This feature first appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
No one knows who first said, "Good things come in small packages." Whoever it was, though, they surely must have had in mind something or someplace like St. Joseph County in Michigan.
Named for the St. Joseph River — which itself was named by 17th-century French colonizers — the county lies in the southwestern portion of the state, nestled snugly against Michigan's border with Indiana. In the midst of a region dominated by corn, potatoes, and soy beans, the county's population is barely 60,000.
While there are eight school districts in the county, combined they have a surprisingly miniscule number of K-12 students, just 7,000. The smallest district has only 200 students.
One of the shining gems of St. Joseph County, though, is the town of Constantine, population 1,974 — or, more specifically, its high school football team. Although the Constantine High School student body totals just 400 kids, the athletic department has somehow turned Constantine into a perennial pigskin powerhouse.
Playing 11-man football with a nine-game regular season, the Falcons have made the playoffs 32 out of the last 33 years, winning a couple of championships and being runners-up several more times. Shawn Griffith, the winningest Falcons head coach, has won 152 games during his 13-year tenure.
Griffith is undeniably good at his job, and while he works his players hard, he attributes a large part of his success to the genetics of local families. "Constantine is a small community," Griffith said, "but it has a lot of families that keep producing good football players."
The Sailors are one of those families and their contribution to Falcon dominance is their son, James. He is 18 years old, six-foot three-inches tall, and 180 pounds of lean muscle — a perfect fit for playing tight end, his regular position. Since the varsity squad is small (just 26 players), during games he does double duty, rotating through every defensive position from the line all the way back to safety as needed.
"James is a great kid," said Griffith. "He's strong, runs fast, and has a great attitude and works hard."
In addition to performing on the gridiron, James is a pretty fair track-and-field athlete as well, able to clear six feet on the high jump, throw the discus in excess of 130 feet and put a 16-pound shot more than 40 feet.
'The more I create, the happier I am'
Mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body) is an excellent way to describe young James — he excels in activities both physical and intellectual, maintaining a solid 3.73 GPA, and was recently named an Academic All-State Athlete. Somehow, he even squeezes in time to play tenor saxophone in the school's marching and concert bands.
For a teenager, James is pleasantly reserved and able to relax and laugh at himself. When he was in middle school, his friends gave him the nickname "Rodger" after the alien character in the animated sitcom American Dad.
"I had Justin Bieber-like long hair and decided to shave my head that summer and everyone started saying I looked like Rodger," James said with a laugh.
A thoughtful young man, James is constantly broadening his knowledge by working on devices and watching lots of science-related videos. "My YouTube channel is littered with videos about science, electrical theory, and engineering. Nothing of interest to anyone else, but I enjoy them," he said.
For James, knowledge is the path to creation and, ultimately, to joy. "Even now I'm working on a laptop because I like to understand apps as much as possible so that I can replicate them on my own," he said. "The more knowledge I have, the more I can create, and the more I create, the happier I am."
James is also not a teen influenced by peer pressure, and doesn't worry about what others think of him — he just wants to accomplish worthwhile things, even if others cannot understand him. "As an individual," he said, "I don't want to regress: I want to keep improving my knowledge and abilities."
In addition to his other talents, James has a penchant for mastering information technology (IT), which he does both on his own and during the week via the St. Joseph County Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. As a senior in high school, he spends mornings studying computers and IT in nearby Three Rivers, and his afternoons at Constantine High for core classes.
Like so many others growing up in a world surfeited with technology, James started tinkering with electronic devices at an early age. As a boy he set out to build his own computer, with his own money. An ambitious undertaking, his computer project did not unfold quickly or without challenges.
"Building the computer took several months," he explained. "I had enough money to purchase all the main computer components, except for one: I didn't have enough to get a CPU."
Wanting to help out, James' father, Ron Sailor, stepped in and purchased a CPU ... that didn't quite fit. "Unfortunately, my dad didn't know about compatibility and the CPU he got me was too powerful for my motherboard," said James.
Determined to see the project completed, the senior Sailor purchased a second CPU that ended up being "not quite big enough" for James' machine. Undeterred, Dad bought a third CPU, and as with "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," the third CPU was "just right," and the computer was soon finished.
"It took us two-and-a-half months, but I was kind of glad because the process really brought us closer," James explained. "I really appreciated my Dad's willingness to give up his time and money to help me out."
James' interest in technology carried through all the way to high school, where he realized that computer and IT certifications might benefit his future education and professional ambitions. "Once I enrolled in the CTE program, they said, 'Certifications are what we do,' and I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Ready to roll
All those hours watching YouTube videos about building computers had James well prepared when he walked into the Three Rivers classroom. "By the time I got into CTE in my junior year, I knew most everything about the IT Fundamentals certification so, I took the exam and had my first certification," he said.
Since then, he has completed Network Pro and Linux Pro certifications and is currently working on the CyberDefense Pro cert. TestOut courseware is his choice for study materials — in particular, he likes the explanatory videos. "The videos are great because if I don't understand something, I can easily go back and figure it out," said James.
