DALLAS, Texas – The semifinalists for the inaugural Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year were announced, a group that includes 20 of the nation’s top leaders in college football.
Compiled by a subset of the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Selection Committee, the semifinalists have all demonstrated a record of leadership by exhibiting exceptional courage, integrity and sportsmanship both on and off the field.
Fifteen seniors, four juniors and one sophomore make up the list. Among conferences, the ACC led the way with four selections, while the PAC 12 and the American Athletic Conference each had three.
The full list of semifinalists includes: Azeez Al-Shaair (Florida Atlantic), Braxton Berrios (Miami, FL), David Blough (Purdue), Adam Breneman (Massachusetts), Minkah Fitzpatrick (Alabama), Zaire Franklin (Syracuse), KeShun Freeman (Georgia Tech), Zack Golditch (Colorado State), Shaquem Griffin (Central Florida), Luke Jackson (Tulane), Shaq Jones (Alabama-Birmigham), Keith Kirkwood (Temple), Micah Kiser (Virginia), Derek McCartney (Colorado), Jake Olson (USC), Harrison Phillips (Stanford), Frank Ragnow (Arkansas), Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State), Brandon Smith (Penn State) and Blaise Taylor (Arkansas State).
Three finalists will be named for the award on Monday, December 11. The winner will be announced at the award ceremony on February 22, 2018, at The Star in Frisco, Texas.
The inaugural Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year, presented by Albertsons and Tom Thumb, will be the first college football honor to focus primarily on a player’s leadership, both on and off the field. Leadership is a term synonymous with Jason Witten, who, in addition to becoming one of the best tight ends in the history of the sport and the Cowboys’ all-time leading receiver, has served as one of football’s most prominent role models during his 15-year pro career. In addition to winning the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award in 2012, Witten has also received the Bart Starr Award, Pro Football Weekly’s Humanitarian of the Year Award, Home Depot NFL Neighborhood MVP and the Bob Lilly Award, among many others. All of those honors have recognized his work in the community, achievements on the field and dedication to his teammates and family.
“I am honored to announce this impressive group as the semifinalists for the Collegiate Man of the Year,” said Witten. “Every kid nominated had had such a special story. It was difficult to pair it down, but these 20 men have demonstrated exceptional character and leadership, many in the face of adversity. They are great representatives for the game of football and for college athletics as a whole, and I commend all nominees for getting to this point.”
The winner of the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year will also receive a $10,000 contribution in his name to his school’s athletic scholarship fund. The contribution will be made by Jason Witten’s SCORE Foundation, the official charity of Jason and his wife Michelle. The SCORE Foundation, founded in 2007, has positively impacted tens of thousands of children and families in Texas and Tennessee over the last 10 years. The foundation operates its nationally-recognized SCOREkeepers program, which places trained male mentors on staff to work with children at family violence shelters, at nine shelters in the two states. SCORE has also operated a weekend food backpack program for disadvantaged children in North Texas, opened Jason Witten Learning Centers in five different Boys & Girls Clubs and opened the Jason and Michelle Witten Emergency Waiting Room at the Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City, Tenn.
2017 JASON WITTEN COLLEGIATE MAN OF THE YEAR SEMIFINALISTS
Azeez Al-Shaair (Jr., LB, Florida Atlantic) – After losing his home to a fire in high school, Al-Shaair lived in a Red Cross shelter. He has become the legal guardian of his two brothers and balances caring for them with becoming one of the Owls’ top talents on the field. He has led the team in tackles each of the last two seasons and is doing so again this year.
Braxton Berrios (Sr., WR, Miami FL) – A standout on the field and in the classroom, Berrios has a 3.99 GPA and currently leads the undefeated Hurricanes in receiving. A team leader, who holds himself to the highest standards everywhere from the weight room to the team’s community activities, Berrios has a streak of 36 consecutive A’s in his classes and is one of the nation’s top student-athletes.
David Blough (Jr., QB, Purdue) – The Boilermakers quarterback led the Big Ten in passing last season, but his work off the field has been even more impressive. Blough has taken five mission trips to an orphanage in South Africa, and helped influence several teammates to join him. While sporting an impressive 3.51 GPA and helping his mother battle cancer, Blough embraces his role as a team leader.
Adam Breneman (Sr., TE, Massachusetts) – After entering college as the nation’s most highly-recruited tight end at Penn State, Breneman was forced to retire from football after a bad injury, but eventually was cleared to return to the field at UMass. Currently leading the Minutemen in receiving, Breneman has not only resurrected his career to become one of the nation’s top tight ends, but he graduated early and is currently pursuing his MBA. He is also the founder and executive director of a non-profit to raise funds for ALS research.
Minkah Fitzpatrick (Jr., DB, Alabama) – One of the nation’s top overall players, Fitzpatrick sets an example for the undefeated Crimson Tide between the lines, in the classroom and in the community. After helping repair his family home after it was seriously damaged by Hurricane Irene, Fitzpatrick came to Alabama and established himself as a standout student and a mentor to local youth.
