The Rogers Middle School football team was on its way back to Hyde Park in a black and yellow charter bus. The lights had been dimmed for the ride home on this frigid November night.
But the noise level was booming, just like most of the players’ confidence and excitement. The sounds from iPods were blaring, as the players smiled, soaking in the win.
Liban Abdilahi sat stoically on the bus, his face emotionless and his stare blank.
He had just scored two touchdowns for his team in a 28-12 semifinal playoff victory against Orchard Gardens under the lights of Harvard Stadium last fall to advance to the championship game, slated for six days later at White Stadium.
Abdilahi tipped a pass over a defensive back to himself, snared the ball out of the air and then juked a defender for a score. But as his teammates laughed and joked in the postgame euphoria, he wouldn’t say a word.
Finally, after some prodding from co-head coach Kasim Shavis, Abdilahi spoke.
“I really just caught two touchdowns,” said the lanky eighth grader. “I never even thought I was going to make the team.”
Abdilahi then thanked Shavis for giving him the opportunity to play on the team, to which Shavis replied, “Dude, you got the ability. You made it.”
Prior to 2008, Abdilahi couldn’t have played football for Rogers, or any of Boston’s more than two-dozen public middle schools. None offered the sport.
He couldn’t have taken a field trip to Boston College for a football game. He couldn’t have played under the lights at Harvard Stadium. He couldn’t have sweated with his teammates in August, gone undefeated in the regular season throughout the fall or pushed them to the brink of a city championship in November.
A Boston-based charity called Play Ball!, which was founded in 2005, addressed the budgetary deficiency in the middle school sports area of the Boston Public Schools.
Eight years later, there are 22 Boston public school middle schools with teams funded by Play Ball!. Overall, there are 40 teams that have been created and funded by Play Ball!, in Double Dutch jump roping, football, baseball and volleyball.
Rogers is in Hyde Park and is one of 10 middle schools with a football team. Most of the schools that are part of the program are similar to the Rogers; more than 90 percent of the students are eligible to receive free and reduced priced lunch, according to school principal Corbett Coutts. As of 2006, DataPlace.org had the state average of students eligible in Massachusetts at 28.2 percent.
For principals like Coutts and schools such as Rogers, the program transcends sports. Football gives kids a reason to go to school at an age when skipping classes becomes a temptation. It raises school spirit, as raucous cheerleaders line the sidelines and game days become a social event for kids and parents.
And most importantly, it changes the educational dynamics of the school, as kids have to keep a minimum C grade point average, meet attendance standards and attend weekly study halls during the season.
Just six days after winning the semifinal game, Abdilahi would realize that his receiving skills – discovered by coaches during the final regular season practice – could help him get accepted to a top-notch private high school. That news left him nearly speechless as well.
How it started
Mike Harney, president of Play Ball!, works in the heart of Boston by day at FBR Capital Markets. At night, Harney spends time working out logistics – mainly fundraising – for the charity.
In 2010, Play Ball! raised a net-revenue of just more than $81,000, according to tax filings. A large chunk of the proceeds ($45,530) came from contributions, gifts and grants. Fundraising has increased and the charity now spends $250,000 per school year on the 40 teams it funds.
Pat Arcand, who has been instrumental on the board of Play Ball! since 2009, is a well-known intermediary between Play Ball! and people inside the middle schools. She remembers when the partnership between Play Ball! and the Boston public schools started.
“Before I met Mike (Harney), I’d met a principal who needed some funding to be part of a four-school football league,” she said.
Chris Lynch, the director of the Boston Youth Sports Initiative, thought Arcand and Play Ball! could team up with the Boston Public Schools and help out the principal whose school needed funding assistance.
“Mike and I had lunch,” Arcand said. After the two sat down and talked, Play Ball! ended up providing funding for the football team in need. “Then,” Arcand said, “we were off and running.”
The mantra Play Ball! goes by is “Getting more feet on the field.” Harney had that chance throughout his middle school and high school careers. He went to Concord-Carlisle High School, where he starred in lacrosse.
Harney, 32, went on to play lacrosse at Georgetown and after graduating, moved back home to live in Charlestown and work in Boston. As the youngest of seven kids, Harney took every opportunity he could to play sports.
