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Academics trumped athletics earlier this month when a former Patuxent High School student and athlete visited his alma mater to deliver some gifts to student athletes who place grades above goals.

Robert McClain, cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons NFL football team and 2006 graduate of Patuxent High School, presented signed jerseys and iPods to two seniors, Rafiq Douglas and Sara Nepini, both 17. Douglas plays for the Patuxent Panthers as a running back and defensive end, while maintaining a 3.5 grade point average, and Nepini is a setter on the volleyball team and also plays tennis, and has a grade point average of above 4.0.

“I see how much the school has grown and how hard the students work,” McClain said from Atlanta. “We don’t have the largest school, but they’re still being successful and getting out and going to college.”

McClain visits his alma mater often to see the teachers and mentors who had a profound effect on his life. His former physics teacher, Barbara Redgate, won Calvert County’s Teacher of the Year in 2006, and McClain said she has been “like a mother to me.”

“They always welcome you back. They helped me grow into the person I am today and helped me with classes in high school,” McClain said. “It’s a big family down there at Patuxent.”

Nancy V. Highsmith, interim superintendent of Calvert County Public Schools, was Patuxent’s principal when McClain was a student. She remembers him as an “outstanding athlete and student” who always makes time to return to his roots and give thanks to those who have helped him along the way. When the Atlanta Falcons played the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in Landover in 2012, McClain gave Highsmith and Redgate tickets so they could watch him from the field, Highsmith said.

“The thing that impressed me the most was his resolve of never quitting. … He always persevered,” Highsmith said. “When the Panthers cut him and he didn’t play football for a year, he came back and talked about working harder, and he didn’t give up.”

McClain was the seventh round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers in 2010 and was dropped a year later. He has been playing with the Atlanta Falcons since 2012.

Both Douglas and Nepini said they were shocked when McClain presented them with their gifts. Both knew of the athlete from prior visits, and Douglas worked out with McClain during the summer in preparation for the upcoming football season.

“I was completely caught off guard,” Nepini said. “It shows me that hard work really does pay off, and the fact that he took his time to come here shows he really appreciates Patuxent.”

“I was honored to get it,” Douglas said. “I don’t think I deserved it because I know other athletes with higher GPAs, but it meant a lot. … I wasn’t expecting it.”

McClain said he plans to return to Patuxent and reward student athletes for their character and success as long as he can.

“Everybody sees Patuxent as the underdog, and I was always the underdog type of guy,” McClain said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t do something with your life … keep working hard and never look down as if you can’t do something. … It wasn’t easy for me, and it’s not gonna be easy for everyone else, either.”

snewman@somdnews.com