The long game: Tutoring program helps Richmond players prepare for life after football
on October 27, 2014
It’s Wednesday, but the Richmond High School football team can’t seem to get over the hump.
Their coach wants a team GPA of 3.0. But with mid-term report cards coming out next week, it’s hovering at 2.51, and 14 players have Fs.
Half the team’s 20 players sit in a trailer-turned-classroom at the back of the campus parking lot. A squat man with a bald, brown head sits behind a large desk, staring at them. The players stare back from their desks.
“Where are you now, compared to kids in my zip code?” says the man, a tutor named Robert McGruder. “My zip code is in Sacramento.”
“We are not doing nothing,” one player ventures.
McGruder thrusts his palm out.
“STOP,” he says. “Avoid double-negatives.”
“Not doing anything.”
The room falls silent.McGruder, dressed in a spartan gray button-down and a white undershirt, stands and walks over to a whiteboard at the front of the classroom. Fixing his eyes on senior captain Eric Silva, the player who answered, he asks what he did on Saturday.
Silva says he took an SAT practice test, then read his SAT prep book. How will the SAT book help? McGruder asks.
“It’s ’posed to help me elim-”
“It’s supposed to help me eliminate the incorrect answers.”
Did Silva read the section of the book explaining “how to eliminate one out of three?” After a moment, the answer comes: “No, I didn’t read that section.”
“Okay guys, The Man gives you the rules and gives you the game, and tells you how to beat the game,” he says, vaguely.
He moves on.
“How many of you have e-mailed me?”
The players assemble here every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon for an hour and a half of tutoring, with a strongly encouraged option to attend voluntary Saturday morning sessions. The night before games, on Thursdays, the players gather for a team meal a few blocks away at the Living Hope Neighborhood Church. When the plates are empty, they stand up one by one before their teammates and say what they plan to do during the game the next night.
It’s all part of an extensive off-field program established in recent years by the team’s coach, Tashaka Merriweather, who realized shortly after taking over the head job in 2011 that something had to be done when he kept losing players to poor grades. (Any player with a GPA less than 2.0 cannot participate in high school athletics.)
“He’s helping the football team feel like a family, which is really important,” Richmond High School Principal José De León said. “The key is the work they’re doing in academics, having a cohesive team, and having a family feeling. It’s part of building a team that has not had that support before. If you don’t have those supports in place—the tutoring, the mentoring—then you lose your team.”
After tutoring the players himself for two years, Merriweather gained an ally this spring when he met McGruder, a retired Korean War veteran whose passion is SAT tutoring.
The two struck a deal: Starting in the summer, McGruder would drive to Richmond from his home outside Sacramento, three days a week, and tutor Merriweather’s players for free. Merriweather would give McGruder access to his players before weightlifting and practice, before they were tired.
Although one purpose of the study hall sessions is to keep the players’ grades high enough for football, Merriweather prefers to call them “life skills” training. That’s because the players practice speaking, SAT prep, tutoring and time management. It’s all done in McGruder’s preferred method—like a free-wheeling drill sergeant, constantly peppering the players, needling them to correct their grammar, draw up study schedules and memorize vocabulary. He insists they communicate with him outside of class through email, to get used to using it.
In addition to basic life training, the coach and the tutor constantly remind the players they are competing not against students in their school or in their city. The true opponents, and measuring sticks, are students in places like where McGruder lives, where average SAT scores are 300 points higher.
It’s the kind of support—and perspective—Merriweather himself never had. A former Richmond High star, he graduated with a 3.7 GPA. But after a stop in junior college, Merriweather arrived at Arizona State University on a football scholarship to discover that the grades were a mirage. He struggled in the most basic English and math courses the university had to offer.
“I said ‘Wow, what injustice. What happened to me?’” the coach says.“I was under the assumption I was ready. And I was wrong.”
That experience, as much as anything, is the reason for the off-field tutoring and mentoring program.
“So I’m thinking now, if I’m not doing it, and [McGruder is] not doing it, where are they going to get it?”
Merriweather, who arrived midway through today’s session, pitches in during tutoring as a sort of bad cop to McGruder’s bad cop. At 6’4”, he towers over his largest players. And right now, he’s angry.
