2014, about the time Ewers was completing his high school graduation requirements, Aiden lives in South Florida with his mother. He will enroll in kindergarten in the fall.
“(College graduation) became a real mission and a passion for me around the same time I found out that I was going to have a child,” Ewers said. “At that moment, I told myself, ‘Hey, no one in my family has ever graduated from college. I didn’t grow up with a father, so it’s up to me now to set that standard.’
“At that time, if I’m being honest, I didn’t know how I was going to do it.”
It wasn’t easy. While his track career flourished at the junior college level – first at South Plains and then Butler – gaining the attention of FSU sprints coach Ricky Argro and many others, there were academic challenges along the way.
Paired with Lauren Birch, the director of educational services and a learning specialist in the Student Athlete Academic Services office upon his FSU enrollment, Ewers began building the framework for his future success.
“It’s always refreshing when you get a student who is as driven as he is,” Birch said of Ewers. “They’re all here to do well in athletics and a lot of them haven’t been pushed academically before. When I first started working with Andre, he did have some challenges with either keeping up with assignments or figuring out how to be successful in his classes.
“Once we were able to skill-build, he ran with it.”
First it required identifying Ewers’ learning challenges.
“I have no problem sharing that, because that is a part of the story and those things actually help people connect,” he said, noting that writing papers and reading comprehension while test-taking were areas where he required help. “There are always alternative options to doing things.”
Capitalizing on Ewers’ skill for verbally expressing himself – evident to those who follow him on social media – Birch introduced him to the “Talk-to-Text” application, which paved the way for success in paper-writing. She also provided him with a path for gaining accommodations for additional time while taking exams.
“From the moment I stepped on campus she has definitely been a big part,” Ewers said of Birch. “There were times at the beginning where I would get upset, but…you realize that when someone is being on top of you, it’s not necessarily they’re being hard on you, they just want you to be successful.”
He also credited track & field academic advisor Austin Whitelaw’s persistent presence.
“You would think I was his No. 1 priority, even with everyone he had, because he would constantly text me and call; checking on me,” he said.
And then there was Argro, who championed Ewers’ growth both on the track and in the classroom; providing him with a second family in Tallahassee, where he has lived longer than anywhere else since high school.
“Coach Rick always talked to me like a father and told me, ‘I know you’re talented, but I don’t care about that if you cannot get your degree. That’s your number 1 priority,’” Ewers said. “The strongest part that bonds us is he understands me and how I operate and why I do what I do…
“He grew up in Orlando in an environment where he didn’t have everything. He had to work to get to where he is in life. Life wasn’t always easy. At one point when his dad was shot, his mom was raising him and his siblings….It was kind of the same way with me, but a different story. I started growing up in a third-world country. I didn’t have much. I just had to fight my whole life to get to where I’m at. I’m just thankful for whatever I come across in life and I never to get content.
“Those are the things that definitely create the bond as coach and athlete, which is life itself. It goes beyond track & field.”
Ewers more than did his part on the track to solidify that bond.
A six-time All-American, he was the 2018 ACC Men’s Outdoor Track Performer of the Year, a two-time ACC Outdoor Championships Track MVP – helping the team to three team titles – and won five individual conference titles.
He owns a share of the FSU 60-meter dash record (6.52) and anchored the Noles’ record-setting 4×100 (38.08) to a runner-up NCAA finish in 2019. His 100- (9.98) and 200-meter (20.14) personal-bests rank among the top five in program history.
He parlayed those talents into a professional contract last summer with Puma, and represented his native Jamaica at the 2019 IAAF World Championships, while still maintaining a nine-hour credit load despite spending a month in Qatar with his national team.
“There was no reason to put this thing on pause, because education is the most important thing,” said Ewers, who also had the support of his girlfriend Symone Darius. “After coming to that conclusion I was really excited to challenge myself to do those classes in the fall while still training for the World Championships.”
Not surprisingly, Argro said Ewers’ “elite mindset” has been central to his success.
“My bond with Dre has grown into a really, really deep bond,” Argro said. “I kind of look at him as an extended family member. He has a relationship with my wife and my kids. He’s a perfect example of a big brother for them.
“Everything that Dre has had to overcome from growing up a poor immigrant kid in South Florida and a bad neighborhood, dealing with his mom’s health issues…the way he’s persevered through all of that, including being a father himself, is a tremendous story. I don’t see how anyone can look at Andre and the things he’s gone through, and not persevere and push through the troubles they have in their own personal lives…
“He is the most focused individual I have ever coached.”
And a role model worth following.
“One of Dre’s biggest things is he wants to inspire people,” Birch said. “He does a phenomenal job of that. He tries to share his story and motivational pieces. It’s something I recognized early on with him. I work with other track athletes and I tried to leverage his motivation to help some of my other track guys as well. He had conversations with them about, ‘These are some of the things if you want to be successfully academically.’…A lot of times hearing it from their peers does a lot more from them.
“My other students, even football players, are inspired by him because they see he’s not just a good athlete, but he’s a good student. His motivation and drive for inspiring other people really sets him apart.”
FSU head coach Bob Braman heaped praise on his former star:
“This guy got it. He understood that the degree was a big, big deal and he made sure he got it done. It’s pretty cool. He’s got a young son and a professional career in front of him and the degree will give him some opportunities that he would not have had.”
Ewers isn’t finished with his education. He plans to get his certification as a personal trainer and hasn’t dismissed the idea of pursuing another degree down the road. Most importantly, he wants to inspire others, including his son Aiden, with his story.
“I have a dream going forward to start encouraging young athletes out there to know that I’m no different from them,” Ewers said. “That they can accomplish everything that I’ve done, and even if they don’t see it happening, faith is seeing light in your heart when all your eyes see is darkness.”