In the gym at Richmond High School, dozens of red and black championship banners hang from the rafters, celebrating the athletic success the Oilers have seen over the years. Some are old and fading, signifying just how long it’s been. From 1920 to 1974, Oilers football was competitive, often winning back-to-back championships in that span.
In the 40 years since then, something has changed in Richmond.
The demographics of the city began to shift, and Richmond High saw its African American population decline while that of the Latino population rose. With that, soccer took over as the dominant sport in the school, while football prowess faded away.
For the first time in years, the Richmond High School Oilers have around 80 players between the Junior Varsity and Varsity teams. For a program looking to build itself into a contender, the growth in participation is remarkable accomplishment.
“When I first got there, we finished the season without 15 varsity players in the whole program,” said Tashaka Merriweather, head coach of the Oilers. “Knowing football and the trends and building a program, you’re gonna need a lot more than that.”
Merriweather has held the reins of the Richmond High football team for three years, but even when he was a student there in the early 2000s, numbers were a problem for the program. Students quit the team, others could not remain academically eligible, but the biggest problem facing the Oilers was a lack of football tradition.
“Football hasn’t been the strong cultural thing at Richmond High over the last 15 years,” Merriweather said.
With futbol replacing football as the top sport on campus, Merriweather had a unique challenge in front of him.
“First, we made it inviting,” Merriweather said. “Football was perceived to be the ‘black thing,’ but if you know our demographics, there aren’t many African American students on campus. But if your school is 78 percent Latino, there’s no way you’re going to be successful [if you exclude] that culture.”
For the past few years, the Oilers have been fielding about 40 players on the gridiron, only enough to support a varsity team. Now there are more than enough players to man a junior varsity squad as well. Merriweather says a change in rhetoric was the first step in getting kids out on the field.
“At the open houses, we would approach all types of kids and I would ask if they had ever played before. No one had ever had a formal invitation to play before. These kids didn’t think they could play, but no one had ever asked them if they wanted to,” Merriweather said.
Inviting the kids wasn’t enough, though: he then had to convince the kids that skill—or lack thereof—wasn’t a limiting factor.
“It’s not your job to know how to play, it’s our job to teach you.”
Once they got the kids out there, Coach Merriweather and his staff had to face their next challenge—keeping them on the field. This turned out to be fairly easy, once they branded the football team as a family.
“We always talk about family, and—I know growing up in this area—they’re missing that connection, being apart of something,” Merriweather said. “If they’re able to leave whatever’s going on at home and come to the football team, they’re likely to keep coming back.”
Coach Merriweather went a step further, and rewarded involvement in the team. When he suited up for Richmond High, he never had a letterman jacket. It wasn’t until he spent his college years at Arizona State that he even met people who wore them, and saw that they were a huge source of pride. When he became the head coach of the Oilers, he decided his players needed to feel that too.
“So my first year I said that I would buy letterman jackets for all my seniors. It was something that was personal to me but also special to them,” Merriweather said. “They would wear them around campus and other kids would be like, ‘wow, you got that from the football team that’s supposed to suck? I want a letterman jacket!’ So they’re wearing their jackets and took pride in being on the team.”
But growth counts for naught if the program can’t sustain the numbers. In the past the team has suffered because many students weren’t able to keep their grades high enough to remain eligible for sports. Last year specifically, the Oilers began the season with nearly 70 players, but had only a small fraction of that by the season’s end. This year, Merriweather predicts he will retain at least 80 percent of his players for the entire season.
“I don’t know if it’s a reflection of the coaches or the way we are changing the program,” Merriweather said, “But we are really getting high-character guys. I can only think of two kids that were kind of on the border moving into it, but we have kids that have [grade point averages of] 3.8s and 4.2s.”
Merriweather and the coaches have told their players that they are student-athletes, stressing the point that responsibilities as a student come first. The team has mandatory study halls and other academic measures in place to help the kids learn accountability for their education.
“It’s kind of like we’re driving the car as we build it,” Merriweather said.