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Former NFL linebacker tackles Chicago violence

(Hilary Higgins/RedEye )
January 24, 2013|By Jack M Silverstein@readjack | For RedEye

The former NFL linebacker stands in the front of a school auditorium at the UIC Woodlawn Charter School on the South Side in his New Orleans Saints jersey and tells a packed house of high-schoolers about a life full of ups and downs.

The lowest low? The linebacker was a youth, following his friends into a house to rob it. They thought no one was home. They heard footsteps. They heard gunshots. The future NFL linebacker scurried out of the house and ran like hell.

One friend was killed. Another was shot. The survivors, including this future NFL linebacker, were arrested.

The children in the auditorium are silent.

The highest high? The youth--who nobody believed could excel in college football, let alone the NFL--whipped himself into fantastic shape. He attended North Carolina State and led the nation in tackles his senior year. He was drafted in the second round of the 2002 NFL draft by Arizona. He played three NFL seasons before knee problems knocked him out of the game.

He tells the children in the auditorium that he accomplished his dream.

The children in the auditorium cheer.

His name is Levar Fisher, and he's got a new career: motivational speaker.

Since 2010, Fisher has been touring the country as a motivational speaker, bringing his slogan "F.R.E.E.Z.E. and Think" to auditoriums and classrooms. The term "FREEZE" came from Fisher's experience in an NFL rookie symposium.

"I went in with all the rookies," said Fisher, now 33, "and they had a group of actors and actresses come in, and they did a thing on ‘freeze.' Everybody in that room is pretty much rich now, so [the symposium leader would] get guys up and say, ‘You got a lot of money now. What if somebody got out of the car, or you're in a nightclub and somebody bumped into you. How are you gonna react?' And some guys were like, ‘Hey, I'ma push him back!' "

Fisher then demonstrates how the symposium leader would have the rookies fake push each other in slow motion. When they reached the peak of their push, the man would yell "freeze!" They would then review all of the consequences of pushing or not pushing.

While many other rookies may have scoffed at the tactics, Fisher says "freeze and think" resonated deeply with him "because [of] my history with making bad choices."

"It was life-changing," Fisher said. "It made so much sense to me. Freeze. If you actually freeze and you think about the consequences before you throw that punch, you're not going to throw that punch."

Fisher took the "FREEZE" idea and ran with it, ultimately creating an acronym for his program: Focus on what's important; Realize who you are; Eliminate negative influences; Encourage others; Zoom in on your goals; Expect success. The North Carolina native married a woman from Chicago, and after the New Orleans Saints released him in 2005, Fisher and his wife moved their family to Orland Park, where they've lived ever since.

While he charges $2,500 for speaking appearances, Fisher lamented the small school budgets in Chicago that were preventing him from speaking in his new hometown. His trip to Woodlawn was part of a pro-bono week, in which Fisher hit eight schools.

"Young African-American males need role models like myself," he said. "I love doing it. I just want to get my foot in the door in Chicago and I want to make a difference. I really do."

He will be back in Chicago on Friday, kicking off four more Chicago speeches: Patrick Henry School on Friday, Henson Elementary School on Monday, Darwin School on Tuesday and Haines Elementary School next Thursday.

Although attacking bullying and violence through use of a slogan may seem like a naïve tactic, Fisher has had many success stories, instances in which principals, teachers, parents, or even the students themselves contacted him after his appearance to thank him for the impact he made. An hour after the Woodlawn speech concluded, he received a tweet from one of the students who wrote:

@levarfisherYou've inspired me so much today.

Fisher's timeline is filled with retweets from like-minded students. And as he is quick to point out, Barack Obama was practically elected president on the strength of a slogan. So why not "Freeze and Think"?

"I remember going into a high school," said Fisher, who wanted the school to remain anonymous, "and the principal was just like, ‘I'm going to apologize right now, because every speaker who comes in here leaves frustrated. The kids are disrespectful. I'm sorry.' He was really apologetic. And when I first got in there, he just kind of gave me the mic, as in, ‘OK, it's your problem now.'

"I started talking to the kids and answering some of the questions they had right then, and the whole atmosphere started coming down. Before you know it, you could hear a pin drop in the room. And then an eruption of laughter. And then hearing a pin drop. Laughter. Pin drop. Laughter.

"I looked at the principal's eyes, and he was like, (stunned) ‘Man …' He introduced me to this young girl, and she's got tears in her eyes. She said, ‘That speech changed my life.' And then there was a young man, who's like, ‘I want to be like you. I want to do what you do.' It just gave me chill bumps, and I still get chill bumps now, because that's what I'm in this for. To change lives.

"The money's good, and the money is going to come. When you're doing what you love to do, the money, it comes. It has to come. That's just laws of attraction. But I love what I do. And when that happened, I knew, I'm going to do this the rest of my life."

For information about Levar Fisher and F.R.E.E.Z.E. and Think, visit freezeandthink.com or follow @levarfisher.

Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor.

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