ELKHART — When Kevin Atlas walked onto the stage at Elkhart Memorial High School auditorium Monday morning, his towering presence at nearly 7 feet tall instantly caught the attention of students as eyes looked up.
But that’s not the only physical attribute that makes Atlas unique.
The 29-year-old from the Bay Area of California was born with one arm. He’s missing the lower part of his left arm, just below his elbow, caused by a complication of his umbilical cord being wrapped around his arm and neck.
Some of the other hardships Atlas said he faced in his childhood included growing up in a split custody household, watching his father pass away from cancer when he was in fifth grade, and constantly being made fun of for his physical deformity and learning incapacities, which included ADHD, dyslexia and a speech deficiency.
“I felt like I didn’t stand a chance academically socially or physically; my life sucked,” he said. “I pretended like everything was OK on the outside because I didn’t want people to pity me more than they already did, but on the inside, I was straight broken.”
To add more insult to injury, he tried out for the basketball team when he was in middle school and said he was told by the coach to look for something else because basketball is a “two-handed sport.”
His turning point, he said, was when another coach gave him a chance to play basketball for an AAU team and encouraged him to use his missing arm as a weapon.
“I always hated my left arm, I hated looking in the mirrors,” he said. “Girls were ruthless to me, guys would make fun of me relentlessly. My coach couldn’t grow my arm out or fix it, but he changed my perspective – rewired my brain and helped me embrace my arm and to make it my greatest strength.”
The advice helped Atlas succeed on the court and beyond. From that point, he began calling his left arm his "nub" — something that makes one different.
He became one of the top high school basketball players in his home state, played one postgraduate year at a military school in Virginia, earned a full athletic scholarship to join the Manhattan College Jaspers in New York City.
By doing this, Atlas achieved becoming the first disabled player in NCAA history to receive a full Division I athletic scholarship in his sport.
At Memorial, Atlas shared his story of overcoming adversity and gave freshman and sophomores tips on what it takes to be successful leaders. Specifically, he encouraged them to own whatever “nub” they might have in their lives.
“You all have a nub in your own way, whether its ADHD, dyslexia or a speech deficiency,” he told the students. “If you own whatever your nub is, you won’t have any weaknesses.”
He concluded his speech by urging the students to form new habits.
In doing so, he challenged students to start issuing at least three compliments a day to each other to change their school culture to a more positive one.
He also encouraged them to step out their comfort zones to support one another. As an example, he told the football players to support the marching band members, who attend and play at their home games, by going to a concert.
“You deserve to be happy and an awesome human being,” he said. “How cool would it be to change support each other and help change a negative vibe to a more positive one. It also draws you guys closer.”
Following the assembly, Trevor Fine, a freshman, said Atlas’ talk was one of the few motivational speeches that resonated with him.
“I’ve heard a lot of speeches throughout my school life, but not many have been moving,” he said. “Many of the speakers tend to just say the same things over and over, but Kevin was really able to connect and engage with us. He showed that we need to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and not just think about ourselves and that stuck out to me the most.”
Another student, Abi Presswood, said she thought Atlas’ speech was inspirational and plans to take on his challenge by supporting sports and other groups that she hasn’t in the past.
“I try hard to make sure I support my friends and what they do, but now, I’ll continue to do that and support more people,” she said.
The speaker’s talk Monday was part of his Believe In You Challenge with Varsity Brands, a company with Herff Jones.