What do a Carolina Panther football player, the guidance counselor for a 2,600-student Chicago-area high school and a standout college track/cross-country athlete with a 4.0 GPA have in common? When they are Madre Harper, Anthony Colletti and Josie Brown – the common denominator is that these former student-athletes all chose Southern Illinois University Carbondale as the launch pad to help them achieve their goals.
They say that SIU, and especially the personnel in the College of Health and Human Sciences and the athletic department, provided all of the support, help and even the “cheerleaders” crucial to their success.
Of the 346 student-athletes campuswide, 153 come from CHHS. The College of Agricultural, Life and Physical Sciences had 21 student-athletes during the last semester, the second largest group on campus, with about 70% coming from biological sciences. Coming in third was the College of Engineering, Computing, Technology and Mathematics, with 16 student-athletes.
Support and guidance
Today, Colletti works with Naperville Central high school students as a guidance counselor and football coach. A Park Ridge, Illinois, native and graduate of Maine South High School, he was drawn to SIU in 2005 for a number of reasons, including the fact that it was not too close and not too far away from home. And there was “a good balance” of benefits – including great scenery, friendly people, a nice pace and caring coaches, faculty and staff. Colletti was a scholarship nose tackle and defensive lineman for the Saluki football team at SIU for four years, graduating in 2010 with a health education degree including a physical education endorsement and minor in driver’s education.
“I owe a lot of who I am today to SIU,” Colletti said. “When you are there, there are always eyes on you in the best ways possible. The professors are very supportive and nurturing. They guide and help you but don’t enable you. Another reason I picked Southern was the program was investing in student-athletes. It was an unbelievable 4½ years. Not everyone comes to college with great time and money management skills, but the faculty and athletic staff really work with the student-athletes at SIU.”
Colletti’s PE endorsement got him involved with SIU’s kinesiology department, where he had strong relationships. He was inspired to go into the education field “to be a positive influence on as many people as possible,” and he has added degrees and endorsements since graduating from SIU. Initially a physical education/driver’s education teacher, he became a special education teacher at Naperville North in hopes of having positive influence on even more students. He then became a guidance counselor in order to enhance the lives of even more people.
“I can’t say enough about SIU and all it’s done for me,” said Colletti, the father of four children under the age of 6, including twins, and a self-described fan of all teams Chicago (except the Cubs). “I loved the community and feel I had when I went there. You feel so connected and supported by everyone. To be honest, I’ve tried to create that same community-like culture in each stop I’ve been at after attending SIU.”
Madre Harper, No. 36 on the Carolina Panthers roster, is in his second year with the team after spending time with the Giants and the Raiders. A native of Arlington, Texas, Harper transferred to SIU in 2018 after two years at Oklahoma State University, when one of his best friends told him how great SIU was.
“I came to visit and checked out the exercise science and football programs, and I was instantly interested,” Harper said. “I always wanted to be part of a place like this.”
He was successful on the field at SIU, earning various accolades including honorable mention All-MVFC and ranking 17th in the nation for pass breakups. He succeeded in the classroom as well, graduating in 2020. Along the way, he made time to give to others, including volunteering as a trainer with the Strong Survivors cancer recovery program.
Juggling early morning workouts, practices, game schedules, classes and assignments and all of his other responsibilities was “very hard,” Harper admitted. But he also said SIU faculty were very understanding about his schedule and helpful throughout his college career.
And that’s not all. He said the faculty and staff are true Saluki sports fans and vocal supporters of the student-athletes, offering reassurance, making personal connections, and posting comments and photos on social media to enhance student-athlete morale.
He said those relationships didn’t end when he graduated and joined the NFL. In fact, Phil Anton, professor and exercise science and Strong Survivors program director, still checks in on Harper and offers words of encouragement. His Panther teammate and fellow Saluki 2020 exercise science graduate Jeremy Chinn still gets those morale boosters, as well. In fact, Anton stays in contact with Colletti and numerous other students, as do many of the other faculty.
Creating a sense of community
Anton said he and his fellow faculty members care about all of their students and want them to know it.
“One of our big priorities is making sure we do everything we can to support what our students are doing in and out of the classroom,” Anton said. “That applies to our student-athletes and to all of our students involved in extracurricular activities as well as all Salukis on campus.”
In CHHS, Anton said, many faculty, especially from exercise science and sport administration, have played sports at the college level and are perhaps especially empathetic with student-athletes.
“We know the time and effort required,” he said. “We don’t give them preferential treatment, but we do give them the benefit of the doubt when necessary.”
He said the college strives to create a sense of community with its students and one of the ways is for the college and departments to give the students social media shoutouts for their accomplishments – in the classroom and in their chosen sports. Whether it’s a home run, a personal best record, an academic honor, or service to the campus or community, “it helps them to know they’re being supported. They’re on the team for SIU and for their academic program.”
