Opportunity, expectation, achievement and self-awareness are among the watchwords
that sum up Gregory Leatherwood’s progression from heralded high school athlete to
Ferris State University College of Arts, Sciences and Education graduate this December
during Fall 2020 commencement ceremonies.
As a Detroit News All-Metro North team selection for his play at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School, Leatherwood fielded recruiting interest college football programs around the state of Michigan.
“Ferris, and several other Division II schools in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference were offering me support for my education,” Leatherwood said. “I had schools in NCAA Division I-AA that were inviting me to attend and be a walk-on. I also looked into Michigan State University, Howard University in Washington D.C. and Wayne State University for academic considerations. D-II opportunities were in line with my education budget, but meeting with Coach Tony Annese was the icing on the cake for me. That glimpse of the Ferris football culture went from something I was interested in, to his program being separate and ahead of all others in the GLIAC.”
With dreams of attending dental school always part of Gregory’s considerations, he began his studies in preparatory classes for a Bachelor of Science in Biology. Adjusting to college academics while working to establish himself as an athlete brought Leatherwood to conclusions about his priorities.
“The academic-athletic balance, with the commitment that each element required, was something that I had to adjust to,” Leatherwood said. “It came down to my addressing and understanding time management, particularly from Monday to Friday, each week. While I would not trade any part of my undergraduate experience for the world, I am glad I relied on what my father (Gregory Leatherwood Sr.) has been saying to me for my entire life, that ‘everyone gets a turn’. In life, everyone gets opportunities to do something spectacular and change the dynamics of their future. This phrase has helped me structure my priorities for college and further in life. I am proud that I could make the dean’s list for my college in the Spring 2020 semester, believing that success was possible because of the lessons I learned and the personal decisions I have made.”
Leatherwood rose from the football program’s reserve ranks and advanced himself academically. He received advice from Matthew Chaney, director of the Office of Minority Student Services, which led to his decision to pledge the Phi Zeta chapter of the Omega Psi Phi, Inc. fraternity in Fall 2018.
“Once I felt comfortable with how I had established myself, academically and athletically, I got into the Black Greek experience,” Leatherwood said. “Matt Chaney and I had several conversations about this, as he mentored me in my early years on campus. Every part of my involvement with the chapter has been a great experience. I found, as I gained experience in the chapter, there was a lot of respect for my participation in athletics, my approach to classwork and my level of extra-curricular involvement. I knew that I could better myself and others around me, so I agreed to seek the presidency of my chapter, and after that, became Black Greek Council president.”
Leatherwood is proud of his active role in the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, which he also joined at the start of the 2018-19 academic year.
“As I gained confidence and experience in football, I found that my time required in the film room became shorter,” Leatherwood said. “Once I identified the opponent’s tendencies that were significant to my role, I was ready to go. That allowed me to invest my time with SAAC. We worked hard to connect with students on other Ferris athletic teams, and create a more active and involved community. That included taking part in service-related events, which serve as a great way to give back to the Big Rapids community and Ferris’ supporters.”
Leatherwood connected with Michael Peterson from the basketball team, who invited him to be his co-host for the “2019 ESPYs,” a year-ending awards show. That program began several years ago to deliver some entertainment and further the camaraderie among student-athletes.
“I always wondered how I might do in a role as an entertainer,” Leatherwood said. “I believed that I had the ability, but just had not expressed myself in that way. It was a great time hosting the ‘ESPYs’ with Michael, and I was very grateful for all the positive comments that came my way from fellow athletes after our show. It makes me confident that I could produce a podcast, or handle public speaking roles, all because I gave that a try while making the effort necessary to be successful.”
Leatherwood approaches his graduation with a year of athletic eligibility remaining, as the 2020 season went into limbo, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I really have my focus on the dental school application process, but to play football again is intriguing,” Leatherwood said. “I have applied to Howard, the University of Detroit-Mercy, the University of Michigan, Tufts University in Boston, Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry in Nashville and Temple, in Philadelphia. If it helped my chances for acceptance to put the pads on again at one of those schools, I would consider it, but it would be very difficult to manage the commitment to academics, along with athletics and the costs of continued education. I saw how Marvin Campbell came back for a final season with Ferris, in 2019, after he had earned his Bachelor degree. If my dental school dreams are deferred, playing again for the Bulldogs is in the range of possibilities.”
As his time as Black Greek Council president draws to a close, Leatherwood considered the last nine months, which saw him complete his final term through remote learning, with a significant impact on efforts to gather fraternity members and their larger groups to invest in the campus and community.
“I will say that it has been a struggle,” Leatherwood said. “We have been very focused on making Zoom gatherings as valuable an experience as they can be, but at times, I feel we have taken a few steps back. Virtual communications and the departure of young men who graduated in Spring 2020 make taking the message to students that we could reach more easily face-to-face a process full of obstacles. Regardless, we are positive about our fraternities and the council, while looking forward to setting a good course for the students and leaders to come.”
Completing his degree remotely has Leatherwood somewhat anxious for the time that he could return to campus and see people and places that meant so much to him during his time at Ferris.
“I did not think I would miss the Ferris Library for Information, Technology and Education, but I could get some important work done on the second floor of FLITE,” Leatherwood said. “I am proud of what I was able to accomplish there since it has helped me get in reach of my dreams.
People are what I will miss the most, though. Around a dozen of us gather for group chats once or twice a week. Their friendship and support have been a big part of my growth at Ferris. I am so grateful for all of this, the university and the city of Big Rapids, as it helped teach me a lot. My pledging Omega Psi Phi, the success we achieved in football, becoming a Ferris alumnus, it means the world to me.”
Leatherwood said another aspect of reaching the end of his Bachelor’s degree pursuit is joining his parents and sister as college graduates.
“My family is very excited for me,” Leatherwood said. “I will be the last one of us to earn a degree. The standard had been set when I was young, and I am proud to have achieved this goal. I have every hope of acceptance at and succeeding in a dental school, with a ‘stretch goal’ of becoming an orthodontist someday. My mother is planning a ‘drive-by’ celebration so that I will be out there in my cap and gown. It is great that we can do everything possible to have an appropriate acknowledgment of this accomplishment.”