In August 2012, Kennedy High School junior Ulises Grijalva was shot and killed while leaving the St. John’s Apartments in Central Richmond, on his way home one night. A key player on the football team, Grijalva’s death devastated the Eagles, and this year, the players have dedicated their season to him.
The motivation has proved effective.
In 2012, the traumatized Eagles weren’t much to look at and finished 5-6 on the season. This year, the Eagles are 4-0 in league play (4-5 overall), but have their eyes set on competing in the league championship on Friday, against Hercules High.
“I was at home, about to go to sleep,” remembers Jammion Young, a senior right tackle with the Eagles and friend of Grijalva. “I got on Facebook, just reading, scrolling. I saw people saying he died, but I thought they [were] playing. And as I looked at the pictures and they said, ‘R-I-P’, I just started crying.”
Francisco Ortez, another senior and close friend of Grijalva, said that it’s still difficult moving on, even a year later.
“It’s not the same without him,” he said. “But I feel he’s still with me. I got him tatted on me and everything, so he’s always here with me.”
Not only is Kennedy still reeling from that loss, but the team also has a new coach this season in Rae Jackson. Fortunately for the Eagles, Jackson was exactly what this team needed to get back on the right track.
The budding success of the program begins with Jackson, a graduate of Kennedy High that strives to create a new culture of student-athletics in the school.
“I also coach the pop warner team, the Richmond Steelers,” Jackson said. “I wanted to bring that sense of community here.”
Jackson has decades of coaching experience under his belt. In 1994 he started coaching the Bay Area Magic, a prestigious girls’ AAU basketball team that he is still involved with today. From there he coached girls’ hoops at Fremont High from 2001-2004, then Contra Costa Community College from 2005-2010. Four years ago, he took over the girls’ basketball program at Kennedy High School. The former principal, Roxanne Brown Garcia, originally hired Coach Jackson with the hopes that he would revitalize the program.
“I told her, ‘give me three years. If I don’t win by then, fire me.’”
Jackson certainly did enough to keep his job.
The team has experienced much success over the past two years with Jackson at the helm; last season, they made it through the playoffs, within two games of the state championship match.
For Jackson’s efforts on the hardwood—and for his visibility in the Richmond community—Kennedy Principal Phillip Johnson thought Jackson would be the perfect person to coach the football team this year.
“A lot of the current guys played for him as kids,” Johnson said. “They know him, they trust him, and so do the parents. He’s made them a cohesive group and that was something we really needed at the school.”
With Jackson using his influence, the football players eat lunch together; go to study hall together, and workout together on Saturdays. Last year, only 17 varsity athletes had the grades to finish out the season. Now, 35 upperclassmen joined the team in August, and just two have had to quit due to grades.
“I’m really proud of that,” Jackson said of how well his athletes are performing in the classroom. “Mandatory study hall has been great and we mandate progress reports every Friday. It makes them in tune with their grades.”
Jackson has coached all ages, but his work with young men is particularly rewarding, he says.
“It’s been emotional, watching them grow into young men. They meet adversity head on and persevere through it,” he said.
Principal Johnson is also pleased with the way the program is shaping up, but for different reasons: having the kids on the football field means keeping them out of trouble.
“When they’re at school, they’re protected. We would rather have them here from eight in the morning to seven o’clock at night. When they’re out there, who knows what can happen to them?” he asked.
Jackson has been so successful this season because, according to the principal, he has really refined what it means to be a student-athlete.
“We changed the culture here,” Jackson said. “We made it pretty. We made it so that kids feel good about being good in school and being an athlete.”
In his first season, Johnson seems to be making huge strides towards making Kennedy competitive again, both academically and athletically.
On Friday night they will clash with the Hercules Titans in what will surely be an emotional game for the Eagles, especially the seniors.
“We’re going to win it for him,” Young said, referring to Grijalva. “We’re going to win this league championship for him.”
“I think Hercules is in trouble,” echoed Coach Jackson. “It’s going to be a great game. It’s going to be a great, good old-fashioned high school game.”
The Kennedy Eagles and Hercules Titans kick off at 6 p.m. on Friday night.