Anton said it’s very common for the faculty and staff to form personal connections with the students – including the student-athletes.
“We want them to know we have their backs,” he said. “We’re making the effort to be as supportive as we can and to get to know them, what’s important to them and how to help them reach their goals. And if they are going through a rough time, we want them to know we’re here for them.”
Saluki athletics support
Harper was also quick to note that Hilary Wittenborn, assistant athletic director for academics with Saluki Athletics, is always there to help student-athletes in a myriad of ways – from helping get classes and scheduling figured out to time management and simply lending a listening ear.
Wittenborn said her work with student-athletes begins even before they arrive on campus, helping them with orientation, acclimating to the D2L system, getting organized and learning time management skills.
Much of her time is devoted to CHHS student-athletes because they are a large portion of SIU’s student-athlete body. The School of Human Sciences alone has 89.
“We love that we have so many student-athletes in this department. It really makes us proud,” said Julie Partridge, professor of kinesiology, director of the Social Psychology of Sport Lab and NCAA faculty athletics representative (FAR), which is related to student-athlete welfare.
“Because we have so many student-athletes, we do all we can to support them in any way we can,” Partridge said. “We form close connections with them and promote what they’re doing on the field and in the classroom.”
Wittenborn said athletes have athletic training, practices and conditioning added to their classes and other responsibilities. She helps them establish plans to graduate with a meaningful degree and prepare for future success, and meets weekly with them help them to stay on track while complying with NCAA mandates. Wittenborn also connects them with other programming and services including financial literacy, mental health, career preparation and much more.
“A lot of my job is just encouraging them when they’re stressed about how they’re doing, reminding them to stay calm and focused on why they’re doing what they are doing. I encourage them to study hard and finish it out,” she said. “I remind them, ‘I believe in you. Let’s make sure you’re enjoying this.’”
Wittenborn, a first-generation college student herself, remembers firsthand the difficulties and struggles involved.
“It’s hard for athletes because they’re really focused on what they’re doing now, what they eat, their training, practices, academics and everything, and there’s so much on their plates,” Wittenborn said. “But SIU faculty are amazing. They are very helpful and really communicate with our student-athletes.”
Josie Brown, a junior exercise science major from Geneseo in the Quad Cities area, excelled in track, cross-country and basketball in high school, and enjoyed playing sports all year long. SIU’s athletic programs, the campus and the “gorgeous” region quickly caught her attention. But the kinesiology/exercise science programs really pulled her in, and when she discovered Strong Survivors, the woman whose goal is to become a physical therapist was totally sold.
“That offered me an experience I couldn’t get anywhere else, since there’s only one other program like it in the country,” Brown said.
She said when she first arrived on campus, she had pretty good time management skills after a busy high school career and was convinced she had it all figured out. But like most students, she discovered there are obstacles, made even more difficult with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“But if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, it’s manageable,” she said. “If you go to the right university, with supportive faculty and staff, you can make it work. SIU has great people, super welcoming. As long as you communicate with them, they are very understanding and cooperative. They are really very supportive of the student-athletes.”
Her schedule keeps her busy year-round, but she still manages to maintain a 4.0 GPA and she’s in her fourth semester as a student trainer in Strong Survivors.
Anton said the fact that Brown, Harper and many of SIU’s student-athletes already have such full schedules but still find time to give back to the community further endears them to their supporters. At any given time, he said, you’ll find numerous student-athletes volunteering their time and energy serving as trainers for the Strong Survivors cancer recovery program. The Salukis also help with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, toy drives, Scouting events and other charitable and community activities.
Brown admits juggling everything is a challenge but said she has benefitted as well. She said she is amazed and impressed with the cancer survivors and caregivers she’s become acquainted with through Strong Survivors, an exercise and nutritional program for cancer survivors and caregivers. Her work as a trainer and researcher in the lab has also led her to do a little rethinking of her career plans. While she’s determined to go into physical therapy, she may get her master’s degree in exercise science or biomedical engineering with a focus on biomechanics and then go on to physical therapy school so she can get involved in the research aspect of the field. “It’s such a diverse field,” she said. “Research on Parkinson’s disease or other neuromuscular diseases may be in my future.”
Forming additional connections
Many CHHS student-athletes, including all sport admin majors must serve internships, and a large number of them do so with Saluki Athletics, strengthening the bonds between academics and athletics.
“It’s a great opportunity for students to be able to work in Division I athletics, a good way for the students to form valuable connections and network, and an excellent springboard to jobs in the industry,” Wittenborn said.
Wittenborn said she and the rest of the athletics staff introduce the interns to the diverse areas – including marketing, sports medicine, scholarships, compliance, communications, the various teams, facilities and much more – making sure they get experiences that correlate with their areas of interest.
“It really gives them an appreciation for what all that goes into producing athletic events,” Wittenborn said.