Keary Colbert's left forearm bears an "SC" tattoo, his right shirt sleeve, the clasped hands logo of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. He is a man who takes pride in his history and his alliances.
But for the USC College graduate and former Trojans football player, these are more than just symbols of his alma mater and the club of his youth. Each represents a place where he received gifts that changed his life: mentorship and the opportunity to make his own future. His mission now is to ensure that others will have the same chance to follow their dreams.
This past spring, after retiring from professional football, Colbert accepted a position as a graduate assistant coach for the Trojans, and the role of spokesperson for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s “Be Great” campaign. This nationwide effort highlights former club members such as Colbert to re-engage fellow alumni and inspire them to give back to their home organizations, whether it’s donating time or resources.
“It was an honor to be chosen by the Boys & Girls Club in my hometown,” Colbert said of the Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme, Calif., branch he attended as a young man. “I look at ‘Be Great’ as a way to inspire someone else in my community to do the same things I have done — go to college and go on to live a dream.”
There are 4,000 Boys & Girls Clubs with 4.2 million young people connected through membership or community outreach annually. Clubs are open during the day, after school and on weekends to provide youth ages 6 to 18 with a safe place to learn and grow. A team of youth development professionals and volunteers offers programs including career development, fitness and recreation, the arts, health and life skills, and academic support.
Tim Blaylock, chief professional officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme, notes that in 2009, the high school graduation rate in Oxnard was 62 percent, but for local club members, the rate was 96 percent. With 7,200 members and 50 programs including a sailing team and music program, the club relies on volunteers and donations from its community and alumni.
“If we get more caring adults involved through the ‘Be Great’ campaign with the help of Keary and others like him, we can have a greater influence on our young people,” Blaylock said.
As part of the campaign’s outreach, grade-school portraits of famous club alumni from actors Denzel Washington and Martin Sheen to track and field star Jackie Joyner-Kersee grace billboards and bus shelters across the country. In Oxnard, it was Colbert’s childhood photograph that appeared on local billboards. The 6-year-old, whose image watched over drivers on the 101 Freeway, shares the same modest smile and gentle demeanor as his grown-up counterpart. Now 28, Colbert has experienced college life and life in the spotlight.
A 2006 USC College graduate, he holds a B.A. in sociology and a stellar record as a wide receiver with the Trojans. Colbert went on to play for National Football League teams such as the Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions.
Colbert’s football career began in the Boys & Girls Club, where he often spent time during summer breaks. He is quick to point out that his situation growing up was different than many of his club peers. He attended the club because his parents worked full time — his mother, Berma, for Sears, and his father, Patrick, for Southern California Edison — and he was fortunate to have a loving and supportive home life. To his parents, the club was a positive environment where their son could spend his free time and an alternative to staying home unsupervised, but to Colbert, it was simply “the cool place to be.”
“Everybody went to the Boys & Girls Club during the summer,” he said. “When school was out, I couldn’t wait to get there.”
Even though Colbert started out playing basketball at the club, once he joined the flag football team, he realized he was actually better at scoring touchdowns.
Then he watched a televised football game that made him begin to consider the reality of playing professional football. Colbert recalls the face-off between USC and Northwestern University at the January 1996 Rose Bowl. “Keyshawn Johnson had a monster game, and I remember sitting in front of the TV in awe of him and what he was doing that day,” Colbert said. “At that point I realized, I want to do that — play football, go to USC. Everything clicked.”
And as a club member, he was certainly in the right place at the right time. Chuck Muncie, a club alumnus and former running back for the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers, was the executive director of Colbert’s hometown club at the time, and Colbert remembers looking up to him. The two soon became friends, with Muncie coaching him both on his football future and on his life choices.
“Keary’s dream was to go to college and play football at a top university,” Muncie said. “A lot of the things I talked to him about centered around his decision-making process and leadership role in his community.”
This emphasis on personal development first, football second, made a lasting impact on Colbert.
“It wasn’t just about sports with Chuck,” Colbert said. “He always talked about schoolwork, making sure everyone was doing the right thing and being a good person.
“As I got older,” he continued, “I realized that Chuck was giving back to me, planting seeds in my life that I didn’t realize were there until later when I was able to appreciate him and all he did for the club.”
Muncie, together with Colbert’s service-focused family and other mentors in his life, helped instill in him the importance of giving. When he was a teenager, Colbert shifted from taking part in club activities to volunteering, keeping score at basketball games and mentoring younger kids.
Colbert continued to develop his football skills, and after his high school football career, he was offered the chance to play at his dream school — USC.
As a starting wide receiver with the Trojans, Colbert set the all-time record for pass receptions, served as the team captain in his senior year, and won USC’s Most Inspirational Award.
“He took care of business and did whatever needed to be done to win the game,” said Mimi Butler, Colbert’s athletics department adviser. “If a crucial down needed to be made, you felt like if it was thrown to Keary, he would find a way to make it happen.”
In between practices and games, Colbert volunteered at local schools through the College’s Joint Educational Project. Many of the students he mentored came from tough backgrounds, similar to some of his peers at the club.
“A lot of these kids don’t realize the resources they have and they think everyone is against them,” he said. “I grew up with kids who were in the same circumstances, so I knew how to get through to them. I always took it as a challenge and took pride in helping them succeed.”
Colbert was the second-round pick for the Carolina Panthers in the 2004 NFL draft. In 2008, he signed with the Denver Broncos, and it was during this time that his mother called to tell him about a fund- raising campaign for his hometown Boys & Girls Club.
“She said that our club was looking for donations, and that they’d only been able to raise half of the money they needed because times were tough,” he said. “So I ended up donating the difference. It was one of the biggest things I’ve ever done.”
This game-changing contribution strengthened Colbert’s role as an active alumnus of the club. Even with his busy schedule as a professional football player, he always made time to stop by his home club to volunteer, sign autographs, or just hang out with the kids. Earlier this year, in recognition of his involvement as a donor and volunteer, the board of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme asked him to be a spokesperson for their “Be Great” campaign.
“We believe he is someone who leads by example and should be recognized for his efforts on our behalf,” Blaylock said.
A few months later, Colbert received another phone call, this time from USC Trojans Coach Lane Kiffin, who offered him the chance to come back to USC as a tight ends coach. For Colbert, who had been considering coaching since he was a Trojan himself, it was an opportunity of a lifetime.
“When I was playing, I always had a coach’s mindset,” he said. “I know how I liked to be coached, so I try to come across to players the best that I can and try to help them live out their dreams as Coach Carroll and Coach Kiffin and everyone else helped me live out mine.”
Colbert utilized his football connections to recruit a group of past and current NFL players for a recent golf tournament benefiting the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme. At the June 28 Fore the Kids Golf Classic, the club’s Youth of the Year Taylor Penny spoke to the crowd about what being a part of the club means to her.
“Keary Colbert has been a great role model for all kids here at the Club,” said Penny, 16. “We all look up to him as someone who has accomplished a lot, but has come home to give hope and opportunity to kids like me. Someday, I want to follow in his footsteps and become a proud Trojan as well, just like Keary.”
“There are so many stories like Taylor’s,” Colbert said. “It helps you realize — this is the reason you’re doing it, for people like her.”
The ability to have an impact on the life of just one young person is everything to Colbert.
“If you are able to affect one person, who can affect the next person, and then that person can affect someone in the future — it does mean something,” he said. “It’s all worth it.”
For more information on the Boys & Girls Clubs of America's "Be Great" campaign, visit bgca.org.