June 19, 2017
By Adam Van Brimmer
– Homer Rice’s Total Person Program has changed many young lives over the better part of the past four decades. Ask Sam Bracken, a Georgia Tech offensive lineman among the first participants in the early 1980s, and he’ll tell you the initiative literally saved his life.
Bracken came to Georgia Tech a broken young man, one abandoned by his single mother three years earlier and carrying the baggage of a “primal, primitive background” marked by neglect, abuse, drug and alcohol use and a dearth of adult role models. He found his center on The Flats thanks in large part to the influence of his coach, Bill Curry, and Rice’s initiative, which promoted a balance of excellence in academics, athletics and personal well-being.
“I really should be dead, in prison or insane,” Bracken said. “Georgia Tech and Dr. Rice’s program are the reason I’m not.”
Bracken found incredible success in life instead. He’s an inspirational speaker, author and professional development consultant who spent a decade as an executive with FranklinCovey, the acclaimed training and leadership organization.
And now Bracken is back at Georgia Tech, hoping to change—maybe even save—lives by leveraging the same principles that put his life on track. He’s helping one of his old Yellow Jacket teammates, athletic director Todd Stansbury, in an effort to make Rice’s Total Person Program the core of Georgia Tech athletics again.
“The Total Person Program is still part of our DNA,” Stansbury said. “It hasn’t been the focus, but it’s still a part of our history, our story and what we stand for, which is the overall development of the student-athlete. Sam and I were fortunate to be among the first to go through the program. My freshman year was Homer’s first year, so I was literally in the first class. To be the ones who bring that back is a great honor.”
Stansbury is new to his job. Hired in September and on campus only since late November, he’s spent much of his early tenure “fact finding.” He found a department full of passion and pride in the Georgia Tech brand.
“They realize Georgia Tech is unique, a place that represents excellence,” he said. “Everything we do is at such a high level and by hanging our hats on the development of the student-athlete—a belief that already exists—we are going to differentiate Georgia Tech from the other schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference and around the country.”
Enter Bracken. He’s teamed with Stansbury to instill the Total Person Program principles in Stansbury’s previous career stops, including Central Florida and Oregon State. Stansbury had to rebrand the program “Everyday Champions” and he’s evolved it along the way, but at the core, what Bracken and Stansbury have built elsewhere is the Total Person Program.
The first step to re-emphasizing the initiative at Georgia Tech is to educate and secure buy-in from the administration, coaches and staff. Bracken is leading workshops and projects to foster that culture. His passion quickly wins over skeptics, just as it did in his FranklinCovey days, when one of his big successes was to deliver leadership principles to prison populations.
“His personality is so infectious because of the fact he truly cares about what he’s trying to accomplish and the people he’s working with,” Stansbury said. “They know he’s not making it up or just repeating stuff he’s been told to say. This is what he believes. This is what he stands for. It’s hard to come out of a meeting with Sam and not be pretty energized and enthusiastic.”
Bracken’s given off that energy and forthright attitude since the day Stansbury met him at a Georgia Tech football practice. Bracken was far from a household name with fans during his Yellow Jacket tenure—he was an offensive guard on a team that featured stars like Pat Swilling and John Dewberry—but he was the “go-to guy” when a teammate was struggling with life off the field.
Such a role would seem appropriate, given all that Bracken had overcome. Only no one knew about his background, even his roommate Stansbury.
“I didn’t know until I read his first book,” said Stansbury of Bracken’s memoir, ‘My Orange Duffel Bag, a Journey to Radical Change.’ “Back then, he was just one of those standup guys who, when you are 18 or 19 years old, kind of stands out.”
Bracken’s book outlines his personal journey, which was troubling from the start: He was conceived when his mother was raped. He was abused by his stepfather and stepbrothers, who introduced him to drugs and alcohol. As a teenager living in Las Vegas, his friends included a mobster’s son.
His mother moved in with a motorcycle gang and abandoned Bracken when he was 15, leaving him homeless. Only then did his life take a positive turn: He was taken in a by a friend’s family, and a stable home life allowed him to excel academically and athletically, leading him eventually to Georgia Tech and the program that would save his life.
BUILDING A REPUTATION
Bracken’s standing as a living, breathing testimony to the power of the Total Person Program represents the future of Georgia Tech athletics.
Stansbury foresees the personal development piece of the Yellow Jacket brand attracting more top-level talent. As the culture takes hold internally, with the staff and student-athletes, it will begin to project outward. The plan is to target letterwinners, staff and students beyond the athletic department and ultimately the public.
Once prospects and their families around the country begin to associate Georgia Tech with producing leaders, innovators and ready-made professionals, that reputation will raise the Yellow Jackets’ profile.
“Georgia Tech is going to make you pro-ready, market-ready and life-ready,” Bracken said. “If you are among the few who get to the pros athletically, you are going to be a better pro because you are driven by character, passion and purpose. That has the potential to be a huge strategic advantage for us.”
Stansbury has the time and devotion to Georgia Tech to make it happen. He’s just 55 years old, is the first “Tech man” to lead the athletic department since William Alexander, and he makes no bones about the fact that this is his dream job.
“To be back where it all began,” Stansbury said, “is awesome.”