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Pro baseball and football alum tackles childhood literacy
January 27, 2023
Brian Jordan’s successful career in pro football and pro baseball places him in elite company with star athletes like Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson. After playing for pro teams, including the Atlanta Falcons and the Atlanta Braves, Jordan, a 1989 University of Richmond grad, became a broadcaster and children’s book author.
When he visits elementary school kids in their classes, they’re understandably excited. But Jordan doesn’t just read a book and head on his way. He shares his own experiences overcoming adversity at that age.
“Because my mom was an educator, she would read to me all the time, but she didn’t realize that I didn’t recognize the letters. I probably had dyslexia,” Jordan said. “I had to teach myself how to read.” When the teacher asked for volunteers to read out loud in class, he wanted to hide.
Alone with the books, he underscored each word with his finger and read the stories until his finger moved faster across the pages. Now, through his Brian Jordan Foundation, the sports star works to reach children facing similar struggles. His Reading Challenge in Georgia encourages literacy through competition and teamwork. The top reader and the most improved reader, based on Accelerated Reader scores, win a field trip with Jordan. Each school’s top class gets to play in a kickball game with Jordan and their teachers.
“My mission in life is motivating kids to read,” he said. “The more I learn about literacy, I see what kind of deficit our kids are in, especially since COVID.” During the pandemic, reading skills in the United States fell drastically. National academic research has shown strong links between third grade reading proficiency and high school graduation rates. In turn, dropping out of high school correlates with juvenile detention, incarceration, unemployment, and poverty.
Education transformed Jordan’s life. Growing up in Baltimore, he played football and baseball as a teenager. He was drafted out of high school for baseball. “They offered me a lot of money, but my mom rained on my parade and said, ‘You’re going to graduate from college.’”
Junior year, the University of Maryland offered him a full scholarship with the promise of playing two sports. However, come senior year, the school’s head football coach told him he couldn’t play baseball as a college freshman.
By then he’d missed out on other big school scholarships. Yet the University of Richmond kept calling and calling, inviting him to play football — and baseball.
“That’s when I made the biggest decision of my young life,” Jordan recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I’m going to Richmond.’ I just felt like the environment was really good. I knew I would get my classwork done, too.”
Attending a smaller school as a top running back recruit, he expected to start immediately, but the head football coach at the time, Dal Shealy, put seniors in each position and wanted to redshirt Jordan. It was rough. Still, he knew he’d made the right choice.
Jordan described graduating from the University of Richmond with a degree in sociology as the happiest day of his life, surpassing being drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals and the Buffalo Bills.
“To be able to walk across that stage and receive my degree, and then also have the opportunity to continue on with my dreams, it meant a lot to me,” he said.
After several years in the NFL, Jordan played 15 seasons in the MLB, including for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers.
Jordan went on to become a broadcaster for Fox Sports, now called Bally Sports, where he’s an Atlanta Braves analyst.
Writing children’s books brought him full circle. I Told You I Can Play! follows six-year-old Brian in his quest to play football. Overcoming the Fear of the Baseball and Time-Out for Bullies tell stories about prevailing over childhood challenges. His first chapter book, The Adventures of Champ Jr. tackles social and economic challenges faced by children.
The Reading Challenge that Jordan piloted in Douglas County, Georgia, recently expanded to several other counties. Teachers whose students participate in the initiative reported more children reading above their grade level. Their Accelerated Reader scores rose as well, Jordan said.
Next, he wants to bring the successful challenge to more areas, including the Richmond community. Thinking back to his time at the University, Jordan realized that he was building his resume. “Now I’m building my speeches to kids: education first, sports second,” he said.