Al Cantrell is bigger in stature than the average person. Some say that goes for his heart, too.
Cantrell is the founder of "Al's Stars." It's a program he started in 1997 that helps local high school senior athletes who may have developed late, or are moderately oversized for one role at the next level but slightly undersized for another, find college-scholarship opportunities. Neither gender, race, nor the sport he or she plays matters to Cantrell. Only grades do.
"It helps me spiritually, first and foremost," Cantrell said. "It gives me a chance to do something good amongst the bad we create. I want to continue to grow what I've started. Those sleepers are out there. As long as the diamonds in the rough are out there, I'm going to continue to search them out."
Cantrell is a 1982 graduate of Brainerd High School and a self-described "late bloomer" in basketball. He refers to himself as a "tweener" who ultimately found a scholarship offer at Virginia State University in Petersburg. He went on to become a member of the school's 1,000-point and 500-rebound clubs.
Cantrell's athletic focus was on football when he first attended Brainerd. He then grew six inches taller over the next three years and as a junior went out for the Panthers basketball team for the first time.
"I went from not playing at all to playing varsity," Cantrell said. "I remember being a nervous wreck at the jamboree."
By the time Cantrell was a senior with the Panthers, he averaged 14 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks per game on the way to being selected all-city and all-region.
At 6-foot-6 in high school Cantrell played with his back to the basket. Weighing a slight 185 pounds, he knew he would have to adapt to playing forward in order to play at the next level. Cantrell's late father, John, sent tapes and newspaper articles of his son far and wide and Virginia State proved to be the best offer.
Inspired by what his father had done, Cantrell now dedicates a portion of his time to helping others in similar situations. Last October, the Tennessee Recreation and Parks Association honored "Al's Stars" with its Robert R. Horsley Award, signifying the year's Best Program by a Professional at the Recreation Center Level.
"Al's been doing this for a number of years," Tyner boys' basketball coach Gerald Harris said. "Coaches respect him at certain places because he's been able to place kids at those certain places. They know he's credible. I think his reputation speaks for itself."
His former high school coach, Robert High, gave Cantrell his first chance to assist coaching at the high school level at Brainerd. Cantrell began coaching Tyner's freshman boys last season -- the same point when Harris was put in charge of the Rams' program.
"He let's me sit on the bench with the varsity and be the water boy," Cantrell said. "I'm glad Gerald gave me the opportunity. It keeps me connected and gives me the chance to see players."
To date Cantrell has helped about 25 athletes receive scholarship money in basketball, baseball, bowling, football, soccer, softball and tennis. The first of "Al's Stars" was Howard forward Demetrius Morgan, who earned junior college All-America status at Cleveland State in 1999 before completing his basketball career at Lee University.
Among the eight or so he's currently working with is Red Bank football player Shammel Brummett. He is one of Melvin Brummett's seven children; Cantrell is the godfather for all seven.
"We grew up in the same neighborhood, although Al's three years older than me," Melvin Brummett said. "He was like my hero. He broke backboards and stuff with some of his dunks. We had a lot of fun. You knew he was going to be one of those guys that would turn out to have a positive influence on people. Hands down, he's just a wonderful guy. I'm 90 percent sure my son will get a college scholarship. Al is 95 percent the reason why."
Cantrell used to sponsor an all-star basketball game for high school seniors after the season, but a lack of resources made it difficult to continue. Tyner assistant Kelsey Watson is planning something similar after the completion of this season.
Cantrell's program has received funding help from the Chattanooga Parks and Recreation Department to pay for items such as the provision of a van to help with college visits, although there are restrictions. Parks and Recreation Administrator Larry Zehnder said his department decided in December to try to do more for Cantrell's program.
"He's responding because of how people helped him," Zehnder said. "He's a big-hearted guy that's got the kids in mind. He's truly an example of an individual trying to help the youth of our community."
For information about "Al's Stars" college sports placement program contact Cantrell at 596-1709 or assistant Shay Smith at 855-2664. To make a tax-deductible donation to the "Al's Stars" program, call 643-6886.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.