Patterson football lineman Domonique Williams stands 6 feet 3 and weighs more than 300 pounds. There's not much that intimidates him.
But when Kelley Bagdasarian, a petite blonde from Middleboro, Mass., showed up at Patterson three weeks ago and started asking him questions about his family life and his future plans, even one of the Baltimore City League's most fearless players balked.
"At first, you're kind of like, 'I can't tell you that.' But in the past three weeks, I've gone from not knowing her to totally letting her into my life," Williams said. "After you find out what she has to offer, it's easy to open myself up and talk to her."
Bagdasarian, 24, is one 30 academic coaches who have been deployed to inner-city schools in more than a dozen states nationwide as part of the National Football Foundation's 3-year-old "Play It Smart" program.
Founded by Al Petitpas, a sports psychology consultant at Springfield (Mass.) College, the program began at two inner-city schools - one in Orange, N.J., and another in Hillhouse, Conn. Petitpas expanded the program the next year to include two more schools in the Bronx and another in Springfield.
Coach Roger Wrenn of Patterson, the lone Maryland school involved in the program, applied for and received a grant from the NFF, which pays Bagdasarian to personally counsel some 70 players - 32 on the varsity - on social and emotional development and academic advisement during the school year.
The goal is to break down the barriers known to impede high school athletes from getting into college.
Among the program's five main objectives are to increase grade averages, SAT scores and community service among the athletes, and to decrease drug and alcohol use and to decrease the dropout rate.
"The personal counseling aspect involves dealing with family issues, relationships between players and teammates - everything's confidential. Everything they say stays with me," Bagdasarian said. "You really have to try to gain their respect and their trust."
"The social and emotional part involves teaching life skills, dealing with pressure, communicating and taking responsibility for one's actions," she said.
Each day, Bagdasarian conducts one-on-one interviews out of a stuffy office behind the team's weight room. She also holds study halls before school.
In addition, she makes the players aware of the NCAA's clearinghouse and freshman eligibility requirements.
The students are becoming more eager academically, Bagdasarian said. Thirteen are signed up to take the SAT on Oct. 14 - up from three seniors who took it last fall.