“What is the plan?” he asks the players. “I am a football coach, and my plan is to coach you to be great in football and life. And Mr. McGruder, it’s academics, and his plan is to coach you academically.”
Merriweather zeroes in on a player who currently has an F in a reading class. The player says the teacher told him if he does not keep a log of his daily reading, he would not pass the class. McGruder, leaning casually on a desktop now, asks what the player did the night before. A tense confrontation follows.
“I did my homework for my math class.”
“Why didn’t you do a reading log?”
“Because that was the reading log for last week.”
“So when are you expected to read?”
“I didn’t hear you.”
“Say it loud.”
The player’s eyebrows furrow, and his face grows red. His teammates are looking at him.
“I didn’t hear you, say it loud.”
“I am supposed to read every day. Imitate me.”
“I am supposed to read every day.”
“Say it again,” McGruder demands, pushing the confrontation to its limit.
“I AM SUPPOSED TO READ EVERY DAY.”
“Ok,” McGruder says, finally relenting. He shuffles back to his desk and sits down.
Senior captain Eric Silva says he understands why the tutoring sessions are hard. Even though he admits McGruder’s forcefulness sometimes angers him and other players, he feels it has helped him improve.
““My sophomore year, when I joined JV football, I learned that I had to have a 2.5 [GPA],” he says. “And I was like, ‘Man, how am I going to keep that up?’”
Silva grew up with an absent father. Football, he says, became a release for the anger he felt at having to learn everything for himself. The tutoring has aided that process in the classroom.
“I never really studied on my own a lot, by myself, and whatnot,” Silva said. “I’m doing it on my own now, with no one telling me what to do. But, I just gotta think about it, write my schedule, my classes, and just keep studying and working hard.”
Robert McGruder speaks Spanish and Korean. He spent 34 years working at AT&T. But his greatest source of pride he carries around in a pink picture frame. In it is a photo of two young men and a young woman — his three children. Between them they attended six schools — including Harvard, Northwestern and Berkeley — and only one required financial aid. All of it was due to their high scores on the SAT.
“That’s what I’m trying to give these guys,” he says.
McGruder knows the importance of the SAT vocabulary words, knows the amazing things the players could achieve by memorizing them if he can only stay on them hard enough. He needs only to point to the example of his own children.
The Man gives you the rules and gives you the game, and tells you how to beat the game.
And so today he is particularly disappointed. Since the summer began, he has taught the players 30 vocabulary words that will be on the SAT test, but most can only remember one or two. He chastises them, peppering several players for definitions to words such as “loquacious” and “ethos” and “pathos,” before sending them to a dictionary to find the meaning.
But it’s a delicate dance. There’s a thin line between tough love and making the players feel inadequate. While McGruder takes the players to task for forgetting the vocabulary, one of the targets of his ire, a soft-spoken freshman named Kyree Hall can’t help but look bothered.
Later, when asked about the tutoring session in private, Hall says the way Magruder asks his questions sometimes bothers him.
“I mean, sometimes I feel like he’s wanting to put us down,” he says, hesitantly. “Sometimes I feel like he wants to embarrass us, asking us definitions of words we don’t know.”
Towards the end of the study session, McGruder is drilling a player about what he read over the weekend when senior quarterback Jonathan De La Cruz walks in.
McGruder turns his attention to De La Cruz, and asks him the same question. “I’m gonna bet the farm on you,” he says in a theatrical warning. “I’m bettin’ the farm on you.”
De La Cruz studied for his psychology test, he says, which will cover REM sleep. Asked by McGruder to explain REM sleep, De La Cruz explains that it is the last of five stages of sleep. In clear, measured tones, he talks through each one, pausing only occasionally to gather his thoughts.
A smile breaks out on McGruder’s face.
“I’m proud of you,” he says. “You never said ‘Aw.’
“The only thing is, when you have this pregnant pause, you have to say, ‘Allow me to gather my thoughts.’”
As De La Cruz starts to walk to his seat, Coach Merriweather speaks up.
“One more thing. What’s your plan?”
As in his previous answer, De La Cruz speaks clearly.
“After high school, I want to go to college and major in business management,” he says. “After college I want to open my own business.”
“Good,” the coach says. “That man has a plan. That makes me sleep at night. That’s one man down.”
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