“For me it was just such a big part of what I remember growing up,” he said. “I played every sport they let me. You look back and you love having something to do every day after school. That’s what we’re trying to replicate here.”
Even while juggling his personal life and work in finance, Harney always finds time to work on making Play Ball! more successful. It all circles back to why he started the charity.
“It’s about (the kids) exercising, it’s about them having fun, it’s about them learning, it’s about handling adversity, teamwork,” said Harney. “There are a million different reasons that I can come up with about why it makes sense (to have the charity), but I can’t come up with one why it doesn’t make sense.
“Ultimately, when I see a football field I see a classroom. And I see an opportunity for these kids to learn. I think those lessons are important as any.”
Now Harney is making sure kids in the Boston public middle schools have the same chance to learn and spend afternoons enjoying and playing sports like he did during his youth in Concord.
There’s much to learn
Teamwork is one of the important life lessons that Play Ball! tries to teach. On an early September afternoon at Ross Field in Hyde Park, a group of students trying out for Rogers’ football team saw that very attribute exemplified by one of the school’s eighth graders.
Kids are constantly taking water breaks and gulping down their gallon water jugs. The coaching staff stressed hydration to the students at the beginning of tryouts. Some of the white T-shirts on the kids stick to their skin, already drenched from walking to the field from school. The sun beats down on Ross Field and the dry grass seems to sizzle.
The intense heat circulating around Boston that day didn’t put off one of the middle schoolers. It only fueled the amount of energy he would bring to the field. And on the second day of tryouts, quarterback Tyrese Myers saw a teammate struggling with a drill. Knowing his classmate wants to make the team badly, he put it upon himself to help.
“Come on,” he yelled. “You can get there! Come on!
“Almost there! Now get there!”
Myers, a captain, is arguably the smallest player when it comes to physical size on his team. But the passion and effort Myers brings to tryouts epitomizes what Play Ball! is trying to teach.
Wearing red shorts and a black Under Armour shirt, Myers was one of eight players chosen by co-head coach Steve Cahill to lead a warmup line. All but one of the 83 kids trying out, ranging from grades 6 to 8, have completed the bear crawls.
During the warmup, one of the biggest kids trying out is gasping for air as he extends his arms and legs, one at a time, towards the line. His white T-shirt is sopping wet and his breathing can be heard from 20 feet away. He’s determined to make it, though.
Exercising for more than 15 minutes looks far beyond this particular student’s athletic ability, but Myers – who sprinted almost 40 yards across four separate lines just to get in this player’s face – won’t let him give up.
“One more!” he yells at the kid, who aimlessly flings his arms forward onto the dirt. Reaching the line is all that matters at this moment.
When the kid reaches the line, he lies on his back sucking in all the air he can. Myers gets on all fours and pounds his right fist into the ground and yells some more.
“That’s it, man! That’s it!”
Of the kids trying out – including four girls – Myers is a mile ahead of the others at this moment in the categories of vocal energy and spunk.
Soon enough, the players start another drill. This time they’re splitting up into groups and working on the ladder. Myers’ effort to help another didn’t go unnoticed, though.
Cahill and Shavis can’t keep all 83 on the team, or even half of that number. The final roster is capped at 35.
“It’s reality,” says Cahill, sighing. “I would take every one of these kids if I could. Last year we took on 36 and we got all of them some good time on the field.
“I get my starters, and then I get whoever fits into the uniforms we have.”
Teamwork is something that Cahill and the other coaches strive to teach. But it’s not the only important aspect of being a student-athlete that these middle schoolers learn to embrace. Being on a team teaches students many lessons. But ahead of football’s fundamentals, there’s a need for academics in the Boston public schools to be addressed.
Changing the culture
Rogers Middle School is located in Hyde Park, a neighborhood in Boston that has gone through major demographical shifts in the past 30 years.
Hyde Park, a predominantly white neighborhood in 1990 according to the Census – 72 percent of its citizens were white – had its population drop 29 percent by 2000. Between 1980 and 2000, the black population grew 27 percent and the Hispanic population rose 11 percent.
