SAN JOSE -- Harry Edwards has four Super Bowl rings from the San Francisco 49ers even though he never played professional football. He could have and maybe should have, but he didn't because he failed his first college admissions test. A coveted high school athlete, Edwards could barely read.

"So why do you have four Super Bowl rings if you didn't play football?"

After an illustrious career in academia, the professor emeritus from UC Berkeley and expert on racial issues in sports gets that question all the time. On Sunday afternoon, when he spoke to 300 African-American students and their parents at the San Jose Hyatt Place downtown San Jose, he answered it again with an authoritative voice.

"What's important is not that I have the rings but the way I got them," he said, explaining that only 50 of the team's 115 rings went to players. The rest went to team doctors, dentists, trainers, communications experts, lawyers and others who played vital roles behind the scenes.

Still imposing at 71, Edwards leaned on the podium and stared down at the children being honored for their success in the arts, academics, sports and leadership by the Santa Clara County Alliance of Black Educators.

"I've seen so many people who wanted to be football players and found out they couldn't make it, so they just threw in the towel and gave up," he said. "You can still get a Super Bowl ring. Go to school. Get an education. Become an orthopedic surgeon. Become a lawyer. Become a doctor."

Symbolic success

Of course, Edwards, who eventually starred at San Jose State in both track and field and academics, was using the Super Bowl ring as a symbol of success in any field.

And Edwards' message resonated with this gathering of young people obviously willing to do the work required to gain present and future success.

While the high school graduation rate for African-Americans in California increased nearly 3 percentage points over last year, their collective dropout rate remains above average in most counties. The persistent problem motivated black educators a quarter-century ago to begin recognizing academic stars, community-minded students as well as those who showed steady improvement. Sunday's event marked the 24th anniversary of the Alliance of Black Educators awards.

Among the highest achievers was Metadel Mengetsu, an Ethiopian-American senior at Lincoln High School in San Jose who was honored for her leadership and will enter Georgetown University in the fall.

"I think that it's nice we are recognized for our work and what we do for the community."

Meanwhile, 13-year-old Toure Oliver, a student at Morrill Middle School in San Jose, sat quietly and proudly held his certificate for academic improvement.

"I felt happy," he said, explaining that his high grades for math and science, his favorite subjects, were dampened by his grades in history, which he finds cumbersome. "In history they make you remember names," he said. "In math and science, you get to solve problems."

According to his mother, Toure won a prized science competition a few weeks ago. It's that darn history. Or, as Edwards might tell him, history is still a requirement for getting into college, and the fastest and best way to learning it is still through hard work.

Hard work

Author of several books and papers on racial inequality and attitudes in sports and American society, Edwards captured the students' attention as he explained his formula for success. The young audience ranged from grade schoolers to college-bound seniors.

Some of his advice included universal truths, such as respecting yourself and others, setting high expectations and never giving up.

One was unique to Edwards: "Begin to behave as if ..." he said, explaining that the children should start behaving now like the good students, sons and daughters they know they should be right now.

"You want to be a good student? Ask yourself, not tomorrow, but what would a good student be doing right now while old Ed was up there talking?"

He turned this tenet to life at home and childhood responsibilities, which delighted the adults in the crowd.

"What would a good daughter do? Go ahead Mama, stay out and let me take care of the dishes. What would a good son do? Mom and Dad, why don't you go inside. I'll wash the cars this afternoon."

Then Edwards summed it up.

"Setting high expectations and behaving 'as if,' make sense only if you learn to take the only proven, demonstrable, fail-proof shortcut to success that has ever been discovered," he said. "That shortcut is hard work. Everything else is more difficult. No amount of cutting corners, sliding back, faking it, getting over, half-stepping, moon-walking your way through assignments in class or a test will ever replace hard work as the short cut!"

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767.