The forgotten key to happiness and success in life is often balance—balance between love and friendship, work and play, school and sport. One Valley leader learned this lesson the hard way, but has used his experience to make an impact on his community for the better.Keyon Cornejo is now senior recreation coordinator for youth sports for the city of Tempe, but his path to that role was filled along the way with many life lessons.
Cornejo’s years growing up were focused on basketball, which is common in his home state of California. Once he moved to Arizona, though, things were different. Most athletes in Arizona play two or three sports to keep in shape, so he picked up football and track and field in addition to basketball.
“When I joined football my senior year, everyone told me I was too late,” Cornejo said. “They said I was too short and too slow. If I would’ve listened to them I wouldn’t be here.”
Cornejo’s success on the football field his senior year drew national attention, but struggles on the academic level forced him to play two years of junior college football. Still experiencing some academic blips, Cornejo nonetheless earned All-American awards for football. He played his way to an offer by the University of Missouri, one of the most prestigious college football programs in the country.
“I still didn’t have my priorities together when I signed at Missouri,” Cornejo said. “Due to grades I got my scholarship taken away and I finished my senior year at Missouri State.”
After a successful season there, a tough decision was at hand: make an attempt at professional football or try to get through school and earn his degree.
“I took the time to finish school without any eligibility for football. It was just school for the first time in my whole life,” Cornejo said. “It was definitely the non-popular route, but I got my BA in science with an emphasis in recreation.”
After attempting to work out free agent deals with a few NFL teams, the Canadian Football League was Cornejo’s next step.
As a practice player Cornejo chose in June 2005 to hang up the cleats, and three months later took a job with the city of Tempe.
Cornejo had already worked part time during summers, and eventually found his way to a full time position despite his age and experience at the position.
“I studied for the interview like it was a football game. I looked at notes, practiced and tried to be prepared,” Cornejo said.
Now Cornejo is in charge of coordinating youth leagues and city events for youth sports for the entire city of Tempe.
“I want to help kids prioritize and not make the same mistakes I made,” Cornejo said.
By using his experiences off the field, connecting with kids reaches a new level for Cornejo. Being in their shoes, experiencing the same academic woes, he works to teach student athletes that the student aspect comes first.
Through his time with the city, Cornejo has helped to employ Arizona State University athletes as coaches, referees and speakers for kids who are participating in the Tempe programs. He has also brought in familiar faces like Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals to help motivate the kids.
Fitzgerald has taken the time to help create a “Dream Courts” project at the Escalante Community Center, which will revitalize the area for kids to participate in sports. He chose Tempe as one of two locations for the new center, and with the help of Nancy Lieberman, met Cornejo.
Lieberman is a world-class former WNBA player, a coach on many different levels and a philanthropist who developed a friendship with Cornejo through ASU. The Dream Court is still in its planning stages, but is expected to have a solidified schedule for completion over the next few months.
Contrary to the words of Charles Barkley, who made a Nike commercial emphasizing that he’s not a role model for kids, professional athletes often do find themselves in that capacity, whether they like it or not.
Having someone who has been successful on the field to look up to is huge for youngsters who are just trying to have fun and stay fit while they grow up.
Luckily for Tempe, people like Keyon Cornejo share their experiences and teach the importance of academics when it comes to success in life. Cornejo pushes the kids that kids are working to raise, not only to be successful on the court but most importantly in the game of life.
Additional info: For information on upcoming programs and how to get your child involved you can visit www.tempe.gov/yousports.