Photos by: Nik Layman
From changing majors to changing sports, these former football players, cheerleaders, majorettes, and Blazerettes stepped outside their comfort zones and transformed their student–and future careers.
Lance RhodesB.A. History, 2006
UAB Football, 2000-2004
Founder and Co-owner, Godspeed Gym
As a teenager, Lance Rhodes was a football star in Birmingham’s renowned Hoover High School program. Named high school player of the year by AL.com in 2000, the receiver had an offer from UAB but signed with Arizona State instead. But Birmingham called him back. “[Tempe] was so far away,” he said. “I missed my family, and I knew I would move back to the South eventually anyway. I was close to [then-UAB assistant coach] Pat Sullivan, and UAB football had a lot of energy back then, so I decided to come home.”
The new Blazer initially chose to major in biology, but soon switched to history because he liked it so much. Despite the demands of playing D1 football as a receiver, punt returner, and second-string quarterback, Rhodes was such a curious student, he racked up more than 200 credit hours by the time he graduated in 2006. “I ended up with an accidental minor in Exercise Science [in the School of Education],” he says. “I had always been into how the body changes, and I always wanted to be a better athlete. I tore stuff out of magazines about nutrition, fitness, kinesiology, that kind of thing. My junior year I took a class with Dr. Gary Hunter [in the School of Medicine] and just asked tons of questions. And Dr. Jane Roy, too. I just fell in love with it.”
The spring of his senior year, Rhodes was working out with Chase Prime, the brother of Rhodes’ longtime friend and teammate Blake Prime. “Pretty soon we had all of these other guys coming to my mom and dad’s house to work out with us,” he recalls. In time, their reputation spread throughout the Hoover and Spain Park high school football programs, and Lance realized there was a business opportunity in what they were doing.
Today, the gym and training program serves professional athletes from the NFL, NBA, MLB, soccer, and weightlifting, plus high school and college athletes, amateurs, and regular folks who want to get fit and live a life of wellness. Rhodes focuses on the athletes, while co-owner Blake focuses on everyone else. Rhodes says that their personalities and even college majors come into play every day in the gym. “I think that’s why we work so well together,” he says. “Blake majored in biology, and he’s good at discipline, working toward a single goal, the customer’s physical form. I’m liberal arts—more big-picture. I’m restless, I can’t stay in the same spot for long.”
As Godspeed has grown, Rhodes and his fellow owners have plans to expand the training program via apps and licenses. But fundamentally, Rhodes sees Godspeed as more than a profession. “Our goal is meeting people where they are, and building them up in all aspects of their lives. We are servants.”
Blake PrimeB.S., Biology, 2006
MBA, UAB Collat School of Business, 2009
UAB Football, 2000-2005
Co-owner, Godspeed Gym
Blake Prime committed to UAB as a high school football senior at Hoover. A safety/outside linebacker and biology major, he had dreams of becoming a dentist after graduation. But the demands of football meant that important academic benchmarks sometimes had to be delayed. “It was tough, playing football while pursuing a degree in biology,” he says. “It teaches you a lot about discipline, your work ethic, and figuring out what you need to do to succeed. During the season, it got really hard to balance the schedule. To fit in all of the practices, meetings, weight training and workouts, I had to be finished with my classes by 11:00 a.m. and I couldn’t start back until after 6:00 p.m. So I missed a big window during the day when other people were taking their classes and labs.”
He also missed the professional shadowing that freshmen and sophomores in pre-health are required to do before matriculating. “There wasn’t a lot of time to do that while I was playing football, so I had to wait until my senior year to shadow a dentist. And that’s when I discovered I really didn’t like the human mouth at all,” he says, laughing. “I was a little late realizing that dentistry wasn’t for me.”
After graduation, Prime soon joined his brother Chase and their friend Lance Rhodes in their workouts, and before long was training high school athletes who were coming in for guidance. His ability to focus on each athlete and move them toward their individual goals quickly made him a sought-after advisor. “Here at Godspeed, we try to be welcoming, not intimidating,” he says. “We try to take what we call the ‘everyday athlete’ and guide them to better health from top to bottom: nutrition, fitness, everything. No matter your skill set or level, we’ll love on you, we’ll help you, and we’ll support you. This is like a family, and we want to help you wherever you are.”
Prime says that that feeling of family is something he looks forward to re-establishing with the returning UAB football program. “We played for Coach Clark in high school, and we love him. We look forward to building that relationship with the team in the coming years.”
Prime also looks forward to more growth and energy on campus, something he says was lacking when he and Rhodes were student-athletes. “That undergraduate experience wasn’t as strong back then. It’s a totally different feeling now. For years, I think people would drive along University Boulevard and look up and realize, ‘I think we just drove through UAB.’ It’s not like that anymore. There’s a buzz about it, and I’m so excited to see what the team and the university can accomplish. It’s vital that the city continues to move as UAB moves.”
