Camden Knuckles knows that football isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you hear he plays sports. It sometimes surprises him, too.

So when the 5-5, 130-pound Southwest High School receiver got word that he was to be honored at an end-of-year awards banquet, he couldn’t imagine why.

Turns out Knuckles, along with three fellow student-athletes, won a generous new scholarship that I hope pops up at lots of high schools next year: “Most Improved Athlete.”

Not biggest or fastest or best. Most improved. The kind of thing most of our kids could win but rarely do.

Knuckles heads to Minnesota State University Moorhead in August to study mass communications and play football. He calls the $2,500 scholarship “mind-blowing.”

DeAudrey McKinley was equally excited.

“I’m somebody who works really hard at everything I do,” said McKinley, who will go to Augsburg College in the fall with his $2,500 prize.

“I’ve been a lineman all my life, yet I’m quite small,” said the 5-8 McKinley, who will play football there. “I never let that stop me. I was just one of the people who never gave up.”

The scholarships were created by Southwest alumni Harvey Feldman, Class of ’61, who made news recently for his pledge of a $300,000 match to donations to fund permanent lights for Southwest’s athletic field. Groundbreaking is scheduled for June 25 and Feldman will be there, channeling some of the happiest memories of his life.

More than five decades ago, Feldman played football under the lights at Minneapolis’ Parade Stadium. “You hear your name on the speaker. You’re a kid. God, I loved it!”

He recalls even more clearly what Southwest’s legendary football coach, Art Fredrickson, said to him when he was a junior: “I’d like to play you, but I can’t make chicken salad out of manure.”

By his senior year, Coach Fredrickson called him “the best [damn] tackler we’ve got.”

Feldman, 70, lived in north Minneapolis through eighth grade, before his family moved into Southwest’s district. The son of a “great Jewish mother who lived to 96,” and a more distant father who escaped the pogroms of Russia, he wasn’t much of a student. So he turned to his coaches for guidance and validation.

Standing 6-1 and 175 pounds, Feldman walked onto the freshman football team as “a candy-assed Jewish kid who was so terrible I’m not sure what position I played.”

His coaches, first Dave Peterson (“a teddy bear” known for sometimes sleeping in the stadium shed to ice the hockey rink in the mornings), then Fredrickson (think George Patton), pushed him, prodded him “and made me feel so special.” He sees a lot of them in Southwest Athletic Director Ryan Lamberty, “who works around the clock.”

After graduating from high school, Feldman earned a business and accounting degree from the University of Minnesota. He owned and operated bars and restaurants for decades before retiring six years ago to start a new chapter in his life.

“This philanthropy thing,” he said, “I think it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Once he knew that the stadium lights were a go (with the stadium to be renamed for Peterson and Fredrickson), he mulled around other ideas. As he watched football and basketball games, he thought about the kind of award a young Harvey Feldman might win.

He recently found his high school yearbook where, with his picture, the following was written: “Nothing is ever denied well-directed effort.”

“Meaning,” Feldman said, “that whoever wrote that thought that I was a plugger even back then. That’s what sports is all about. That’s the kind of kids who need to be rewarded.”

Lamberty is grateful to Feldman for valuing that pluck. “My proudest moment is not taking a great athlete and tweaking one or two things,” Lamberty said, “but being able to see grand improvements — like a junior varsity kid that worked to become an all-conference athlete. That dedication is what Harvey is rewarding.”

Eamon Brodek heads to Marquette University in the fall to study communications and play basketball. Was he surprised about winning $2,500?

“Yeah,” he said, noting that he only played 10 minutes his entire junior year, before a senior year comeback.

“I think it was my hustle and heart. Awesome.”

Kali Place will attend Colorado College to play Division III basketball and study psychology. “I did put in extra time that, maybe, other people did not,” said the 6-foot-2 Place.

“It made me feel really good to know that someone recognized my work. Even though I started at the bottom, I just kept working at it until I was starting varsity.”