You don’t have to tell the people at Northern Illinois University that Nabal Jefferson is special.
Already the winner of a National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award worth $15,000 and a $7,500 NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship, the second team Capital One Academic All-American noseguard for the Huskies has drawn admiration from his teammates, coaches and professors throughout his time at NIU.
Now, as one of three male finalists for the 2013 Walter Byers Postgraduate Scholarship from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, one of the highest honors presented by the NCAA, Jefferson has distinguished himself as one of the most remarkable student-athletes in the country.
Awarded annually to one male and one female student-athlete across all divisions and all sports of the NCAA, the Walter Byers Scholarship recognizes individuals who display outstanding academic achievement and potential for future success.
Nominees must be a graduating senior or enrolled in graduate study at an NCAA member institution. Winners must have attained an undergraduate GPA of at least 3.5, competed on a varsity team at an NCAA member school, evidenced superior character and leadership, and demonstrated that participation in athletics and community service positively influenced the recipient’s personal and intellectual development.
In April, Jefferson and his fellow finalists traveled to Indianapolis where they were interviewed by representatives of NCAA schools and conferences that made up the Byers Scholarship Committee. While Jefferson did not receive the prestigious $24,000 award given to Winthrop soccer student-athlete Matt Horn, attaining finalist status put him in an elite category among all NCAA student-athletes. The other male finalist was Hofstra baseball player Joseph Burg.
Jefferson’s 3.67 cumulative grade point average in accountancy is impressive. His four seasons in the Northern Illinois defensive line rotation, two years as a starter and 144 career tackles, including 58 as a senior in 2012, are notable.
Helping lead the Huskies to two Mid-American Conference Championships, and four bowl games as a member of the winningest senior class in school history, capped by Northern Illinois’ historic appearance in the Discover Orange Bowl, is an accomplishment no one will forget.
The factors that elevated Jefferson from Byers Scholarship candidate to one of three finalists illustrated not only his superior character and leadership qualities, but made it clear that participation in athletics and community service helped make the Chicago native a person to be respected, admired and emulated.
“Once you meet Nabal, you talk to him and learn his story, it doesn’t take long to realize what a special individual he is,” said NIU Faculty Athletics Representative Matt Streb, who nominated Jefferson for the Byers honor. “He is a person who put himself in position to take advantage of every opportunity he earned. He takes nothing for granted, and seeks out ways to give back.”
“Nabal’s story is a great one,” said NIU head coach Rod Carey. “He has overcome so much in his life and it is a credit to him that he has put himself in position to receive these honors. Everyone can learn something from Nabal Jefferson, I don’t care who you are.”
Jefferson’s grandmother, Maria Alvarez, raised Nabal and his nine siblings in the Beverly neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, until her death in 2004.
As a 13-year-old, Jefferson made a decision to remain in Chicago while the rest of his family moved to Florida with his mother. He lived with an aunt at first, and sometimes others, and was watched over by the people in his neighborhood, and in his church. He worked hard – shoveling snow, mowing lawns and whatever jobs he could – to earn tuition money to attend the high school he had selected, Marist High School. He also received scholarships that enabled him to afford tuition, and worked every summer as a caddy at Lakewood Country Club to fund his eduction. His aunt passed away, and on the day of his graduation from Marist, one of his best friends died.
He came to NIU – the only school that offered him a scholarship – as a shy, unsure freshman, yet was in the rotation on the Huskie defensive line just a few games into his rookie year. He also returned to Beverly, and to his home parish of St. Margaret of Scotland, where he mentored the youth and helped the senior citizens, roles he still fills to this day. When the longtime pastor of St. Margaret’s was robbed and beaten, Jefferson returned to the church to assist in his care, and arranged for parishioners to be with the priest.
Jefferson embraces his status as a role model and his ties to Chicago remain strong. Two of his high school coaches and their wives were with Jefferson for Northern Illinois’ Senior Day this season. One of his former teachers, Mrs. Margaret Sullivan, wrote a letter describing Jefferson’s continuing connection to his church, his former school, and his neighborhood.
“We are all very proud of Nabal’s many accomplishments, but I am most proud of how he has chosen to give back to the community,” Sullivan wrote. “He is admired by his peers as well as the younger children of the community. He constantly reinforces with them that the only way out of a bad situation is through hard work and dedication. He guides them toward making good decisions about everything from school choices to social issues and behavior.
“Nabal is still very much involved with mentoring the young people of St. Margaret’s. He is in constant contact with them via social networking, and is known to the younger children as a ‘big brother’ figure to be feared and respected. He is there to help them with anything they need. He has come very far over the years, but never forgets where he came from.”
Following completion of his second summer as an intern at KPMG in Chicago, Jefferson will earn his undergraduate degree from NIU. He plans to remain at Northern Illinois to pursue his master’s degree in the field.
Football brought Nabal Jefferson to Northern Illinois University. The sport helped him receive well-deserved recognition as an NFF Scholar-Athlete, a NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship Award winner, an Academic All-American and now, status as a Walter Byers Postgraduate Scholarship finalist.
In the end, the qualities that make him remarkable – a strength of character built with determination, intelligence, hard work, compassion and faith – came from within and will remain with him forever. It is the sport of football, Northern Illinois University and the NCAA, that are lucky to have a student-athlete like Nabal Jefferson as their representative.