Coaching life, not play, is at heart of 'Big Game'

Rick Maese

There are images I won't soon forget:

Teenage boys, trapped between childhood and adulthood, sitting around and talking about kites, of all things. One of the football players doing a backflip off the cafeteria wall. Tears welling in the eyes of a player who's eager to take the field.

Some images, of course, I'd prefer not to remember, like when a high school student disrupted lunch by flinging a wooden chair across a cafeteria table. Or that of a neighborhood where plywood covers windows and doorways, and the corner boys know the area kids by name.


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But if you read the five-part series, 'The Big Game," last week in The Sun, there's one image that especially stood out. When Edmondson coach Dante Jones entered a room and the nervous energy and noise started to bubble, Jones softly reminded his team: "Gentlemen, be respectful. Pay attention." And the room immediately fell silent.

Maybe that seems subtle, but it speaks to the respect Jones commands from his players and it underscores a major theme that threads its way throughout the series, which chronicled the team's week leading up to a game against City College. High school coaches here are responsible for raising not just decent athletes, but also decent young men.

"The main thing I wanted people to get out of all these stories is that these are good decent kids, good decent coaches and Baltimore City public schools are good schools," said Jones, 30. "You put the right people in the right places and good things are gonna happen. We can change things this way."

You can apply that to just about any school in America, but Baltimore is different, just as the problems we face every day are different. Perhaps a coach in suburban America can afford to focus solely on X's and O's, but that's not good enough here.

Baltimore coaches catch their players at a crossroads. If they can make an impact, they can direct a player toward a productive path. If they can't, that player could become the next generation making a living on the neighborhood corner.

Jones says that all 20 of his seniors will graduate in May. At least 15 of them will use football to pursue a college education, most at small schools.

"When you're in the same neighborhood all your life, it's easy to get caught up in something," Jones said. "When you change your environment, though, you can change your options. When I tell the kids to get out of Baltimore, I'm saying expand yourself. Go open some doors, learn and then come back and let's make this place better."

When I spoke with Jones on Friday, he kept using the term "role model" to describe his role around the Edmondson campus, but I think it's bigger than that. Coaches in city schools should be father figures. They need to show Baltimore's teenagers what it means to be men - productive men, caring men, responsible men.

According to a 2004 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 66 percent of Baltimore children live in single-parent homes - that's 23 percent higher than the big-city average and twice that of the rest of the state. The right example has to come from somewhere, and our high school coaches are in the best position to gain trust and make a lasting impact.

"I call a lot of them my son," Jones said. "When you're dealing with young men - some of them have fathers and some don't - but when they're in school, they're my sons. To the majority of my kids, they have several fathers on this coaching staff. That's how you reach the kids. You have to respect them like a father would, and in turn, you want them to show you respect like you would a father."

You hate to place more demands on city coaches because they're already underpaid and underappreciated. But I'd hope they could all have the same perspective, same goals and same work ethic as Jones.

The Sun series was meticulously reported by Kevin Van Valkenburg and Lem Satterfield, and eloquently pieced together by Van Valkenburg.

And though on the surface, the series seemed to focus on one school and one coach and four team captains, it was much bigger. I can't help but think that if city schools can hire, encourage and teach more coaches like Jones, we'd have a lot more young people approaching that critical crossroads and making a different turn.

"The whole thing showed me that we're on the right path," Jones said. "Not just Edmondson, but the city. As a whole, we're going somewhere. This article wasn't just about us or my kids. This was about Baltimore City, doing things, building things. And we're going to keep working. If we do, things will get better. I believe that."

rick.maese@baltsun.com
 

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