While James did plenty of traditional schoolwork preparing for his certification exams, Coach Griffith may have disagreed with some of his star tight end's study methods. "My mind was always on studying for my cert," James said. "I'd even be at football practice, standing there thinking about all my course work — just always thinking about it."
Keeping his studies foremost in mind paid off for him as he quickly surpassed his IT instructor, Kris Leach in both skill and knowledge. As Leach put it, "James is doing stuff that I don't know how to do; he's been teaching me."
During his first year in the IT program James surprised classmates and instructor by finishing a year's worth of curriculum before Thanksgiving break.
"My job would almost not exist if all my kids were like James," Leach said. "Students like him come along once every 10 years and, as a teacher, you just want to give him every opportunity and watch him fly."
Joining the workforce
Solid school work and certifications resulted in an internship at a local manufacturer of fiber board. Since James is so advanced in his tech class, during the school year he is permitted to spend weekday mornings at the company. He assists with various technology-driven projects, adding still further to his already impressive store of IT knowledge.
"James is a great kid," said Jamey Southland, his manager at Fibre Converters. "He is self-motivated, hardworking, very knowledgeable, always willing to learn. When he doesn't know something, he strives hard to get the correct answer. I'm very impressed with him."
As an intern, James did such a good job that the company brought him on full-time during the summer. As a full-time worker, he still helped out with IT issues, but spent most of his time on the factory floor cutting fiber board, which he enjoyed.
"I loved being on the floor; it's kind of relaxing just cutting fiber board," he said.
A pleasant and interesting aspect of James' character is the enjoyment he gets from learning about and discussing weightier topics such as how the Big Bang occurred, why the universe is expanding faster than the speed of light, and even the nature of God and the relationship between science and religion. If you take the time to converse with him, he will recommend an interesting little book on the subject of divinity, How to Understand God, by Dominique Morin.
When asked who he would most enjoy sitting down with for a meal, he prefers intellectual heavyweights like Albert Einstein, Neil de Grasse Tyson, and Elon Musk. "They are some of the smartest brains to have ever lived and I'd ask a lot of questions," said James.
Family matters and professionalism
When he is not working or participating in extracurricular activities, James is typically at home studying. He lives with his Dad, stepmom, and three siblings. Dad is a prior service Marine who operates his own tattoo shop in town and enjoys riding motorcycles.
James has a great relationship with his stepmom, Ruth. "She is awesome and I love her," he said. "She cooks the meals almost every night and her food is great."
Other members of the Sailor clan are three cats and a yorkie terrier, that James doesn't really enjoy. "The yorkie is an excitable dog," he said. "Always barking and, if you ignore him, he barks even more. It's not the kind of dog I would own. Mine would be a large one that thinks it's a lap dog that tries to sit on my lap. A golden retriever — they have great personalities."
The family is supportive of James, attending his games and performances. They are proud to see him earn certifications and were even more excited when he landed a job while still in high school.
"They were thrilled when I got my internship and astonished when they realized how much I knew about computers," said James.
The average future IT worker is hard at work garnering the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in the field. James goes beyond average. He knows the technical stuff and makes an extra effort to ensure that potential bosses view him as a professional.
"I've tried to design a professional style for myself so that future employers will feel comfortable and know I'm serious about my work," he explained. "I want potential employers to see what I can do by reading my resume and look at me and say, 'Yes, I want that guy.' "
So serious is James about presenting himself as a professional that his first paychecks were spent on business appropriate items: a gold-plated Bulova wristwatch and a powerful Alienware laptop. He also dresses nicely for work wearing button-up shirts. "My image isn't a façade — I work real hard to make sure I know what I'm doing in technology."
A well-dressed professional also needs an automobile to travel back and forth to work and, for a high school student, James' ride is definitely impressive. "It's a 2001 Jag XJ8 that I bought last summer for $3,800.00. It took all my money to get, but it runs phenomenal and I love it," he declared.
Even Mom and Dad are helping him to look his best. "This past Christmas I got two polo shirts, the first I've ever had," James said.
Too much technology?
As a technology aficionado, James is very aware of the potential of many devices and apps to negatively impact young people — something that he knows about firsthand: "When I was younger, I spent so much time with electronics that it affected my social life and even stunted my connection with the real world.
"There is no assurance of what the real world is online and so much of it is propaganda being fed into young minds."
Fortunately, before things got too bad, Mom and Dad jumped in with some guidance that helped open James' eyes to the undeniable truth: that life has so much more to it than computers and smartphones.
"There is a lot of technology in our world, and while it's designed to satisfy, you can't let it consume you," James said. "Over time it can hinder your growth emotionally, physically, and mentally. You have to learn how to control it and yourself. I believe learning how and when to put my phone down is the reason I am who I am today."
Words of wisdom from a small town football player who will likely one day be a Chief Information Officer. Maybe it's not the size of the package, so much — James is a big guy, after all. Great things come from smart decisions and hard work, and motivated learners can make that happen no matter where they're from.