It's a study in progress

High schools: The Forest Park football players didn't immediately respond to academic coach Greg Ford, but they've learned to get with the program.

High Schools

December 02, 2003|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

The Forest Park football team was cool toward its academic coach, until he went the extra mile. Or 400.

Ever since Greg Ford volunteered last year to drive a player to a funeral in Delaware and then to the team's game in West Virginia, the Foresters have followed his lead. They attend study halls and inquire about college. They behave, in class and out, and resist the fad of wearing knee-length T-shirts.

Since Ford's arrival in September 2002, the team's combined grade point average has jumped nearly half a point, from a 1.8 (D-plus) to a more respectable 2.2 (C-minus). This fall, four of last year's seniors started college from a team that usually sends one. Of 32 players, 18 are taking the SAT, six more than last year.

"I've seen a real change in the way these students relate to others, with dignity and respect," said Loretta Breese, school principal. "They have something about them that's different. These are Greg's young men."

The makeover at Forest Park mirrors that of 87 other varsity football teams in a national program at inner-city schools. Created in 1998 by the National Football Foundation, Play It Smart assigns each school an academic coach to counsel low-achieving youths who might otherwise be headed nowhere.

Baltimore's other participant, Patterson High, began the venture in 2000 and has since sent 83 percent of its football alumni to college - nearly double the rate of its graduates overall.

To start the program at Forest Park, the foundation tapped Ford, 34, a slender, soft-spoken social worker from Washington who would go to the ends of the earth - or Ridgeley, W.Va. - to gain players' confidence.

"We all thought [Ford] was here just to get paid and to go through the motions," said cornerback Joe Gordon, who graduated in June. "If you're not in the Forest Park family, we don't trust you too much.

"But at a team meeting last year, when he stood up and said he'd take Deshaun [McCorkle] to his grandfather's funeral in Delaware and from there to our game, we knew he cared - and we all clapped it up."

Altruism wasn't his motive, Ford said. He used that travel time - nearly six hours - to prove his commitment.

From spy to mentor

"When I started this job, there was resistance. To these kids, I was another pair of eyes sent to spy on them," Ford said.

Those concerns disappeared after he delivered the starting cornerback. Throughout the game, played in a driving rain, the Foresters observed Ford on the sideline, his suit drenched.

"That sold us on his program," recalled lineman Tamal Brown, now a freshman at Morgan State. "The week after that game, there were a lot more players in Mr. Ford's SAT [preparatory] class."

Brown participated, after much cajoling. "I didn't really want to go to college, but he [Ford] kept at me," the 288-pound tackle said.

Nor did he want to take the test more than once. Prodded, he eventually raised his score by 150 points - enough, with his grades, to earn admission to Morgan State with a partial athletic scholarship.

"You try to empower them," Ford said. "A lot of these kids have such low self-esteem. They lack a belief system. We try to change that."

Ford builds pride with carrot-and-stick incentives. Mondays, players must turn in progress reports, signed by teachers. Those with stellar work during the past week get a free lunch, courtesy of a nearby McDonald's. Ford takes their orders, drives a mile to the golden arches and returns with a carload of burgers, fries and drinks.

"It's OK to play sports, but it's good to have a brain, too," said Adrian Stokes, who runs that fast-food restaurant nearby on Liberty Road.

Wrangling rewards

It's one of several alliances between Ford and area merchants. High-achieving athletes may receive a dozen roses from a florist (for a loved one) or a dozen hard crabs from a market.

Jeff McCann, Ford's regional boss at Play It Smart, calls the Forest Park coach "one of our most innovative people when it comes to creating business partnerships." In September, the National Football Foundation named him its Academic Coach of the Month.

A package goods store provides ice for the Foresters' games. The first three establishments Ford entered had refused. "Do you know how hard it is to try and sell your program [while talking] through a sheet of bulletproof glass?" Ford said.

The project has its skeptics. The owner of a barbershop bristled at the notion of free haircuts for players as an academic perk.

"`I don't want your kids in my shop,'" he told Ford. "`In fact, I'll give you money to keep them out of here.'"

Replied Ford: "Just let me drop by ... and give you their progress reports. It's important that you not stereotype all the kids around here."

Helping hands

Performing community service is a given. Routinely, players unload groceries at a senior center, gather trash outside the school and shovel snow for the elderly. A recent Red Cross blood drive drew 20 donors from the football team.

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