Recently, I was told that I needed to start writing more columns, specifically in the public's general interest. The issue is, sometimes that can be tough for me because I've grown up around sports my whole life. Even my current job has me in and out of gyms and fields on nearly a daily basis.

So, I began to ponder on what to write and of course as always, sports was on my mind. Suddenly it hit me. I know how much this time of year means to family and friends of recent graduates. Seniors marched across a football field or gym floor to receive their diploma that will propel them into their next phase of life.

Like many, I was curious of who were each school's valedictorian and salutatorian and when I looked on the lists, I noticed something interesting.

Out of the four young men and women who earned their valedictorian or salutatorian status in the two Benton County high schools, three of those students were also standout athletes as well.

I could not help but think about how staggering that number was. It made me flashback to 2013 when I was graduating from Walnut High School and I was named the salutatorian of my class. I was a four-sport athlete in my time as a Wildcat and ended my high school career as one of the best students in my grade. The valedictorian that year, Brad Clifton, also was heavily involved in athletics at Walnut.

Spanning my memory of the last couple of years led me to the belief that maybe, just maybe, the sports world that I have grown up in and still a part of, could be correlated to the success of so many students across Benton County.

For example, Hickory Flat's Gracie Pipkin was one of the more outstanding athletes that I've covered in my short time here at the Southern Advocate. Pipkin stood out in three sports; cross country, basketball and softball. She put in the work everyday to make herself as good as her ability would let her become in sports. That same work ethic drove Pipkin to her valedictorian honors in the Class of 2018 at Hickory Flat.

Pipkin was not alone in being a multi-sport member that excelled in the classroom. Ashland's Wesley Thomas did so as well. Thomas, a state champion in powerlifting, guided the Blue Devils football team while also competing in track and field. Thomas was Ashland's valedictorian.

Ashland's Langston Ables found her niche in one sport...cheerleading. Ables found the one outlet that let her explore her physical abilities while also maintaining good grades.

The point of writing this is not to intentionally force someone to believe that the only way a child can succeed in life is by their involvement in athletics. That's simply false. Hickory Flat's Jacob Smith excelled in academics without any sports background. But do I believe that these three kids' athletic prowess did not play a role in shaping their minds to become stronger and more well-rounded students? Absolutely. I have lived it. I have seen it with my own eyes with these kids. The hard work and sweat in those long, hot practices that break them down mentally, physically and even emotionally has parlayed into students who are equipped to handle any test or assignment that seems difficult in their time in school.

It is a testament to these great kids. I've spoken with just about everyone of them at some point while covering one of their games or events and each has worked so hard for every accomplishment that they have received.

It is also a testament to their coaches. Benton County is blessed with a group of coaches that put the same amount of work in their classrooms as teachers as they do as coaches. Those same motivational pushes that these coaches will preach to their players in practices and games is also the same message that is being sent during school hours.

These kids' parents should be commended as well. Without their guidance and encouragement, some of these students may not have accomplished all that they have. 

I leave you with this. Athletic success is not the end all and be all with life. There are plenty of examples of important human beings who could not tell you what a first down is in football. That being said, sports can also play a vital role in the mental make-up of a young boy or girl. That statement was proven true this year in the Class of 2018 across all of Benton County.

dillon.barnes@journalinc.com

Twitter: @SS_Sports_

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