By Chris Horn, Carolinian magazine
In the span of a four-decade career, Nicholas Cooper-Lewter has counseled down-and-out death row inmates, talked professional athletes through sports slumps and preached to the faithful in church pews.
But the chapter he’s writing now as a faculty member at USC might have the most impact of all. A senior instructor in the College of Social Work, Cooper-Lewter is mentoring student-athletes and students with no athletic inclinations at all. He’s helping them see that no matter what life throws at you, there is still a strategy for success.
He points to the crucible of his own traumatic childhood and the redemption that followed as the foundation for who he would become.
“When I was going through my own hell as a child, I cried out to God for answers; I needed answers that worked,” Cooper-Lewter said, recalling the years of physical and sexual abuse he endured.
“Eventually, I began to find the answers. I had key people speaking key truth at key times in my life. Now I’ve lived long enough to know that when I care, it’s most clear that God cares.”
Not long after he began teaching at USC 10 years ago, Cooper- Lewter created “Overcoming the Odds in Sports and Beyond,” a course that has developed its own following among students and alumni. For some, Overcoming the Odds has been a defining passage in their lives as young adults, and “Doc” has been their guide.
“It wasn’t just, ‘Here’s how you win in sports.’ He teaches you how to become successful no matter what you do,” said Andrea Leatherman, a 2007 graduate and former USC equestrian team member who continues to keep in touch with her former professor as she pursues a career as a professional equestrienne. “You know Doc cares; he’s not there just to earn a salary.”
Amy Nicholson, a junior social work major, became a mom at age 19 and seriously doubted her own ability to succeed in college years later.
“His basic message is aimed at redirecting your thoughts, not listening to messages that limit you. Anyone can have short-term success, but to have long-term success you have to change your thinking, anticipate the bumps in the road and understand the physical, social and spiritual components of success,” she said. “I know I’ll be a good social worker, and a lot of my confidence comes from Overcoming the Odds.”
Some of what Cooper-Lewter imparts in the class sounds simplistic: “The world doesn’t love you; you have to love yourself. Be mindful of who you hang out with, of what you eat and drink. You hold the keys to your destiny — you can attain the goals you desire if you look for the clues to success.” It’s basic stuff, but in the context of classroom discussions, his students often take the words to heart.
“I want to be a coach, and what has changed my perspective after talking with Dr. Cooper-Lewter is that I want to focus on character development, not just athleticism. I was focused on technique, but not on the intangibles. Now I want to work on character first, then the sport.”
Otis Harris, a track standout at USC who won gold and silver track medals in the 2004 Athens Olympics, has returned to Carolina to finish a degree.
“There are student-athletes who are their family’s only ticket out of socioeconomic hell, and that’s a lot of pressure. When I talk to them in Overcoming the Odds, they’re able, sometimes for the first time, to consider ‘Who am I?’ ‘What is my purpose?’ ‘What attitudes need to be learned and unlearned?’
Arlene Andrews, a veteran social work professor at USC, points to Cooper-Lewter’s “sense of compassion, genuineness and open, accepting demeanor” as the foundation for his rapport with students. “He starts where the other person is and helps them see where they can grow,” she said.
Cooper-Lewter is the kind of person who looks for a way forward even when the road signs read Dead End. It was that perseverance that got him through a raw childhood and a career-ending injury as a college football player. He went on to earn a master’s in social work, a Ph.D. in psychology and ordination in the Baptist church, all the while dealing with his troubled past and searching for answers that would bring him to a place of transformation. Years later, that’s what draws people to his message.
“Those are the big questions that cover all of us. And we can’t assume that people know the answers. For the student-athletes, I try to show them that physical athleticism is only one piece of the puzzle. They need a lot more than that to succeed. And if they get injured or when their sports careers end, as they all eventually will, they need a foundation to keep going.”
Now a strength and conditioning coach for USC’s football team, Freddy Saint-Preux sat in Cooper-Lewter’s Overcoming the Odds course several years ago but didn’t pay much attention to what he heard.
“My mind was focused on other things: girls mainly,” said Saint-Preux, who played football at USC, then left before graduating to pursue an NFL career. When he got hurt, the dream was over. “I got in a funk where I didn’t care too much about anything. But Dr. Cooper-Lewter made me understand that nothing is guaranteed in life so be grateful for the opportunities that are presented to you.
“I’m back at USC, not just working with the football team but enrolled in the criminal justice program. I’d love to work in the prison system, and I’d love to be like Doc, helping the guys inside to better themselves mentally.”
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