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NL's Mustafa Dannett: a full academic scholarship to Vanderbilt

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, pithy prose from Robert Frost about the real-life decisions facing us all, happened for Mustafa Dannett at his kitchen table, doing homework and "missing out on a few things."

Dannett, a senior at New London High, would be home on many nights his friends were out having fun, unwittingly conquering the Platonic perspective that "man conquering himself is the noblest of victories."

And now the kid they call "Moose," a two-sport athlete with wisdom belying his age, will spend the next four years of his life appreciating his full academic scholarship to Vanderbilt.

Many of Dannett's friends — otherwise known as half the city — attended a signing ceremony in his honor Monday at New London High.

Moose's story, underscoring Einstein's line that coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous, recoils to his kitchen table, symbolic in his house for forbearance. The same place Dannett opted for homework over fun is where he recently opened the acceptance package from Vandy, a top 15 school, more affectionately known as the "Harvard of the South."

"I was already planning to go to Wesleyan," Dannett said Monday inside athletic director Phil Orbe's office, about an hour before the ceremony. "I was home doing homework and a lot of the financial aid packages were spread out on the table. All I knew really about Vanderbilt was their football, not knowing how hard it is to even get into that school."

Dannett opened the package, figuring it would mimic the same depressing news as all the others: Congrats, Moose. We'll give you 20 grand, but you'll owe 60,000 more.

And then ...

"I looked down at the line where it says how much you're getting and I thought I was dreaming. Like really tripping," Dannett said. "The next day in school I'm talking to my guidance counselors and I said, 'you'll never believe where I got a full ride to: Vanderbilt.' I hear, 'shut up, you're lying.'"

Dannett, who speaks with word gusts up to 50 mph, got a big laugh from that one.

"Then they look at the financial aid package," Dannett said, "and they go, 'He's not lying.' It still doesn't even feel real."

Dannett did not grow up in the section of the city with water views and private beaches. He could have fallen, in his words, "into the mix, all the wannabes, attention seekers and the gangbangers who aren't pushing you toward your goal."

"Growing up, my older brothers have been in trouble and influenced by the wrong things. Gang this, gang that. Things happened in life that have been a little rough. I've always known that's not something I want to be," Dannett said.

"There was a point in time, like middle school, I was a follower. But once I got older it wasn't okay to be a follower. I knew right from wrong. I'm scared of consequences and I don't want to get in trouble. Just staying away from that path has brought me to my straightaway and just staying out of trouble and staying in my own lane."

Dannett found some of his salvation through youth wrestling coach C.J. Satti, whose tough love instilled a toughness in a young man he likes so much now that he's "Uncle Moose" around Satti's two young children, Aura and Charlie. Turns out the kids have an uncle who isn't merely brilliant, but taking a bat to the stereotype that New London kids earn athletic accolades only.

"All the people who say that know nothing about New London. They just think they know of New London," Dannett said. "And there's a lot of those. It's easy to get judged because we're minorities. When you hear New London, you think of mixed kids, a lot of Hispanics, gangs or whatever the case may be. They've never come to actually take a look or talk to us. They assume we have to be athletic to make it. We're underdogs when it comes to education. We're slept on."

Time to wake up.

"Moose was going to Wesleyan to play football and he didn't want to have a signing day," Orbe said. "I said to him, 'It's up to you, but what's the problem? Do you feel embarrassed to go into Div. III school? He said 'yes.'"

"I said, 'Where did you want to go, Alabama? My guess is 80 of the 85 scholarship players at Alabama can't get into Wesleyan. You did. It would have been easier for you to play football at Alabama."

More Orbe: "As an adult, I've always told other adults that if you're going to invest in your kid, you should invest in academic tutors because there's far more money in academic scholarships. This is a great example of that. This is all academics.

"Moose has done a really good job here in his high school career and has been an excellent athlete, but more so academically and socially in this building."

And now his ascent goes south to the Harvard of the South.

Mustafa Dannett.

Scholar.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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