When the Baltimore City schools laid off 59 employees two weeks ago, Douglass football coach Elwood Townsend received one of those pink slips. Although Townsend retained his job as the Ducks coach, parents of players said Townsend's layoff hurts their sons because his presence in the school every day influences them well beyond football.
"It's crucial that he be in the building," said Brian Johnson, whose son, Zaywhon Johnson, was a sophomore cornerback last fall.
"He has a relationship with the teachers and he can speak to the teachers about the kids' grades, going to class and discipline problems. I'm looking to the problems Douglass had in the past. He was there to help turn it around not just football-wise but academically, behavior, a little bit of everything."
Townsend, who worked as a hall monitor and also taught a tech class, has been part of a schoolwide turnaround that saw Douglass graduations rates increase, test scores rise and behavior problems plummet to the point that the U.S. Department of Education highlighted Douglass as an example of turnaround efforts that are working. During his first few years as football coach, he worked for Comcast, but he left that job four years ago so he could be around his players all day.
On the football field, Townsend turned the Ducks from a 3-7 team in 2011 to a state finalist the past two seasons. He was The Baltimore Sun's All-Metro Coach of the Year in 2012 after the team finished 7-4 and made the playoffs for only the second time in school history.
Although he has been contacted about coaching other programs in the area and -- some opportunities might include a full-time job -- Townsend said he hasn't made any plans.
"At the end of the day, I want to be at Douglass," Townsend said. "It's something I've built from the ground up and the parents have bought into it. And we expect to get over 350 freshmen next year, 215 of which are males, and I have parents contacting the school about their kids wanting to play football."
With Townsend coaching, the football program has grown every year, with more than 100 trying out last fall. The parents want to keep his influence on their sons and they want it during the school day, as well as afterward.
"He keeps these children off the streets," said Lakeya Palmer, whose son, Azariah Bratton-Bey, was a junior running back last fall.
She said the parents hope to find a way to keep Townsend in the school. Towsend said that during the April riots, not a single Ducks football player got into any trouble despite the unrest and looting at Mondawmin Mall, which is across the street from Douglass.
"Personally, I'll do whatever — whether it be a petition, whether it be a peaceful protest … because I feel like it's important for [Townsend] to be there," Palmer said. "He nourished a lot of those kids who don't have dads and he does provide, outside of the field, what they're missing. For a lot of his players, because they're inner-city kids, unfortunately they don't have one or both of their parents and I know he helps some kids out. I think it's going to be awful if he's not inside of that building."
Johnson said if not for Townsend his son would be at another school.
"He's giving these guys a chance to go to college, a chance to graduate and get a high school diploma," Johnson said. "A lot of these guys definitely wouldn't graduate -- they would come to school and just play football and after football, they would stop coming to class and school. Now, they kind of see the bigger picture — going to college, getting an education and getting their career to take care of family and whatever they need to build a future."
Despite the layoff, Townsend plans to take 11 of his players to camps at Purdue, Cincinnati, Ball State and Illinois. They will also tour the campuses and hear about college football and college life in general, something Townsend wants them to see so they can realize the opportunities available if they work hard on the field and in the classroom.
"He's still putting the kids first," Douglass athletic director Tina Queen said. "How does a system get rid of someone like this? He's still taking these kids on this trip. They got it wrong. They can't just give out pink slips without knowing the person. He has a degree. He gave up a lucrative job at Comcast to make sure he's in the building with these kids. He makes a difference."