For Eastern Washington football players Ronald Baines, Anthony Larry and T.J. Lee III, the first bonds of friendship were forged in study hall.
That’s where the the former Prop 48 non-qualifiers first found their academic footing and learned to put the phrase “student-athlete” in the proper order.
“That’s where I met some of my closest friends – through propping,” said Lee, a three-time all-Big Sky cornerback who’s also on track to earn a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies.
Eastern recruits few Prop 48s – only five of the school’s 307 current athletes – and they work under the same rules as all 307 student-athletes on 12 men’s and women’s teams.
Their progress is overseen by Jim Fitzgerald, the school’s academic coordinator. The nephew of former Gonzaga basketball coach Dan Fitzgerald, he is an invisibile bridge across Washington Street, which divides Eastern’s academic and athletic entitities. Twice a year, he teaches a mandatory Life Skills class, geared toward helping student-athletes survive and thrive.
“The first thing I tell them is that I sat in that chair,” said Fitzgerald, who also juggled sports and studies as captain of the Gonzaga University baseball team in 1991.
“We get freshmen with eyes a big as saucers, asking ‘how do I survive?’ ” Fitzgerald said. “You’re not alone, but if you come to this place, you have to try to fail.”
Fitzgerald and his staff and tutors make no assumptions about a given student-athlete’s academic abilities.
“You assume they come in with nothing,” he said, and the work commences from there: the basics of note-taking, study habits, test-taking and more.
Most of the student-athletes are self-starters, Fitzgerald said, but others, such as Prop 48s, “need some hand-holding, and I enjoy that,” he said.
The main instrument is a daily study table that Fitzgerald said, “I’d put up against anybody in the Big Sky Conference.”
Athletes can study there as much as they like, but minimum participation depends on academic performance and the decision of coaches in each sport.
Meanwhile, the faculty members send weekly, and sometimes, daily progress reports on each student-athlete to Fitzgerald, who forwards those to their coaches.
“So when grades are posted, there’s no surprises,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald did get one surprise last year: a Big Sky Conference football championship ring from a grateful coach Beau Baldwin.
“I got a ring, which is great,” Ftizgerald said.
“But my biggest reward is to see a kid four or five years from now, walk across that stage and get a diploma,” Fitzgerald said.