Atlanta Falcons defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi spoke to students at his former school, Richards Middle, on Tuesday in Lawrenceville. Massaquoi attended Richards about 12 years ago. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)
LAWRENCEVILLE — Ron Hickman remembers Jonathan Massaquoi as a 5-foot-10 and 185 pound eighth-grader when he taught him 12 years ago as a Richards Middle School student.
“He used to try to break my hand when he shook it,” Hickman said with a laugh.
So Hickman, a physical education teacher in his 21st year at the school, wore a wide smile on Tuesday when Massaquoi returned to the school only days after he sacked the quarterback, caused a fumble and scored a touchdown in a preseason game for the Atlanta Falcons against Jacksonville. Now, Massaquoi’s 6-foot-2 and 264-pounds frame bent over to give Hickman a hug on Tuesday. Hickman invited Massaquoi to talk with students at Richards about the importance of education and pursuing goals in life.
“It gives them hope to go after their dreams,” Hickman said. “Whether it’s football or whatever, it shows that they can do it.”
A handful of teachers who taught at the school when Massaquoi was a student remain at the school, and they attended the event in the school’s library where mostly seventh- and eighth-grade students were rewarded for good behavior.
Hickman said Massaquoi is believed to be the first professional athlete from Richards out of more than 14,000 students to come through the school in its 26 years of existence.
“I kept telling him to keep working hard, and as long as he kept his grades up, that he would be where he is today,” Hickman said. “And he did.”
Massaquoi visited his former school and spoke to several dozen students about his path to the National Football League, which went through Butler Community College in Kansas and Troy University in Alabama. Last year, the Falcons drafted him in the fifth round of the NFL Draft, 164th overall.
Massaquoi said he was recruited by the likes of Louisiana State University, the University of Tennessee and the University of Louisville, but “acted up” in high school, and didn’t improve his grades until his senior year, which was too late. That’s why he ended up at Butler, where he graduated in a year.
“I was in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “No family, 18 hours away, an old T-Mobile phone that barely picked up any signal, couldn’t text nobody.”
But his first schools were, or will be, the same schools of the students he spoke to on Tuesday: Simonton Elementary, Richards Middle and Central Gwinnett High.
“People used to tell me when I was your age, ‘Dream big, dream about anything,’” he said. “You’re like, ‘I just want to eat cereal, play video games and watch cartoons in the morning, right? It’s crazy how a dream can turn into reality. If you decide and have your mind set on what you want to be, and see yourself doing things, you envision yourself doing things.”
Massaquoi said he remembered lunches in the school’s cafeteria, and a book fair where he read his first Harry Potter book.
“It’s been a long road,” Massaquoi told the students. “It’s going to be a long road for you as well, but it will be shorter if you make the wrong decisions in your journey to where you need to get.”
At Central, Massaquoi said he was in chorus and band, and almost in “The Music Man,” until, “I had to go play football.”
As they prepare for high school, Massaquoi reminded the students to choose their peers wisely.
“If you’re with a stray dog every day and it has fleas, you don’t think you’re going to go home with fleas,” he said. “Now, if you’re with people who are happy, successful, want to do better with their lives, you don’t think you’re going to go home and better yourself?”
Massaquoi said when he was younger, he hung out with people who he thought were cool, and made the right decisions, but actually didn’t. While he had fun in college, and went out with friends, he mostly stayed away from partying because it took him away from his goal.
“A lot of my friends right now, they’re either dead, in jail, selling drugs, have babies, or still live in the same house they went to middle school in, with their mother and father,” Massaquoi said. “That goes to show, if you make the right decision and want to do something, you can actually do it, if you put your mind to it.”
Massaquoi encouraged the students to break the “generational curse” and recognize when they’re going down a wrong path.
“Even though I’m standing up here in a Falcons jersey, you can as well,” he said. “You’re capable of doing it even when you don’t think you have the strength to do so.”
Before he answered dozens of questions from the students, Massaquoi said there are five types of people in the world, those who are good, average, excellent, great and elite.
“You have to ask yourself, where do you want to be?,” he said. “Elite people have precision, they’re precise, they have time management, they know their morals and values. People who are elite know what they want in life.”