Standing at 6 foot 11 inches tall, Kevin Atlas’ towering presence was noticed by students the minute he walked into three Shelby County school gymnasiums this week. As was the fact that he is missing the lower half of his left arm due to a birth defect caused by his umbilical cord being wrapped around his neck and arm.
Atlas, who became the first Divison 1 basketball player in NCAA history to play with a disability, uses what he once considered a major barrier to accomplishing his dreams to now inspire students around the world to change their perspective on life.
Atlas speaks to students on behalf of Varsity Brands (BSN Sports, Varsity Spirit, and Herff Jones) as part of their “Believe in You” campaign. He is also the host of the “Believe in You” video series, which is designed to educate students and staff about the incredible power of believing in yourself, despite the challenges and trials that life may present. It features individuals from around the world who have overcome personal challenges to accomplish the extraordinary.
Atlas himself overcame difficult challenges to achieve success on the basketball court at the high school, college and professional levels. In addition to being born prematurely without his lower left arm, he also struggled with learning disabilities, a speech deficiency, and anger issues caused by his parent’s divorce. He also lost his dad to cancer when he was 10 years old.
“I am telling you all of this so that you can understand who is speaking to you,” Atlas tells students at the beginning of his one-hour presentation. “For me, high school was a four- year prison sentence. I was socially and physically awkward and I was academically behind most of my life due to my learning disabilities.”
Atlas has made it his mission to help change the mindsets of today’s youth, who are suffering from almost epidemic levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
“You guys deserve to be happy, whether you realize it right now or now,” he said. “I am here today because I genuinely care about you and I want you to be happy.”
Despite already being 6’4 by the time he was in seventh grade, Atlas was told by a middle school coach that basketball was a two-armed sport and he was cut from the team. He got a second chance to pursue basketball when an AAU basketball coach gave him an opportunity. That same coach would also change his life by also changing his perspective regarding his disability.
“My coach said, ‘Kevin, why are you not using your arm when you play basketball?’ He told me I needed to be using it as a weapon,” Atlas explained. “He helped me to re-wire my brain and to change my perspective. He made my greatest weakness my greatest strength.”
Atlas said from that point on he began to “own his nub,” a term he uses to refer to his partial limb. He encourages students to “own their nubs” also, regardless of what those challenges or insecurities might be.
“You’ve got to own it,” he told them. “If I walked around pretending I had two arms it would be super creepy and weird. You have to learn to accept yourself. If you can own it, the rest of the world will eventually accept it too.”
After Atlas started having major success at the high school level, the same coach again made a lasting impact by challenging him regarding his lack commitment in the classroom and to physical conditioning to improve as an athlete. His coach had talked to Atlas’ mother and knew that most afternoons he went home from school and practice and did nothing by play video games and watch television.
“He told me I was never going to make it to a Divison 1 school or play professionally,” Atlas said. “And, he was right. That night I went home and cried my eyes out and then I made a list of what I needed to do to get better.”
He changed his habits in order to get stronger and build endurance, including lifting a duffle bag filled with bricks to build muscle strength in his smaller arm, running, swimming, and doing pushups. He tells students it takes 21 days to rewire your brain until something becomes a habit.
His success in basketball eventually led to him being featured in Sports Illustrated magazine, which then led to a meeting with President George Bush. Unfortunately, the same day he met the president he broke his leg in a basketball game which resulted in the loss of most of his Division 1 scholarship offers. Eventually, he would receive an offer from Manhatten Unversity, where he would not only find success on the courts but would also graduate in three years.
“Success and happiness are two different things,” Atlas told the students. “American youth are broken because you are some of the most egotistical humans on the planet. The truth is, we all want acceptance, but we are so slow to accept others. Start putting others before yourself if you want to be successful.”
Atlas challenged students to start issuing at least three compliments a day to each other in order to change their school culture from one of constant negativity to one of positivity.
“Go into a world of fake, negative people and just be nice!” he said. “I promise you it will make a difference.”
Through the #BelieveInYouChallenge, Atlas and Varsity Brands are hoping to create a movement of positivity, leadership, and confidence among America’s students. As part of the challenge, students are encouraged to step out of their comfort zones in order to support one another. Atlas specifically called on football players, who were beginning their seasons this week, to pay back the support they will receive every week from the marching band members by going to one of their concerts.
“I am Captain Hook and you are my pirate army,” Atlas challenged them. “I am literally spending my time with you trying to change this culture. Support each other. Love each other!”