Sharpen Up with Brittany Wagner

photos courtesy of Brittany Wagner/ originally published Summer 2018

Fans of the hit Netflix show, “Last Chance U,” know Brittany Wagner as the “mother” of the nationally-ranked EMCC football team. Now, the Clinton-native is using her gifts to encourage students beyond Mississippi through her consulting business, 10 Thousand Pencils, LLC.

BW3For eight years, Wagner worked as an advisor on the athletic administrative staff at East Mississippi Community College. She describes herself as an “eligibility specialist,” helping prepare athletes not only academically, but for the rest of their lives. More than a dozen NFL players went through the EMCC football program, gaining the junior college national attention and eventually resulting in a Netflix documentary about the team.

Because many of the players on the show had records that kept them from playing for Division I schools, EMCC was sometimes their only option. It was up to Wagner and the coaches to get them back on track. Wagner quickly became a star of the show for the way she fiercely loved and encouraged players, often the driving force behind their success.

“I think everyone deserves an opportunity to get an education,” Wagner says on the first episode of “Last Chance U.” “I think everyone deserves to have a second chance.”

Wagner was the Lions’ cheerleader on and off the field. She talked students through their schedules, sat with them as they wrote essays, and even walked some to class. Her famous question: “Do you have a pencil?”

But before the Netflix series was even a possibility, writer Drew Jubera with GQ magazine caught wind of what was happening in Scuba, Mississippi, and spent six months interviewing and following the team, coaches, and Wagner. Wagner was excited to be recognized for all her hard work, especially in a national publication. But when the article came out, she was shocked to see there was no mention of her name. They had completely cut her from the article.

“I was devastated,” says Wagner. “I don’t think people realize how stories about teachers impact them and give them validation that what they’re doing matters.”

However, when director Greg Whiteley read a copy of the unedited article, half of which was dedicated just to Wagner’s role, he realized the potential for a documentary. Wagner says she was hesitant to be a part of the show at first.

“I was really afraid they were going to exploit Mississippi,” she says.

But when Whitley sent her samples of work he’d done, she realized it was in good hands.

“They were the greatest crew,” Wagner says. “They really embraced Mississippi and wanted to make it as true as possible.”

She says most of the filming process was top secret. The EMCC president, vice-president, and board members called her in so they could all watch the first episode together before it aired. It only took her five minutes to realize it was going to be big.

“In that moment, I knew my whole life was about to change,” Wagner says.

She binge-watched the first season while on vacation with family, surprised to see herself on the screen so much.

“I did not expect to be a star,” she says. “I expected it to be more about the football and that no one would care about me.”

After Wagner traveled to Los Angeles for the “Last Chance U” release, she gained over 5,000 Twitter followers.

“My friend was telling me to Google myself,” she says. “And then I saw all the articles saying, ‘Who is Brittany Wagner?’”

Now Wagner has been interviewed by The Dan Patrick Show, New York Times, ABC’s Nightline, and more. She says at one point she was doing five interviews a day, and someone had to screen her calls.

“I would never have dreamed this,” says Wagner. “Things don’t always go the way you want them to. But if you just hold on, it will work out.”

After filming Season 2 of “Last Chance U,” Wagner felt it was time to leave EMCC.

“I knew I had done all I could do there,” she says. “I had been given this platform and a bigger responsibility and felt I had to do something else.”

Wagner had enough speaking engagements lined up to keep her busy, but wasn’t sure what the next step would be. One day, a man stopped her at a coffee shop in Birmingham and told her she should start her own business.

“Doing what?” she asked.

“What you do,” the man said. “Encouraging students.”

The man happened to be a small business consultant, and he and Wagner immediately began brainstorming what would become 10 Thousand Pencils.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” says Wagner.

Now she’s traveling all over the country, helping schools at the elementary level and above better prepare their students for success. She trains teachers and administration and works with at-risk athletes one-on-one.

“I’m getting to see places I never would have,” she says. “I’m getting to see what our public education system is like and what I need to focus on moving forward.”

Wagner has been to Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, and beyond, and says she really wants to try to work with Jackson and Meridian public schools soon. She says although Mississippi education gets a bad reputation, she sees other schools around the country struggling with the same problems.

“If we can focus on elementary students and solve issues at that level, we can eliminate future problems,” says Wagner.

She stresses the impact that placing a child in a more stable environment can have and recounts success stories of children who just needed someone to give them an opportunity and believe in them.

Fans will be able to see Wagner and 10KP in action in the third season of “Last Chance U,” which will catch up with some former EMCC players and with Wagner.

“I’m excited for people to see these stories,” she says.

Wagner says it’s fun to see the reactions of students who recognize her from the show. Some even have her signature taped to their mirrors as motivation to go to school.

For Wagner, who grew up in Clinton, that motivation was Attaché.

“Attaché was my validation and a huge confidence booster,” she says. “It changed my life by giving me something to be good at. Everyone needs that.”

Wagner, who emceed the Attaché Alumni Dinner Theater this year, says she still tells herself the advice that David Fehr gave her when she was in school: “Don’t be sorry; be good.”

“I never doubted that Mr. and Mrs. Fehr cared about me, even when they were tough,” she says. “They were my number one influencers at that time.”

She also says that Clinton Public Schools is the “heartbeat of Clinton.”

“I love this little town,” she adds. “I will forever be grateful for growing up here.”

Wagner now has a weekly, motivational podcast available on iTunes called “Sharpen Up with Brittany Wagner.” She says there are plenty of people just like her (teachers, advisors, counselors) who are also encouraging students but are just not on TV. Her goal is to be a source of inspiration for them.

“I’ve always had a dream to make a difference,” Wagner says. “And I’m proud of the impact I’ve had on people.”

Wagner’s office at EMCC was decorated with bulletin boards, filled with pictures of her and former Lions football players who had gone on to play for DI schools or the NFL. The boards became a strong motivator for the players who visited her office every day.

“They would just stare at it and tell me that they would be on the board one day,” says Wagner, who still has those boards at her house.

Athletes have come out of the woodworks to ask if they made it on her board and to tell her thank you for helping them get to where they are today.

“It’s always great to see the fruits of your labor and to know you had a hand in their success,” she says.

Wagner graduated from Clinton High School in 1996. She earned her undergraduate degree in sport communication and her master’s in sport administration from Mississippi State University. She has over 15 years of experience as an athletic academic counselor at the NCAA and NJCAA levels.

She and her daughter Kennedy now live in Birmingham, Alabama.

Visit brittanywagner.com to learn more about her and 10 Thousands Pencils.

-Abigail Walker

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A freelance writer from the Deep South with a love of reading, writing, dramatic storytelling, indie music, and her corgi pup.

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