Hope Oliver rested comfortably in her family room, a space decorated with several photos of her four children. On the television in the corner, the Nashville Predators were in the process of squaring the Stanley Cup finals at two games apiece, a contest taking place about 15 miles north of the Olivers’ home.
With her youngest child, Kaleb, about to leave for Georgia Tech on a football scholarship, Oliver was asked her reaction to a most exceptional outcome — Kaleb will complete a sweep for Kevin and Hope Oliver’s four children all competing in college athletics, and three will have done so on a full scholarship.
“You want the real real?” she asked with a laugh. “God is good. God is faithful. I’m telling you, it’s a lot of prayer. A lot of prayer.”
Kevin Jr. is on track to graduate in December with a communications degree from Tennessee State after having walked on the football teams at Memphis and then Tennessee State. Kaitlin, a basketball player, is majoring in psychology at Cumberland (yes, the same Cumberland that was on the wrong end of Tech’s 222-0 football thrashing). Kyle is a tight end at Memphis and studying sports management. Kaleb, a promising safety, arrived at Tech on June 13 to begin orientation.
According to NCAA data, the probability of a high school football player moving on to play at the Division I level is 2.6 percent. That makes the probability of all three Oliver boys accomplishing that feat .0018 percent, or about one in 56,000. Kaitlin, whom the Olivers said is also on a full scholarship, likewise is a rarity. Only .9 percent of girls high-school basketball players go on to participate at the NAIA level, according to scholarshipstats.com.
“Very unusual,” said Missy Blissard, who was the guidance counselor for the three youngest Olivers at Oakland High in Murfreesboro. “To have that large of a family, I don’t think we’ve had every child (go on to compete in college athletics).”
Blissard speaks with a bit of knowledge, having been at Oakland for 22 years.
Particularly in Kaitlin’s case, Olivers placed a priority on a free education and the ability to send their child into the world without college debt, either for themselves or Kaitlin, over prestige. They didn’t approach her recruitment with a “Division I or else” mindset, accepting a free ride from Cumberland, an NAIA school.
Kevin Sr., a courier for FedEx, and Hope, a high-school teacher, had set aside funds to pay for college, but, for three of the four, it hasn’t proved necessary.
“It’s just a matter of them being able to have their education paid for, more so than anything,” Hope Oliver said. “I know people that turned down other opportunities just because it’s not the (right) school, and I’m, like, Well, the focus for us was getting their education paid for. It’s just like, OK, let’s see how we can best get this done.”
Genetics undoubtedly played a hand. While neither parent participated in college athletics — Hope likes to tell the story about how she gave up basketball in middle school after taking a charge in a game and could barely get out of bed the next day — the Oliver children were superior athletes growing up.
“My kids were all bigger, stronger and faster than most or all of the kids that were out there,” Kevin Sr. said.
There was more to it than that. Whether it was camps, AAU basketball tournaments, 7-on-7 football tournaments or something else, the Olivers sought to make sure their children had access to training and were on a platform to be seen by college coaches.
“It was definitely intentional,” Hope Oliver said. “We could probably have a little gold mine with the money we put into it, but it’s worth it when they all end up getting scholarships.”
Just as significantly, grades came first.
“I cannot bring home a C or lower,” Kaleb said. “Only A’s and B’s, and not even really B’s. The grade scale here (at Oakland) was, 85 to 92 was a B. If I get anything under a 90, they’re on me.”
In middle school, Kevin, the eldest, came home with an insufficient grade on his report card. His rec-league team, coached by his parents, had made the championship game, but he was not allowed to play and made to watch the game from the bench in his uniform. The team lost in overtime, with Kevin crying on the bench.
And there was more to it than that.
“They were gifted athletes; that was God-given,” said Blissard, who coached Kaitlin in basketball. “However, it was very important, work ethic-wise, (that) they had to do something above and beyond to set themselves part, and they did it.”
Kaleb was motivated by the attention that Kyle, two years ahead of him, received from recruiters and others. His mother recalled how Kaleb, when his brother was interviewed by local TV stations after games, made sure to get himself in the shot.
“We didn’t mind working at it,” Kaleb said. “We didn’t mind missing out, hanging out with friends, to go to practice. Going out of town to camp instead of staying home and going to parties or something.”
Prayers and faith undergirded the Olivers’ pursuit. Hope said she prayed daily “that they would excel academically and athletically and find favor with their teachers, their peers and their coaches.”
Oliver clearly found favor with Tech safeties coach Andy McCollum, the area recruiter for the state of Tennessee. In January, when Oliver withdrew his commitment to Mississippi State following the departure of two coaches who had recruited him, McCollum was ready to pounce.
“Some coaches were, like, iffy, and some were serious,” Kaleb said. “Coach McCollum was serious. He was, like, we want you. We want you down here. He was trying to make moves to try to get it done.”
A combination of size, speed, quickness and hitting ability, Oliver was one of three signees who coach Paul Johnson saw as “hybrid” prospects with the capability to play a variety of positions (Tariq Carpenter and Avery Showell are the others). It will not be a surprise if he makes an impact as a freshman this season, at special teams or possibly in a backup role at safety.
“I’m ready to play football again,” Oliver said. “Get into it, get into the program, see how it goes.”
And, in four or five years, his parents expect him to earn his degree from Tech. Oliver thinks he wants to be an orthodontist.
“I always tell the children, we don’t go to college, we graduate,” Hope Oliver said.
All part of the plan.
“That’s just what that family strives for,” said Blissard, the counselor. “It paid off for their children in so many ways.”