New coach hopes to change Oiler’s fate
on September 16, 2011
Tashaka Merriweather steps onto the artificial turf field on a brisk, Wednesday afternoon. Sporting his customary black shades and windbreaker, Merriweather starts directing this team to begin the practice drills with the loud, shrill sound of his trusted whistle.
As a coach, Merriweather wants to bring the values he learned as a college football player — hard work and good technique — to help his team succeed in games and in the classroom. It’s evident at practice as he works with his players to know their roles: “You have to be able to evaluate the situation and pick the gap that will most easily be exploited!” Merriweather barks to his defensive linemen about covering their gap assignment during a play. “It’s all about technique!”
In an early test for their young coach, Merriweather’s Oilers face off tonight at 7 p.m. against the rival Kennedy High Eagles. Merriweather, who replaced Jeff Tyner in 2010, knows he has his work cut out for him. Richmond High School has seen its fair share of ups and downs over the years, and the same can be said about the football team. The Oilers finished 3-6 last year, leaving room for improvement.
Merriweather, 26, grew up in Central Richmond and began playing football when he was eight years old for the Richmond Eagles in Pop Warner Little Scholars League. “I remember at first I didn’t want to play and I complained about it being tough, and my Dad sat me down and told me to stick with it,” Merriweather said. “After that, it got to the point where I would be upset if I couldn’t play football.”
A 2003 honor graduate of Richmond High School, Merriweather excelled at both football and basketball and received the All-Alameda Contra Costa Athletics League Outstanding Student-Athlete Medal. His senior year, Merriweather had 21 tackles, five sacks, and a fumble recovery at defensive tackle, gaudy stats that helped him walk on to the football team at Arizona State University the following year.
Although he didn’t play much at ASU, Merriweather was learning lessons – about football and about life — that he’d later bring home with him. “Some of the lessons I learned about becoming a man came from my coaches in college,” he said. “In college, they taught me the value of discipline, focus, and accountability.”
He paused, laughed, and added, “Getting up for practice at 5:45 a.m. every morning probably had an effect on me too.”
After five years on the Arizona State team, Merriweather took a job as an assistant coach at Brophy College Preparatory School in Phoenix, where the team had won the Class 5A championship the previous year. It seemed like Merriweathers’ passion for coaching would be satisfied there, but when his father became ill back in Richmond, Merriweather decided to make the tough decision to move home and help take care of his family. It wasn’t until he heard a message during a sermon at church that Merriweather decided to return to Richmond High School.
“I remember one Sunday that the preacher at my church was talking about how we are all given talents and I realized this is where my talent is,” he said. “It was a sign for me to come back and help my old high school.”
He soon joined then-head coach Jeff Tyner on the field to assist the team as a defensive coordinator in 2009. While he was able to relate to many of the players, Merriweather saw the value of taking a father figure role to help them grow up. Here, he remembered how he’d responded to his coaches in college, and decided he wanted the young athletes he was working with to understand that lesson, too.
“I thought the coaches were being hard on me until I realized that were pushing me to make me better,” Merriweather said. “My last coach Ryan Blackmon was a perfectionist when it came to technique, which what I try to incorporate into our practice sessions.”
That perfectionism is clearly enforced on the practice field. Merriweather blows his whistle, gathers his team and yells “From the moment you all step onto this field to the referee blows the final whistle, you have to hustle. There is no time to for walking or taking it easy!”
The team immediately springs into action, lining up on the goal line to practice passing drills. At 6’5”, 285 lbs., Merriweather towers over players and coaches alike as he explains the finer points of anticipating the pass to his offensive line. “You guys have all the skills you need to make this happen,” he tells them. “It’s just a matter of knowing when to utilize them.”
While Merriweather teaches them those skills, he doesn’t skip physical work. For the Richmond players, conditioning training starts before school at 6:30 a.m. After school it’s on the practice field at 4 p.m. and off in time for dinner at 6:30 p.m.
“This year, we want to see an improvement in the attitude and work ethic for this team overall,” said defensive coach Marlyn Johnson Jr., also a former Oiler. “Tashaka is pushing them towards that goal.”
Merriweather says it’s not just an on-the-field change that’s necessary. The answer, he feels, lies in the ability to inspire the city around him. “Parent participation is critical to our success in the community,” he said. “I don’t need an army, but getting a couple of parents together to assist in our fund-raising events and games would go a long way.”
Whether Merriweathers’ influence and methods will be enough to turn the tide for a team that hasn’t seen a winning season since the mid-1990s remains to be seen. This season has started with two narrow losses, and Merriweather seems determined to correct the past mistakes and move on in a positive direction.
“Our goal is to make the playoffs and I know that we are that kind of team,” Merriweather said. “We have a beautiful stadium, so let’s fill it up!”
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