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Graduate Student Wins ESPY, Continues To Serve Community
By Kyle Fisher

Niah Woods, a dual-sport Division 1 athlete and graduate student at Howard, won the Billie Jean King ESPY for her social work and athletic achievements and continues to serve.

Niah Woods after winning the Billie Jean King ESPY award with Grassroots Health, formerly The Grassroot Project. (Graphic by Howard University. Photo courtesy of Niah Woods)

Niah Woods’ journey at Howard was not initially defined by athletics. Upon acceptance to college, she was not sought out by any collegiate athletic programs, however, coming from a family of athletes, she said she was not going to stop pursuing sports.

“I tried out for the track team first. I wasn’t near the top at the beginning of the tryout and trying to walk on, you almost have to be,” Woods said. “I was near the top by the end of my tryout, which made me really excited. I didn’t immediately know that I made the team, but I came back and had a locker and that was a big moment for me.”

Officially joining Howard’s track team made Woods a part of the roughly two percent of high school athletes able to make a Division 1 roster, according to track and field information from Scholarship Stats. Undeterred by the statistics, she made a move to do it twice.

“The goal was always to play sports in college. People would always discuss ‘Are you going to go to college and play one sport?’ but I couldn’t choose one,” Woods said.

The summer before attending Howard, she played basketball with an elite program called the Indiana Lady Gym Rats, two hours from her Cincinnati home.

Despite comments from her coach regarding her inability to play on the college level, Woods said she remained disciplined. One of only two people to be afforded a tryout, Woods made the team, got a second locker within Howard University’s Burr Gymnasium and became a dual-sport Division 1 athlete.

“After not really being recruited and the situation with my old basketball coach, I was left with something to prove to myself, to Howard and to my coach at the Lady Gym Rats,” Woods said.

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This passion manifested itself early in her Howard journey as she began to work with Grassroots Health, a D.C.-based non-profit organization that offers a comprehensive set of adolescent health programs. Grassroots Health delivers a three-year series of games-based health promotion programs facilitated by trained NCAA volunteer health educators. 

Through her work with Grassroots Health, Woods was nominated for the Billie Jean King ESPY in 2020, which recognizes high school and college-age youth who are using the power of sports to create social good.

“When I got nominated, I was just really confused,” Woods said. “I got a text from Tyler Spencer, the head of Grassroots, notifying me that me and another volunteer, Elijah, were being nominated for the BJK award… and I was just like ‘okay.’”

Not expecting the nomination, Woods said she kept her expectations low. She was told to keep up-to-date on the requirements and updates, so she did just that.

“Me and Elijah Murphy didn’t know we won because they kept referring to us as nominees,” Woods recalled. “I had already kind of been through this with the track team, not knowing if I actually made the team for a while, so I was waiting for something in writing that explicitly said I won before I got too excited for myself.”

That writing came in a form that Woods could not deny – a text from her mother read ‘Niah, you got it’.

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“We are so proud of Niah,” Howard Director of Athletics Kery Davis said. “She exemplifies what it means to be a student-athlete in competition and academically while giving back to the community. She has a bright future ahead of her.”

Due to the pandemic, the ESPY awards process was virtual. Woods and the rest of the cohort of winners got the opportunity to meet Billie Jean King via Zoom.

“You inspire us, you give us hope and you make us stronger,” King said to the cohort during the ceremony.

Understanding her work is an ongoing process, Woods continues her goal of uplifting and impacting the surrounding community. 

“It changed a few things, but not everything,” Woods said. “The work didn’t need to be recognized, it was just something you were supposed to do. I keep doing it because I feel like it’s the right thing.”

Woods – who said she is inspired by her parents and older brother Antonio Woods, who played basketball at Penn State, continues to work with Grassroots and aspires to pursue social work with a long-term goal of becoming a psychiatrist. 

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“I decided to apply for social work, but didn’t realize the amount of social workers I knew in my life already,” Woods said.

“There are so many areas to work in. My mom has been in education her whole life. My dad just retired as an officer,” she said. “Watching both of them was inspiring for over 20 years. Just seeing how much they love it and how much they care about the people they are working with.”

Having researched the comparative lack of Black psychiatrists, Woods remains resolute that she will work as a psychiatrist one day while combating generational trauma, distrust in hospitals and inattentive diagnoses.

Beth Simmons, the basketball coach at Woods’ former school Summit Country Day in Cincinnati, says she is confident that she is on the right path.

“She’s always had a purpose,” Simmons said. “She’s always known her purpose.”

Copy edited by D’ara Campbell

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