Dr. Brandi Bonner-Cooke PattonB.A., French, 1998
M.D., UAB School of Medicine, 2002
Color Guard (’94-’95), Majorette (’95-’96), Blazerette (’97-’98)
Psychiatrist, Birmingham VA Medical Center
Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, UAB School of Medicine
It’s not always common to meet a French major who goes on to medical school, but it’s not unheard of, either. Especially not at UAB, where, as Dr. Brandi Patton points out, “You can study anything you want and come out on top.”
Patton, a Hueytown native who attended the demanding Resource Learning Center (RLC) high school (now the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate school), was a high-achieving, ambitious student. She applied to several select schools—and was accepted to Yale—before her dad shared some words of wisdom that cut through the noise of her college search.
“My dad didn’t go to college—he worked at U.S. Steel for decades, and I was really independent so he didn’t really tell me what he thought about my decisions very often. But there were two times he put his foot down. One time was going to RLC—he said, ‘No, you’re going to at least try it. If you hate it, you can come back to Hueytown.’ And the other time, when I found out I made it into the Early Medical School Acceptance Program (EMSAP) at UAB and I wasn’t sure if it was right, he said, ‘You need to do this. You shouldn’t let this pass by.’ It was the 11th hour and I finally said, ‘Okay, I need to seize on this opportunity.’”
Patton says she chose French as her major because, “I loved the humanities, and I couldn’t give it up. I knew I was going to be doing years of science in medical school and my residency, and I didn’t want to burn out. I had advisors encouraging me, and even had faculty teach me one-on-one in my 400-level classes to make sure I matriculated on time and finished with my EMSAP group. I had a lot of support, particularly from Dr. Catherine Daniélou and Dr. Serge Bokobza in the French department, and Dr. Greg Pence, who directs the EMSAP program.”
With a chemistry minor preparing her for the science demands of medical school, Patton says her French major was useful, too—in sometimes surprising ways. “I think my French helped me keep my perspective. It reminded me that no matter how narrow my focus became, the world was a bigger place. It helped me stay centered and gave me a global perspective. And it helped me with medical terminology, since Latin is the root of French.”
Patton was a high school majorette and even in her college search, looked for band programs that fielded majorettes. As a freshman at UAB, she first joined the color guard, which was the same pattern she followed in high school. After two years, she became a majorette, then decided to take a break her junior year. As a senior, she joined the Blazerette dance team. “I really did it all,” she laughs.
Looking back, Patton says her years in the band auxiliary programs made such a difference in her college experience, and even in her career. “It was exciting, there was a lot of energy,” she says. “There was a lot of support for us: from advisors, from my professors, from my sorority sisters, from my fellow majorettes. In fact, a lot of us went into healthcare: I know of at least two nurses and two doctors from that group.”
“The truth is, you can’t do anything on your own,” she says. “UAB was a community around me. You can get a first-class education at UAB. It’s as good or better as anywhere in the country.”
Today, she stays in touch with Stacy Hester Arnold, who coordinates all of the UAB Auxiliary programs. Patton and her family are also football season ticket holders and are excited for the 2017 season. “I can’t wait,” she says. “I can’t wait to see the field show and take in the whole experience again—seeing people tailgating, seeing old friends, seeing your colors. It’s going to be fantastic.”
Dr. Malinda Blair O’LearyB.A., Spanish, 2000
M.Ed., UAB School of Education, 2002
Ph.D., University of Alabama, 2008
Assistant Professor of Spanish, UAB Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures
Like many college students, Malinda Blair O’Leary started with one plan yet ended up following another. The Hoover High School graduate came to UAB with a goal of majoring in physical therapy but found the math and science challenging. Though she had loved studying other languages and cultures since elementary school, “that felt more like a hobby to me,” she says. “I felt like I had to find a major that led to a clear career path.” Eventually, after watching her struggle, her dad stepped in with some fatherly advice. “He said, ‘Why don’t you just study what you like and are good at?’” O’Leary recalls. So she changed her major to Spanish, and has since built a successful career as a Spanish professor.
O’Leary trained in the Korean martial art of tae kwon do from age six and competed at the national level. In high school, she tried out for the high school dance line but wasn’t selected. She says she didn’t give either activity much thought at UAB until her sophomore year, when one of her sorority sisters said she was going to try out for the Blazerettes and asked her to come along. To O’Leary’s surprise, she made the squad, but her friend did not. “I think the tae kwon do was a big help,” she says. “I could kick really high. And I was relaxed because I wasn’t as invested in it as some of the other girls.”
O’Leary says that spontaneous tryout transformed her undergraduate experience in ways as profound as her change in major. “I was ecstatic,” she says. “Back in high school, [the dance team members] were the cool kids. The fact that I didn’t make it then but made it at the university level—that was the affirmation I needed.”
“It was a delightful distraction,” she continues. “It physically gave me something to do that was healthy. And I had always loved marching band, the horns and the drums. Being a Blazerette really completed my UAB experience. As a child, my parents had taken me to Jacksonville State football games and I had watched their incredible band and their kick line of ballerinas. They had also literally carried me—when I was too young to even walk—to UAB basketball games. To be a part of the Blazerettes and the Marching Blazers really brought all of those experiences together for me. It was the cherry on top.”
