Brainy teams go head to head
By JOSH ZIMMER, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- The books are distributed in the summer. From that point on, life changes for the hundreds of African-American students trying to qualify for the annual Brain Bowl.
They are teenagers like 18-year-old Melissa Woods, a senior at Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola. She didn't stop having fun. She just made do with less as she and her teammates spent countless hours absorbing black history and literature classics.
"You make sacrifices," she said. "We practiced on Saturday and Sunday."
Effort and intelligence propelled a few teams above the rest as they competed through a grueling series of regional matchups that culminated in this weekend's Brain Bowl finals at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Tampa.
The 17th annual competition was sponsored by the Florida Education Fund, which created the event at the prompting of former fund president Israel Tribble Jr. Tribble thought African-American students needed more encouragement to pursue college.
One of the bowl's biggest lures is the promise of a four-year scholarship to various Florida universities for each member of a winning team. Woods, a member of the "Griots," which won in the history and culture category, plans to major in music and business management at Florida A&M University.
But the spirit of Brain Bowl is much broader than just scholarships.
Although only a handful of teams were still in the running Saturday morning, the rooms were packed with parents, teachers and students from schools around the state. When asked why they were there, several talked about the virtues of discipline, learning and friendship, and of reaching for higher goals.
Marielos Brown is a member of the "Nubians Teens" from St. Petersburg College. They lost early, but Brown, who wants to be a trauma surgeon, stuck around to watch.
"It's a lot of pressure," she said of the competition. But "it makes you feel good (to qualify)."
Homer Turner of Pensacola was waiting for the history and culture meet to begin. Next to him was his 10-year-old daughter Lesley, a member of the National Achievers Society.
Turner wanted her to see the possibilities. Outside the competition rooms was a well-attended information booth manned by two University of South Florida recruiters.
"This really should be inspirational to everyone because it opens up the mind," Turner said.
Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, who gave Saturday's keynote address, said "In this room today are doctors, lawyers and teachers. There are people who are going to change the world forever."
Walter Gulley Jr., Griots coach and school social studies chairman, said his "ultimate joy" is seeing his students obtain scholarships.
Since 1985, the Florida Education Fund has provided hundreds of scholarships, including three-year scholarships for 179 students pursuing doctoral degrees, president Lawrence Morehouse said. Morehouse estimated that 95 percent of Brain Bowl winners earn an undergraduate degree. About 20 percent, he said, eventually enter a doctorate program.
Other winners Saturday were Santa Fe Community College in high school math and Bay Point Middle School of St. Petersburg in middle school math.
So, is Tribble's dream -- more African-American students pursuing college -- becoming a reality?
"There's no doubt it is," Morehouse said.
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