Fathering a team through football
on October 15, 2010
Kennedy High principal Roxanne Brown-Garcia had a question for the man who seemed to want a job as head coach of a losing football team.
“Someone I knew said that a coach from El Cerrito High would be contacting me to be my head coach and my first question was ‘why?’” Principal Brown-Garcia said.
Many football players were skipping class and performing poorly academically, forcing them to sit on the sidelines during games. Eventually, so many Eagles were on academic probation that Kennedy High cut its football program. Meanwhile, the school itself was facing the threat of closure for the upcoming school year due to a lack of funding from the Contra Costa Unified School District.
“Here it’s a challenge of changing people’s minds to what they can do and what they are all about,” Coach Clyde Byrd said.
Last spring, the 56-year-old coach from El Cerrito High was hired as Kennedy’s Director of the Athletic Department and Head Football Coach.
“I had a vision. I had a vision of what I wanted to see,” Byrd said during an after-school practice. “My vision was to have a program that represented Kennedy High School and to start bringing back the tradition from it.”
17-year-old senior Isaiah McClain is finishing his last season as the Eagle’s running back and line backer. He credits Byrd for keeping him off the streets and preparing him for college. “He’s more than a coach, he’s like a mentor.” McClain said. “He’ll help you find out where you want to go outside from the streets of Richmond.”
Another Byrd prodigy is Leonard Waldon, a star player who says he never considered going down the college route until he met Coach Byrd.
“He’s the reason why I’m playing football,” Waldon admitted. “I was a troublemaker. I was involved in the streets but then one day Coach Byrd told me he wasn’t going to let me run the streets anymore.”
Now Byrd says the 16-year-old junior tackle is generating buzz from big-name schools including Boise State, UC Berkeley, and the University of Wyoming.
Waldon says Coach Byrd changed his whole entire mindset through football.
“Coach Byrd got me off probation; he talked to my probation officer,” Waldon said. “He’s a father-type to me. I don’t see him as a coach.”
As the Richmond sun set behind the bleachers of Kennedy high, Waldon looked down at his hands and softly said, “I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t met Coach Byrd that day.”
Byrd listed his goals for the season and said he’s met nearly all of them: have more than 30 players on the junior varsity team and 70 playing in the football program. “We’ve done that,” he said. “I wanted to upgrade all the equipment, I wanted to upgrade our schedule. I wanted to play a more exciting schedule and get the kids involved.”
“We started going to football camps, we participated in passing leagues over the summer,” Byrd said. “I wanted them to gain speed, agility and quickness with our program.”
With five games under their belt, the Eagles are 2-3 this season. On Saturday, they’ll play St. Mary’s, one of their toughest opponents.
When Byrd is not coaching his boys, he’s teaching them in the classroom. His players see the difference between Coach Byrd on the field and Mr. Byrd in the classroom.
“I’ve got him for 4th-period biology,” Waldon said. “He won’t talk about anything but work.”
Keeping a modest profile, Coach Byrd doesn’t usually disclose the fact that he is also a chemistry teacher at Kennedy. But Principal Brown-Garcia has noticed the change in Byrd’s students. “Children that we couldn’t get to participate in sports because of maybe their grades or their attitude—he’s transformed them,” she said. “Football players are running to class because they know if they are caught in a hall-sweep that could mean you’re not playing in a game.”
Byrd’s colleagues said the change has less to do with football and more to do with character development.
“He has kind of an ‘old school’ flavor which I think is sometimes necessary to disciplining young men who think they’re men,” cheer coach Shannon Myricks said. That “old school flavor” is evident during after-school practices when Byrd checks in with his players. He asks them how they did on their most recent biology exam, if they understood the chemistry homework, or need help completing it.
“I wasn’t raised with a father,” Senior Javon Jones said. “He cares about us. He teaches us everything we need to know now and for the future.”
Jones also endured hardship when he was arrested and served time in jail during his freshman and sophomore years. Throughout his sentence, he studied to earn his GED. Now Jones is also looking at colleges.
The 18-year-old refers to his time behind bars as “a minor setback for a major comeback.”
“He’s the right medicine for these boys. He’s got their respect,” said assistant coach Dan Shaughnessy.
Coach Byrd’s own son and the Eagle’s assistant coach, Daniel Byrd, has seen the impact coaching can have on players on and off the field, especially within the inner cities of the Bay Area.
“It’s a fact, kids in the inner cities don’t have fathers. He tries to be different from a lot of other coaches,” Daniel said. “It’s more of a man-building process. We’re trying to build them up as men. It’s bigger than football.”
During a recent after-school practice, the Eagles run passing drills. Coach Byrd sits on a bench with his hands folded. “I’m trying to be a good leader for this team,” he said. “Everyday I go back and look in the mirror and make sure I’m doing the right thing. Sometimes I have to look in the mirror two or three times because it’s rough.”
With his eyes focused on his team, Coach Byrd looks out into the field and says with a soft-spoken tone, “I try to do my best to do whatever I can to leave an imprint on these kids’ lives.”
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