Rock Chalk Weekly: The Great Escape
Written by Michael Houseman, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
De’Andre Mann just wanted to play football. Starting from a young age it didn’t matter where or when it was or if anything got in the way. Football came first.
Focusing all his attention on one aspect of his life came with a price. As a child, Mann never fully learned how to read.
Growing up in Miami, Mann was surrounded by violence. His way of staying out of trouble was through football. Living in a house with 15 people and being raised by both his mom and his grandmother, Mann focused on football instead of making school a priority. It was a space he could find peace.
“Football was a great escape for me,” said Mann. “It was tough growing up in my neighborhood. Reading, and really school in general, was never really important to me. I loved playing football and people around me could see how happy I was when I was out playing with my friends so they didn’t really try to tell me anything different.”
Football was the thing that got him through many obstacles, but it was also the thing that hindered him. He was liked by everyone as a person and was helped all throughout his schooling to get by, but somehow he was never truly taught to read. This was a secret he kept very close to his vest, something he refused to share with his closest family members, including his mom and grandmother.
Mann assumed everything was fine as long as he was having fun, hanging out with friends, and playing football. Nothing else mattered. Until seventh grade and a teacher, Ms. Banks, figured into the equation.
Until middle school, Mann was able to get by in his classes without any detecting his reading deficiency. Facing his illiteracy was never a problem, but as he transitioned from elementary school to middle school a glitch in the front office occurred and Mann was placed in advanced level classes.
Not wanting to acknowledge the classes were too difficult, Mann decided to attempt to take part in the classes he had been placed in. Despite his best efforts to fit into the advanced classes, the work was just impossible for him to complete. One day Mann was called upon to read in front of his class and panic set in. He didn’t know what to do and he became frustrated and embarrassed.
“That did not turn out so good,” said Mann. “People were laughing at me and I was mad, really mad. It was so frustrating because I should not have been in those classes to begin with, but on top of that I just could not read and now everyone knew.”
That day at school was devastating. Mann was ashamed and he did not want to go to school ever again, but in his household he did not have a choice. His mom, Mary, had never let any of her eight children skip school and she wasn’t going to let Mann be the first.
As it turned out, that day of shame turned out to be the biggest blessing for Mann. He was able to switch in to the classes he should have been enrolled in in the first place and was paired up with a teacher, Ms. Banks, who was able to connect with him. Ms. Banks was a teacher who truly cared about him and saw Mann’s potential. She knew the best way to get through to him was via the one thing he truly cared about, football.
“Reading did not become important to me until when Ms. Banks sat me and my best friend down and told us, ‘This is unacceptable’,” said Mann. “She talked to our little league football coach and made an agreement where we wouldn’t be able to practice until we learned how to read. It was definitely something we needed to hear at the time.”
From that point on Mann hit the ground running as far as academics were concerned. That year he sat down and worked hard on his studies. He went back and started from the beginning, going all the way back to the basics. In just a week’s time, Mann was making huge strides and with Ms. Banks encouraging him every step of the way he regained his confidence.
As Mann began to flourish in the classroom, he also excelled on the football field. He went on to star at Miami’s Killian High School where he rushed for 507 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior. He used his football skills to move on to Hartnell Community College (HCC) in California following his prep career.
At Hartnell, Mann’s football skills continued to impress as he helped lead the Panthers to the Coast Conference title, including a 9-2 mark and a win in the Living Breath Foundation Bowl, in 2013. Additionally, Mann earned All-Coast Conference First Team and California Community College Football Coaches Association (CCCFCA) All-Region First Team honors in 2013 after carrying the ball 223 times for 1,706 yards and 27 touchdowns as a sophomore.
Despite being rated the top junior college running back in the country by JCGridiron.com and handling his business on the football field, Mann fell back into some old habits in the classroom. Following his first semester at Hartnell, Mann’s grades put him in danger of not being able to play. This time the reality check came from his head coach at HCC, Matt Collins. Mann’s coach at Hartnell made sure the student-athletes had the best resources and was adamant about how important getting good a good education was to each of his players.
“Coach Collins told me I had a lot of talent, and when I was failing he was really disappointed in me, and we talked and talked and talked,” said Mann. “It was like a flashback to when I was in seventh grade with Ms. Banks saying, ‘you’re not going to go anywhere in life without your education.’ It really hit home with me.”