Small houses on all sides surround the brick building on a raised level of terrain. The middle school stands on its own in a quiet area removed from the honking horns and cluttered road that is Hyde Park Avenue. The main street lies just one block west of the school.
Kasim Shavis, who attended Rogers in eighth grade (the 1992-93 school year), is currently the school’s janitor and co-head football coach. He has witnessed the school’s positive shift since the early 1990s. While Shavis sits in the basement of the school, he leans back in his chair and laughs, thinking about how the middle school has transformed.
Play Ball! has managed to fill a void that was once lacking. With after-school sports, he sees life turning out differently for the students.
“The atmosphere right now is really good,” said Shavis. “You can only imagine it (without football).”
In the 2011-2012 school year, there were 598 students enrolled at Rogers. According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s website, 61 percent of the 598 students are African-American.
The next highest ethnicity at the school is Hispanics at 27.1 percent, followed by Asians (5.4 percent). The school’s population includes 4.8 percent white students.
School principal Corbett Coutts knows that Play Ball! has created an incentive for students to strive for better results in the classroom.
“(Football) is definitely a motivating factor for kids wanting to be eligible to play,” said Coutts. “(The football team) helps them stay focused and helps them have an interest and desire not to jeopardize the opportunity to be on the team.”
Public schools around the country are judged by state testing scores. According to the spring 2012 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) results, the Rogers students placed below the state’s average public school scores in most categories.
There were 168 students surveyed in the “Science and Tech/Eng” category, where 92 of those surveyed scored in the “Need Improvement” or “Warning/Failing” categories, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s website.
The school’s best test scores came in “English Language Arts,” where 92 of 545 students surveyed placed in the categories of “Proficient or Higher,” “Advanced,” and “Proficient.” 55 of the 545 scored in the “Need Improvement” or “Warning/Failing” categories.
But test scores aside, Shavis makes clear that the results don’t tell the full story about the school’s shift since Play Ball! teamed up with the school. There’s a different feeling in Rogers’ everyday environment and atmosphere.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “It’s like a vibe or an aura in the air. It is something they look forward to. For a lot of them, (football) is almost everything. It’s tough to say that, especially for middle school kids, but they’ll put it all on the line for you.”
It’s early to tell if Play Ball! is having an impact based on the students’ test scores, given the program started just four years ago at Rogers. But Play Ball! isn’t just improving the amount of exercise students have or encouraging students to go to the library after school. It gives them a structured activity once the school day ends at 1:30 p.m.
Shavis sees some students outside of school. His opinion on what happens without football after school for certain kids is clear. If football is taken out of the equation, Shavis thinks kids could head down very different paths.
“I see them on the weekends, I see where they hang out at, I see who they hang out with. I know where they’re at,” says Shavis, who now resides in Mattapan.
He puts it bluntly.
“I’ll just say I’m glad it’s only the weekends. With football in place, you know most of them … the structure is very big for them.
“Some of them will tell you, ‘I’d be doing something real stupid right now if it wasn’t for football.’ ”
Avoiding a major time gap in a student’s daily structure helps them get exercise. Play Ball! already has more than 1,000 kids in Boston public middle schools playing after-school sports.
Students have grown to enjoy aspects of school that they haven’t ever embraced. The football players are required to attend the study halls that coaches hold at least once a week during the season to ensure students understand the importance of academics.
The mother of eighth grade special teams player Freddy Mercado, Jajaira Mercado, has sent some of her older children to the Rogers and has seen wholesale changes at the school since football was implimented.
“I’ve seen a lot of kids with anger issues, issues at home … things like that,” she said. “And [football]is the one thing that they have. I don’t know, it would just bring a smile to their face and they could feel good about themselves.
“It’s just so good for them. I talked to a lot of the kids, but I didn’t even have to talk to them to see it.”
Science teacher and assistant coach Grady McClinton’s classroom has two vertical rows of desks facing each other. The seating arrangement accommodates about 30 students.
Posters around the room display the periodic table of elements, different stages of evolution and charts with equations on them. At the back of the room next to the windows, two disco balls hang down from the ceiling.
