For the first time in 20 years, the Kennedy Eagles have a shot at the playoffs.
If the team defeats Piedmont High School Thursday, first-year varsity football coach Mack Carminer said the win will qualify the team for one more game.
Despite excitement during Tuesday’s practice, several Eagles players expressed confusion about the upcoming game.
“Let me ask one more question,” Takkaris McKinley said. “We win, we are in the playoffs?”
“What you heard on the street, from your friends, you need to throw out,” Carminer said. “Pay attention to what your coaches are telling you. Win and we in.”
Dan Shaughnessy, a second-year volunteer coach for Kennedy and retired English teacher, said he isn’t surprised the Eagles have questions. For nearly all the players, getting this close to the next round of competition is a new experience.
“It’s like somebody saying how good Thanksgiving is going to taste but the person they’re talking to has never had Thanksgiving before,” Shaughnessy said.
Even if the team doesn’t get a taste of the playoffs, making it this far is a triumph. The Eagles football team has maintained a full roster of academically eligible players this season, which, in many ways, is a win on its own.
In the past four years Kennedy football teams have twice faced academic disqualification. While they have increased graduation rates and improved athletic and academic programs in the last few years — and started to gain respect from other schools — a full team of academically eligible players is still a big deal for Kennedy.
Senior running back Tom Jacobs recalled the day, four years ago, when the varsity team got its report cards telling them they didn’t have the grades to finish the season. Kennedy’s coach gathered the team next to a line. Everyone who didn’t have the grades had to step to one side.
Watching the team lose the season — and for several players, their shot at playing at the next level — was devastating.
“When you see something like this happen, your whole dreams just shatter,” Jacobs said. “You think, ‘Do I really want to be like them?’”
In 2008, when Jacobs was an incoming freshman, the football teams’ academic forfeit was just one of many setbacks Kennedy faced. With a 35 percent dropout rate and less than 900 students enrolled at Kennedy, the school faced potential closure.
The City Council extended a $1.5 million lifeline to the school to keep its doors open, but the challenges of 2008 seemed telling of long-term problems for a high school in a community like Richmond.
But in 2009 things started to turn around.
Roxane Garcia-Brown took over as principal. The school secured a federal grant to institute an after school study and mentor program. Garcia-Brown hired new teachers and pledged to go the extra mile to reach the student body.
Kennedy instituted policies that made athlete’s academics a priority. Athletes had to attend daily after-school tutoring sessions. Teachers started keeping weekly progress reports on all student athletes. If a kid fell behind, he or she had to sit at the front of the class, and instructors had to notify coaches immediately if they had trouble with the student. Carl Sumler, the school’s athletic director, said today most of the coaches at Kennedy work full-time for the school. That way as soon as teachers run into problems with athletes, they call the student’s coach for backup.
Sumler said the changes and new programs began to transform Kennedy into a safe haven for its students.
“School was out at 2:10. It’s 3:30 and there are still kids here,” Sumler said gesturing to his office where had just cleared more than a dozen shouting teens. “Once you leave these gates, you are now back in Richmond. You got North Richmond against South Side. You got the Triangle. You got kids from this block to that block that don’t like each other. You’ve got all kinds of things that are going on. Getting the kids involved in sports, keeping them here with the after school program, helps them out a lot.”
For the football players, efforts to get grades up have been a game changer.
Senior linebacker Ivan Bermejo said that a few years ago he had failing grades and spotty attendance. He didn’t like school and didn’t feel motivated. With encouragement from Carminer, then the JV coach, Bermejo joined the football team.
Within a season, Bermejo turned his life around.
“I feel more involved since I started playing football,” Bermejo said. “I talk to the teachers. We have conversations … I probably would have dropped out by now.”
Bermejo now has a 4.0 GPA. He was named homecoming king this year.
Bermejo said even the way he dressed changed.
“I used to wear way more baggy pants,” he said. “Like a little gangster kid or something.”
Senior running back Keonte Woods made a similar transformation. As a sophomore, Woods had been kicked off the team. His grades dropped and when Coach Byrd — last year’s varsity football coach — took over, Byrd worked to get Woods back on the team. With Byrd’s and then Carminer’s support, Woods said his grades are up and he feels motivated to try. He added that winning games makes it that much easier.
But not everyone is in the clear.
McKinley, a junior defensive end, is one of Kennedy’s rising football stars. But just a few weeks ago he got a progress report that could have tripped him up.
Carminer went to McKinley’s teachers to find out how McKinley could get his grades where they needed to be. McKinley said he had never had someone care for him like that before.
Outside of football, McKinley is in many ways on his own. His mom is absent, he said. He has never known his father. He lived with his grandmother until she passed away a few years ago. Now he lives with his uncle.
“I really never had anybody who was there for me,” McKinley said. “Coach Mack’s got my back and he’s there when I need him. He cares about me.”
McKinley said academic disqualification would crush him.
“This is my ticket out of here,” he said,” to go to college and make something of myself.”
McKinley added that before his grandmother died she asked him to promise he would play football and go to college.
“I told her I would,” McKinley said. “I would do this for her.”
As practice ended Tuesday evening, the Eagles soared with anticipation. The players laughed and roughhoused between plays.
Even as Coach Carminer told the players to keep focused, he too seemed excited. He lifted his normally deep voice into a delicate falsetto, singing about finally “making it.”
Carminer called the team in for a huddle,
“Fellas you are part of something very special,” he said. “You are the foundation of the start of this program — a football program at Kennedy High School. You guys are part of greatness, right here.”
The team broke with their cheer, “Family on me. Family on three!”