Ever since Naim Cheeks burst upon the scene by earning his way into the starting lineup during his freshman season at Gainesville, there was little doubt that he had the potential to one day play college football.
Four seasons later, following a career year during a 2022 campaign in which he played a major role in helping the Red Elephants to their first region championship in nine years and their first berth in a state championship game in a decade, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound running back is closing in on that goal.
He currently boasts scholarship offers from about a half-dozen Division I college programs, as well as interest from others, from among which he plans to pick one that he will call home when the NCAA’s signing period reopens in February.
However, it isn’t just the more than 2,300 yards of total offense and 23 combined touchdowns that Cheeks produced on the field that has him on the precipice of realizing his dream.
In fact, he wouldn’t be in position to do so without a strong improvement he’s made off the field in the classroom, a setting which, by his own admission, he didn’t always work has hard as he did on the gridiron.
That, however, is a situation that changed about two years ago following a conversation from a Division II college coach during a scouting and skills camp he attended in the summer prior to his sophomore season.
“When I was younger, I really didn’t take school too seriously,” Cheeks said. “One coach came to me and told me, ‘We can’t offer you if you can’t do it in the classroom. We know you can do it out here, but we’re watching that, (too).’ So I tuned in on that.
“It’s just been a lot of hard work. I had to dedicate myself to school, football, being on time, being ahead of time, being in on everything I need to know. … You’re kind of held to a certain accountability. That’s the biggest part. Can I be accountable? It’s just been really waking up and growing up.”
While Cheeks did plenty of that hard work that he described, he also acknowledges the assistance he got from a large support system, from his family at home to others at Gainesville High, ranging from members of the staff of current head coach Josh Niblett to the that of former head coach Heath Webb to current and former teachers.
“Both staffs helped me a lot,” Cheeks said. “I can’t just say the (previous) staff didn’t do anything because they did motivate me. But specific coaches, I’d say from the last staff (assistant) Coach (Naji) Lyon. He told me to persevere. He really got me through half of high school before he was gone.”
Still, Cheeks also freely admits that it helped to get reminders from his extended support system, including the new coaching staff that came to Gainesville about a year ago, led by head coach Josh Niblett.
The message Niblett said he gave his standout senior running back was the same one he communicated to the rest of the team and the program as a whole.
And he says that it was apparent throughout the season that Cheeks took that message to heart both on and off the field.
“I think when I first came in, it was just making sure we all had one thing in common,” Niblett recalled. “That was doing everything at a high standard. … We have those … pillars in our program. No. 1 (is being a great person. No. 2, it’s the student, then it’s the athlete, then it’s the player. You know football is important. You just make sure you caution (the players) to make sure we’ve got our priorities straight. We want our character to be great, and we want to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do in the classroom. Those are the two things in recruiting that (college) coaches are going to ask about first.
“I think the first time Naim and I got to talking, it was just reminding him about doing the right things and working hard in the classroom, and everything else is going to take care of itself, which allowed him to have a great year. … He grew in every facet. He grew not just in football, he grew in the classroom, he grew off the field. He became a leader for us on our team, he was dependable, very consistent, a guy that was a no-nonsense guy on the practice field, always prepared to play well. We had trust in him, and that’s he was so valuable to our team.”
Then there is Jenny Givens, whom Cheeks singled out as one of his favorite teachers after being in her English Language Arts class during his sophomore year.
Givens, who has since moved on to become an assistant principal at Dawson County Middle School after 16 years at Gainesville, says she had an instant connection with Cheeks as a sports fan.
However, it didn’t take long for her to begin to see his academic potential, as well.
“Naim and I connected on sports, but as we started reading in class, I could see that he was paying attention to me, … that he was getting something from what I was teaching,” Givens said. “Sometimes it’s not always cool (to classmates) being the guy that reads the novel or take part (learning about) the literature, but I could see in Naim that he got me, and he got what I was teaching and he was interested in what we were doing in class.
“My goal was to connect with the student Naim, and everybody else, on a level that they then showed interest in the classroom. While I knew where Naim’s ultimate interest was, I did try to make his experience in my classroom relevant. I think that’s why we connected on a level more than just through English – trying to make the learning we’re required to do relevant to something that he saw in life.”
All the different voices who got in Cheeks’ ear about putting more effort into the classroom has no doubt helped motivate him and has given him a chance to go to college and play football on the next level.
But as another one of those voices, Gainesville’s team chaplain Michael Thurmond, points out, Cheeks ultimately had to look within himself for motivation.
“I think it’s a community and team effort from his coaches, previous coaches, Coach Niblett, his teachers,” said Thurmond, who is also a full-time pastor at Free Chapel in Gainesville. “We’ve all played a part, (but) we give him and his mom all of the credit. They chose to listen (to advice), and he’s becoming a great young man. It’s like Coach Niblett has said this year. It’s bigger than football. It’s about becoming a man. … We’re all really proud of him.”
The next step will develop over the next two weeks or so leading up to the second national signing period, which begins Feb. 1.
In addition to Division I programs Austin Peay, Charlotte, Eastern Michigan and Tennessee Tech, Cheeks has most recently received an offer from Tennessee-Martin, and has even begun to hear from other FBS Group of Five conference programs like Middle Tennessee State.
Niblett says he’s even heard from Georgia Tech’s coaching staff expressing interest in him.
And with the NCAA’s winter dead period having recently come to an end, Niblett expect to start fielding even more interest in his Cheeks, thanks to his work both on and off the field.
“That’s the thing,” Niblett said. “You have the early signing period (in December). Then you have the dead week. Then they just came off the dead week. So we’ll have a lot of traffic this week. I’m looking forward to seeing all that and everything that happens for him, as well as our other (senior) players.”