Sam Roman, an eighth grader and linebacker, gets out of his chair. It screeches a little bit, but the students in the fairly quiet room aren’t disturbed by it. Neither is McClinton.
He walks over to the disco ball nearest his seat in the back, touches it, and looks up at the array of white circles of light cluttering the classroom’s tall ceiling.
He surveys the entire ceiling – his eyes dancing around from side to side– and then Roman spins the disco ball, trying to make the white circles in the dim classroom move quicker.
“If you do it slower it’ll work better,” interjects McClinton in a casual tone but strong voice. He goes on to talk about prisms and the changes in light. Roman doesn’t seem too bothered, his eyes still peaking up at the ceiling. He spins it again, this time at a slower pace, and the white circles slowly bounce around the walls and ceiling.
McClinton smiles and focuses back on the grading he was doing. Roman’s peers are getting more distracted by the second, and now they – like Roman – are staring around the room, their eyes darting from wall to wall.
This is one of two classrooms with a study hall at the Rogers. The team won its game over Mildred Ave. Middle School a day earlier.
The coaches emphasize all year that academic success will carry most of these students farther than football will. After the season is over, the work doesn’t stop. Shavis and the other coaches make sure the players stay on top of their homework.
“Academically, yeah, (football) keeps them tight,” said Shavis. “With Play Ball! and being able to hold that over their heads a little bit, it does keep them straight.”
But the first marking period academically for the middle school doesn’t occur until football season’s almost over.
Shavis and the coaches have found a way to keep these students on top of their academic game throughout the whole school year.
“Now you add in the fact that you have high school coaches who are actually coming down to see the kids play.
“You get into the locker room and tell them, ‘Hey, BC High was out there, [Archbishop Williams], Catholic Memorial was out there.’ But if you’re not pulling those grades throughout that whole year, that’s going to dwindle. They want to keep the grades going all year long.”
Shavis brings up eighth grader Jurgens Michel, who is an honor roll student and linebacker/running back. “Jurgens … he’s probably at the library right now,” he says.
Michel is one who understands the importance of education. He’s not the only player who does his work consistently, though.
“These kids love going to the library,” said Shavis, who reminisces on his time spent at the middle school in the early 1990s. “We didn’t really go to the library like that when I was here. Play Ball! brought in a different dynamic to the school.
“You had school spirit and things like that, but now you have school spirit on steroids.”
Shavis thinks the camaraderie is stronger now around the school community. The students rally around the football team and they motivate each other to do academic work.
“You have other kids who have no problem – if they know you’re on the football team – telling you, ‘Yo, did you hand in that homework assignment?’ or ‘Hey, did you go to the library? Because you know if you don’t pull your grades up you’re not playing,’ ” Shavis said.
“Kids that aren’t even on the team are telling kids that are on the team to go to the library and do their homework.”
Six days after the semifinal games at Harvard Stadium on Nov. 9, Edwards Middle School faced Rogers in a back-and-forth championship game at White Stadium in Jamaica Plain.
Rogers kept it close throughout the night, but time ran out on the Wildcats’ final drive with the game ending 30-28. Throughout the past two hours, the sideline groaned with every negative play. They stood silent as Edwards scored quick touchdowns. Rogers’ sideline hollered and was all smiles just moments before the Edwards scored the game-winning touchdown.
Now, the team isn’t running around, energized and ready to play. After the clock ticks down to zero in the fourth quarter, Rogers’ players realize the 2012 season won’t have a fairy tale ending.
They don’t try and act tough and pretend to be professional football players. Disappointment, something the players haven’t experienced all season, finally sets in.
The team’s emotional leader, Steffan Mesidor, seems especially distraught.
Mesidor doesn’t look up. The tears on his face are fresh as he watches the Edwards football players get their Play Ball! championship trophy. More tears fall. Mesidor stands at 5-feet-11-inches and is best known for bursting through an opponents’ offensive line before throwing their quarterback into the dirt. His strong performance on defense wasn’t enough to bring the crown to Hyde Park. The eighth grader is now realizing that his middle school career is over. Reality sets in.
As he’s handed his second-place medal, he looks up for a moment. Then his head drops again. His face scrunches up, corralling the tears on his face, slowing down the trickle on his cheeks.