From that moment on he got his act together in the classroom and even performed well enough to make the honor roll. On the field, Mann made quite an impression—so much so that he was inducted into the Hartnell College Hall of Fame and parlayed that success into a scholarship to play at the next level.
Kansas was the next level for Mann. He arrived at KU during the summer of 2014 and during his time as a Jayhawk he has focused in on every part of being a student-athlete. With the words of Ms. Banks and Coach Collins still ringing in his ears, he set his sights first on earning his degree, while also making an impact on the football field.
Hesitant at first of being at a big-time college and what the rigorous educational requirements were going to be, Mann made sure to “live” in the academic center his first semester in an effort to not fall back on some bad habits.
Mann made every effort to ask for help and take advantage of all the resources he has at his disposal as a KU student-athlete. One of the most instrumental figures in his time as a Jayhawk has been Mann’s academic mentor, Shanda Hayden. He shared his goals, dreams and his previous struggle with literacy with Hayden and the transparency has paid huge dividends.
For Hayden, knowing Mann’s past struggles was instrumental in helping him attack his academics at Kansas. Although he could read the words on the page, Mann was still learning how to comprehend what he was reading. He was still picking up on how to write papers and reports so Hayden surrounded him with the support that Kansas had to offer, including learning assistants and tutors.
“De’Andre was like a sponge,” said Hayden. “He was so excited to learn. He was motivated because he wanted to do better. His attitude towards learning was so positive. He’s been a great student-athlete to work with during his time at KU.”
During his first season on the girdiron donning the Crimson and Blue in 2014, Mann had success before dealing with some injuries that set him back. In the meantime, he was also starting a family with his wife, Olivia. After having their son, Alijah, his priorities changed from focusing predominantly on football. He quickly realized anything could happen on the field and the possibility of not playing again, but most importantly being able to take care of his family, he fully understood how important his education would be for the rest of his life.
“As it got closer to the day my son was born, and I got hurt in football, I realized that anything could happen,” said Mann. “I had to consider that I might not play again and it became really important to me to be able to take care of my wife and son. I had to make sure I had something to fall back on besides just the physical talents God has given me.”
Even though Mann had been making efforts to succeed in the classroom, he became more devoted to earning his degree and also to learning outside of his classes. He even began to read books for leisure when he would get home, surprising even Olivia.
Mann established and enhanced his academic skill set during his time at Kansas and has demonstrated every attribute of an ideal student-athlete. He has been receptive to the help and sees the benefits of meeting with teachers and going to office hours. Because of that he is now able to be a role model to his teammates. He makes sure to be an advocate for the services KU student support provides with his teammates, explaining how much they have helped him in his situation and how if they accept the help, they too can achieve their goals.
“It’s more for the young guys coming from high school,” said Mann of his efforts to help his teammates. “They have never had to make this much of a commitment to anything. Being a student-athlete is not easy. This is pretty much your whole life. I just like to share with them my situation and how if they work hard on their academics and make it a priority, everything will pan out. I stress using all of the academic resources available to us. It has worked for me and it will work for them.”
One of Mann’s teammates, junior safety Fish Smithson, sees what Mann has been doing and is the first to back him on his claims.
“A lot of guys look up to him,” said Smithson. “He’s a senior and he is a veteran on the field and with his academics. A lot of guys aren’t very mature when they first get to college and they see him working hard and how close he is to having his degree. When he talks, it means something to them. I’ve never met someone who can balance having a family, football, school and still being one of the guys. He does everything great.”
In addition to having his teammates look up to him, Mann was presented with the Crimson Climb award during the 2015 Rock Chalk Choice Awards, which is given to the student athlete who has served as an inspiration to others by overcoming challenges and exceeding academic expectations. Coming from behind and overcoming adversity academically has been something Mann has been doing his entire life, but with the resources at KU and some encouragement along the way it was something he never had to do alone.
“Shanda kept reassuring me,” said Mann. “She would always let me know we have great resources here and as long as I put the work in I would see the results. She, just like Ms. Banks and Coach Collins, has been in my corner since day one. I appreciate them a lot because without them I don’t think I would be in this position.”
In December, Mann is on track to graduate from Kansas with a degree in liberal arts & sciences, a semester early, and is setting his sights on getting his Master’s in special education. With his degree in hand, he will be prepared to take on the world.
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