O’Leary managed her coursework, a part-time job, and her band practices with supportive faculty, friends, and the auxiliary coordinators. And today, particularly as a college professor watching undergraduates juggling all that they have to manage, she sees the value in her experiences. “My sorority, the band, and my friends in foreign languages—those were all different worlds,” she says. “But the extracurricular activities were the things that got me out of my room and kept me energized. It’s the same with my students today.
Getting involved means you’re around other people who are also motivated by school. They are the ones who want to be a part of something bigger. And being around them, you end up doing better yourself.”
O’Leary joined the UAB Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures as an instructor in 2005 while she completed her graduate coursework. Today, she focuses primarily on intermediate and acquisition classes, including courses in the Spanish for Business and Applied Professional Spanish tracks. She’s watched the changes to the football and Marching Blazers program closely over the past few years, and says she’s happy to see the enthusiasm restored to campus.
“Football creates such a culture around it,” she says. “Basketball is a big part of the UAB experience and has always had a lot of energy, but it can’t do it alone. Football brings some activity and some energy to campus that I think was a little bit missing. When I think about all those times I was on the field looking up at the stands—I was literally in the middle of it—there’s nothing like it. To hear the music blaring all around you, completely surrounding you, and know that you’re a part of making that moment happen for the crowd, it’s exhilarating.”
Kindall Jones CorneliusB.A., English, 2010
M.Ed., UAB School of Education, 2011
Ninth-grade English teacher, Helena High School
From a young age, Kindall Jones Cornelius knew she wanted to be a teacher. And specifically, since she was a cheerleader herself, she wanted to be able to coach cheerleading at the high school level. But she never thought her own cheerleading career would continue past high school until her sister Lindsey intervened.
“My sister encouraged me to try out,“ Cornelius says. “And when I say encouraged, I mean she strongly encouraged. She told me to use my size to my advantage. She told me that colleges would want someone like me, who was small but skilled. Basically, she forced me to do it,” she laughs.
So, the petite high school senior, who liked security and predictability more than risk and uncertainty, took one of her first risks: she attended a few cheerleading clinics, then tried out at UAB. And she made the squad. “I tell people that I didn’t choose UAB—UAB chose me,” she says.
That fateful decision fundamentally changed Cornelius’ life, yet ironically ensured that her dream of teaching and coaching high school cheerleading would come to pass. She decided to major in English after eliminating the STEM subjects and other humanities degrees. She also knew she didn’t want to teach younger children, and high school English seemed like a good goal after having rewarding experiences with her own high school English teachers. After a few composition and literature classes at UAB, she knew she’d made the right decision. “Dr. Miranda Graves was a great mentor to me,” she says. “And
Dr. Alison Chapman taught me Shakespeare and Milton. They really inspired me.”
As she progressed through her academic courses, Cornelius also had a full schedule of practices, sporting events, and even a job at Snoozy’s. But she says her natural organizational abilities—and the support she received at UAB—made all the difference. “I have always been very organized,” she says. “I’m good at time management. But I also had coaches who made sure that all of us were able to take the classes we were required to take. Once I got to be a junior and senior, there were classes I had to have to graduate but they would only be offered once a year. The coaches would meet with the squad each semester and find out when we had to be in class, and would adjust our practices accordingly. One year we practiced at 6:00 a.m. just to avoid the academic conflicts.”
As a freshman and the only newcomer to an established team, Cornelius cheered on the co-ed squad, which was separate from the all-girls squad. The co-ed squad covered home and away football games and men’s basketball games, while the all-girl squad covered women’s basketball and volleyball. By her second year, the squads were combined. “I had incredible experiences as a result of cheering,” she says. “We traveled all over the country, and I got to cheer in SEC stadiums. It was hard to be the youngest, newest team member when I was a freshman, but the upperclassmen welcomed me and taught me so much. It was an amazing experience and the people I cheered with—as well as band members and others—have become my closest friends.”
Today, in her own ninth-grade English classes at Helena High School, Cornelius is able to share much of what she learned at UAB with her young students. “I tell them UAB would be a great choice because of the rigorous, demanding academics,” she says. “My sister got three degrees from UA, and she will tell you that my course load at UAB was harder than anything she took there.”
But she also reminds them that college success is about more than academics. “I always tell them, you have to get involved,” she says. “You have to be in a club, be in an organization, work for the magazine or newspaper, be in the band. I taught a cheerleader here at Helena last year who went to an in-state university, and so several of the other cheerleaders followed her there. That’s fine, but I don’t want my students choosing their college based only on what their friends are doing. I tell them, ‘You have to get out of your comfort zone.’”
“It was hard for me to decide to go to UAB,” she says. “I knew no one there; I had to take a chance. But I did it, and I made friends for a lifetime. All because I took a risk.”