Photo by Thomas Cordova
In the pre-dawn hours of a winter day in 2016, a truck driver put on his jacket and prepared to leave for work. His son, a senior in high school, was already in the living room studying. In the front of their mobile home, the two nodded at each other, a father and son united by blood and a hard-nosed work ethic.
The son, Aaron Shampklin, has used that work ethic to do the unlikely: he became just the second football player ever to go from Long Beach Poly to Harvard.
“He hit the books as hard as he ran on the field,” said Anthony Shampklin of his son.
Aaron is now halfway through his second season at Harvard and leads the Ivy League in rushing yards, yards per carry, and all-purpose yardage. He’s racked up 655 yards on 7.8 yards per carry in just five games, with six touchdowns. The on-field success has been nice. Getting to participate in tradition’s like the 134-year old rivalry between Harvard and Yale is even nicer. But for his family, Aaron’s very presence on the campus is nearly miraculous.
The football field
Shampklin played every sport he could growing up, from football to basketball to soccer to track. He excelled at each of them but focused on football and track in high school. His senior year at Poly he gained 643 yards and scored nine touchdowns.
“He’s a model football player, a model student, a model human being,” said Antonio Pierce, his high school coach (now the recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach at Arizona State). “You couldn’t ask for anything more in a young man.”
His parents, Anthony and Adlena, met as students at Lakewood High and have been together for 22 years, married for 19. When Adlena found out that the boy she had a crush on in her government class played football, she added classes to her schedule so she’d have an excuse to stay after school and watch practice.
For the two diehard Lancers, it was initially hard to see their son at a rival school like Poly.
“We didn’t like Poly very much when I was in school,” Adlena said. “But seeing him in that Poly uniform did something to me — it’s a special place and they embraced us like family from the beginning.”
“That green and gold, there’s a difference playing at Poly and I’m glad he got to experience that,” Anthony said.
Shampklin’s play on the football field earned him scholarship offers from schools like Washington State and UNLV, but he held out on committing because he had his eyes set higher academically.
As a freshman at Poly, Shampklin enrolled in the school’s CIC academic magnet, something he and his parents said was instrumental to his success. While there, he earned a 4.0 GPA and took several Advanced Placement classes, earning college credit in Japanese, Government, English, History, and even Calculus.
“I actually liked Calculus the best,” he said. “My brain has always done well with math — Calculus is easier for me than History.”
Adlena said her son was as competitive in the classroom as he was on the football field.
“He does not like to fail,” she said. “Whatever you put in front of him, he wants to do well.”
Shampklin was the only African-American student in his middle school honors program. After he got to Poly and enrolled in CIC, Adlena said she saw her son’s wings began to expand.
“In these programs before, he felt like there weren’t many smart black kids around him,” she said. “When he got to CIC and saw the variety of people around him, he felt comfortable and he thrived.”
Regularly staying up until 3 a.m. finishing homework, or getting up with his father before dawn became regular for Shampklin, who said he loved the challenge. When the football coaches at Harvard said they wanted him, he knew he wanted to go.
There was just one problem: the Ivy League doesn’t allow universities to offer athletic scholarships and there was no way that Anthony and Adlena could afford Harvard’s $70,000 annual tuition and board.
The phone call came on another morning last year, after Anthony had left for work, while Aaron and Adlena were still getting ready for school. The Harvard recruiting coordinator told Aaron that his high GPA and test scores, as well as his background, had helped the coaches put together several different academic and merit scholarships.
He wasn’t going to have to pay a dime for college.
Adlena watched her son’s eyes go wide, and then he put the phone on speaker. The coach told her what he’d just told her son, and she burst into tears.
“I couldn’t believe it, I was crying so hard,” she said. “Aaron had to leave out the back to finish the call because I couldn’t control myself.”
They called Anthony shortly after, and he was overcome as well. Both he and his wife still get emotional months later when asked about it.
“I came from the rougher side of the tracks, and school wasn’t always important to me,” he said. “To see my son make it a priority, to see that he’s not afraid of Harvard, that he’s not afraid to succeed—I can’t put that into words.”
“It’s a blessing from God,” said Aaron. “For my family, it felt like a miracle.”