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Facing stereotypes, student-athlete Justin McNair finds motivation in the challenge

Justin McNair is making his family proud.

The son of Augustus and Kaynette McNair, the youngest of three boys, Justin was a quiet child who enjoyed his family and sports. He was "all boy," with a winning smile and engaging eyes. He was always a favorite at his school because he was obedient and kind and tried to always do the right thing.

He received an associate degree from Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Iowa, where he attended school on an athletic scholarship to play football. In December he is scheduled to graduate from Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina, where he is also on an athletic scholarship.

But McNair, 22, is not only good in athletics. He also received the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference Academic All-KCAC Award. He's also been awarded the football Heart Beat Award, a character-based award voted on by players and coaches.

And although McNair remains optimistic in life, he's seeing that he can no longer be that carefree little boy he once was. He has experienced being a black male in America.

He's learned that so many people use stereotypes to judge him. So while he used to skip through the stores with his mom, he's now more cautious when shopping. He has experienced being watched closely by store personnel, as if he would try to steal something.

He's had "the talk" that all black parents who are aware and knowledgeable give their black sons: If they are approached by anyone of authority, keep their empty hands in sight, and be ultra-polite.

It was impressed on him that no matter what a nice guy he is, most of the time he will be judged by the color of his skin by people who don't know him. He was reminded that if he was in an establishment with a couple of his friends, they may be seen as gang members.

And as he grew from an innocent little boy, he experienced many things that he was told about in his home and community.

But McNair has been motivated by the challenge. He said he knew it was crucial to get an education and give back to the community. He became involved in his community by volunteering for Salvation Army Disaster Relief and Habitat for Humanity and being the keynote speaker for the Caring and Concerned Educators Elementary Excellence Awards.

He has had a strong spiritual background and been involved in church since he was young. He's tutored children and worked in his church's food pantry.

He appreciates his mom, who guides her sons with love, and his dad, who loves his family and provides an ethical and spiritual male role model for his African-American sons.

He made the dean's list in fall 2015 and spring 2016.

McNair has set goals, including to make the dean's list again this fall and to become the marketing student of the year. He's graduating in December with a degree in business marketing and business leadership.

"I know when I get my degree no one can take it away from me," he said, "and I intend to go even further in education and continue to reach for the stars."

One of his most passionate goals is to continue to model to young African-American males that even though there are more roadblocks for males of their race, they should never give up the dream of success.

His encouragement to others aligns with the quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward."

When those of us who watched McNair grow up see him speak with optimism and enthusiasm, we can still see the spirit of that little guy with the winning smile and engaging eyes, moving forward.