After being consoled by coaches and talking to some teammates, the tears stop falling. Mesidor, a veteran of the Rogers’ four-year-old football team now has four years of football to play in high school. Shavis comes over and hugs Mesidor. They both look defeated. Shavis is tearing up, too. “I saw them grow up before my eyes,” says Shavis.
Tyrese Myers normally chats with teammates and jokes around after games. On this night, Myers is drained. His slouched shoulders and slow paced walk give off a silent, cold demeanor. He has a cold glare on his face of frustration and disgust rolled into one. The vibe given off after losing a back-and-forth championship game in the last 90 seconds, 30-28, is not one that the parents of these players have experienced around this team over the past two-and-a-half months. It seems unnatural. This team is never silent after a game. For the first time this year, the Wildcats have experienced defeat.
Mesidor takes off his pads and sets his Rogers Wildcats jersey atop the pile left on the field for the last time. He glances over at some of the coaches before his dad comes up behind him.
His dad gives him a bear hug and, almost for a split-second, Mesidor seems to smile. It’s quickly erased off his face, though, as he looks down at the jerseys.
Mesidor has meant the world to this team since early September when tryouts started. His hopes and aspirations of winning a title on his third try seemed distant at first. But his confidence grew throughout the season, and on the day of the championship there was a good chance he would be the one grasping the trophy with his worn out hands.
Mesidor walked off the field about 20 minutes after the game ended. Dakari Cox, who scored four touchdowns today, walked with him.
The two talk and even laugh as they slowly move away. Their middle school careers ended in heartbreak, but the following Tuesday would prove to be a proud day for all the players.
Shavis was at the lunch block when he witnessed an unprecedented event.
“When Steffan [Mesidor] and all those kids came into the cafeteria, the kids, they clapped for them,” Shavis said. “The students clapped for them. That was huge. That almost got me in tears. They almost got me with that. The kids clapped for the football team.
“It’s something hard to explain, but it’s real cool to see when you’re in the hallway. Football is it.”
It took one football player the entire season to find his strength. But in Abdilahi’s case, the opportunity he took changed his attitude about football. His academic career can still change as well.
He had to wait four agonizing days after the Play Ball! championship game to find out what exactly occurred in the prior two weeks, though.
The next step
On the second to last play of the Play Ball! championship, quarterback Dakari Cox threw a deep pass to Abdilahi down the left sideline. Abdilahi was in one-on-one coverage and he just needed to come down with the pass—repeating his heroics from the previous week’s semifinal victory at Harvard—to land Rogers a come-from-behind win.
Cox’s pass hit Abdilahi in the hands and he juggled the ball. The Rogers sideline exploded for a mere second, before the ball – and Abdilahi – fell to the ground. The pass dropped incomplete, and Cox was sacked on the final play of the game following the drop.
As Abdilahi writhed on the ground in pain after hurting his knee, two people in the stands started mulling over Abdilahi’s receiving skills. They were hooked. Abdilahi wouldn’t find out until the following Tuesday why these spectators were intrigued by his mistake at the end of the game.
Abdilahi missed that Friday at school with his injury from Thursday, because he needed to see the doctor.
“He comes limping in on Tuesday after the long weekend and he was being really quiet with me,” said Shavis.
Shavis knew what the two men in the stands were thinking about. Abdilahi didn’t.
“I asked him, ‘So are you going to play football in high school?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know. I feel like I lost the game for everybody.’”
That’s when Shavis broke the news to Abdilahi that the BC High School and Archbishop Williams coaches were in the stands that night.
They had both approached Shavis after the game. Impressed with Abdilahi’s speed and after hearing about his two touchdowns from the week before, they wanted to talk with Abdilahi.
“This kid put on the biggest smile,” Shavis said while laughing. “You could have told him that he won a million bucks and he wouldn’t have even cared. It was something that he needed to hear.”
Shavis was proud when Abdilahi informed him of his decision about trying out for football in high school later that day.
“He says, ‘I am going to play football in high school. And I know I have to keep up my grades, too.’”Nick Ironside can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nironside.