Zaire Franklin (Sr., LB, Syracuse) – Despite losing his mother and grandmother within two months of each other, Franklin has overcome personal tragedy to become a three-year captain of the Orangemen, a Dean’s list student and a leader on campus. The team’s active leader in most defensive categories, Franklin is on pace to graduate with a dual degree in finance and marketing management next May. He is the president of his fraternity and helped to organize a campus dialogue on preventing violence against women.
KeShun Freeman (Sr., DE, Georgia Tech) – A natural leader who has used his brother’s battle with cancer as motivation both on the field and in the classroom, Freeman is pursuing a career in pediatric anesthesiology. He regularly organizes team community outreach activities and serves on the Student-Athlete Advisory Board, despite his demanding academic and football schedule.
Zack Golditch (Sr., OL, Colorado State) – After being shot in the neck during the 2012 Aurora, CO, theater shooting, Golditch came to Colorado State and became a force on the Rams’ highly-touted offensive line. While posting a 3.1 GPA with a double major in ethnic studies and sociology, Golditch has also been very involved in community activities, such as a recent service trip to Jamaica with CSU’s Green and Global Initiative.
Shaquem Griffin (Sr., LB, Central Florida) – Recognized as one of the nation’s top defensive players, Griffin has done it all with only one hand. He has been an inspiration to his teammates and has already graduated with a degree in sociology. A regular volunteer at local Boys & Girls Clubs, Griffin is the reigning American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Luke Jackson (Sr., LB, Tulane) – Overcame a bout with cancer to become a key contributor on defense, showing the power of perseverance. A standout student, Jackson already graduated with his bachelor’s degree and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Homeland Security Studies.
Shaq Jones (Sr., LB, Alabama-Birmigham) – An inspirational leader who helped to resurrect the UAB program after it was shut down in 2015, Jones elected to stay at the school and finish his degree while becoming the face of a program he helped to save. Despite being heavily recruited by other schools after the shutdown, Jones stayed and was instrumental in recruiting players to the school. One of the team’s top defenders, he is currently pursuing his second degree at UAB.
Keith Kirkwood (Sr., WR, Temple) – Having already earned his degree in criminal justice, Kirkwood balances his pursuit of a master’s degree with serving as a team captain for the Owls and as a primary caregiver for his girlfriend’s daughter. Earning the right to wear a prestigious “single number” for Temple, Kirkwood has 23 receptions and three TD’s so far this season.
Micah Kiser (Sr., LB, Virginia) – Recognized as one of the top linebackers in the country, Kiser leads the Cavs in sacks so far in 2017, and does it all while already having graduated with an impressive 3.4 GPA in foreign affairs. Kiser was the team’s vocal leader and a strong voice for community unity after the violent protests in Charlottesville in August.
Derek McCartney (Sr., LB, Colorado) – One of only 10 two-year captains in school history, McCartney is one of the Buffs’ all-time sack leaders. He has already earned a degree in integrative physiology, and is now pursuing a graduate degree in the program. He endured tragedy when his girlfriend passed away his freshman year, and a bone marrow donation he made last offseason helped to save a man’s life.
Jake Olson (So., LS, USC) – Made national headlines earlier this season when he executed a successful snap on an extra point, despite being completely blind. After growing up around the Trojan program during his struggle with cancer and ensuing blindness, he became an inspiration with his unique story of overcoming adversity. He now regularly shares his story of perseverance with youth groups and schools.
Harrison Phillips (Sr., DT, Stanford) – The Cardinal’s leader in tackles and sacks is also their leader in the locker room and the community. On track to graduate early with a double major, Phillips overcame family hardships and a season-ending knee injury a couple years ago to become one of the PAC 12’s best defensive players. In addition, he serves on the board of a non-profit dedicated to mentoring at-risk youth.
Frank Ragnow (Sr., C, Arkansas) – Widely regarded as one of the nation’s top centers, Ragnow has earned numerous All-America and All-Conference awards in his career. An excellent student, he sports a 3.3 GPA and will graduate in December. Last season, he made headlines when he returned to the field just days after losing his father, serving as an inspiration to his teammates and Razorback fans.
Mason Rudolph (Sr., QB, Oklahoma State) – One of the nation’s premier quarterbacks, Rudolph has been a strong presence in the Stillwater community, being involved with countless children’s programs and striking up friendships with local children who are seriously ill. He has routinely posted some of the best passing marks in all of college football while becoming a standout in the classroom.
Brandon Smith (Sr., LB, Penn State) – An exceptional student-athlete, Smith is pursuing a degree in health administration after having already earned one in kinesiology. One of the team leaders in tackles, Smith also works with his wife’s non-profit that provides shoes to children in Central America. He also maintains an ongoing friendship with a little girl he met at a hospital visit who is battling cancer.
Blaise Taylor (Sr., CB, Arkansas State) – The exceptional cornerback and return specialist is the only current FBS player to have earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree before the start of his senior season. The highly-decorated student-athlete makes those around him better, having created a non-profit with his sister to help disadvantaged children.