Their Beat Is The Sideline

Cops who coach get to team up with area youths

November 01, 2006|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Reporter

Each afternoon, Mike Weller leaves work and drives to South River High, putting behind him a life of crime. Sixteen years a cop, Weller moonlights as a varsity football coach at the Anne Arundel County school.

One job tests his fortitude. The other buoys his spirit.

"For three hours I can turn off my cell phone, join the kids on the field and put everything in perspective," said Weller, 38, a hostage negotiator and training instructor for the Prince George's County Police Department.

"I see a lot of bad things [on the streets] and I want to impact these kids' lives from the get-go, as well as validate in my own mind that there are wholesome people in this world," he said.

Weller is not alone. Police officers from a number of metro jurisdictions swap their police whistles for football whistles at the end of their shifts.

Jeff Boller works as both a beat cop in Essex and a line coach at Perry Hall High. Kevin Burnett, commander of Howard County's Southern District, doubles as defensive coordinator at Long Reach High.

By night, Scott Ripley patrols the city's Southeastern District; by day, he watches over linebackers and safeties at Loyola High.

"I've seen kids get shot, murdered," Ripley, 37, said. "I've responded to shootings and heard kids in the crowd [at the scene] shouting, `Hey Coach!' "

The words - coming either from players he has coached or coached against - send a chill down his spine.

"Seeing those kids who have to live in a violent environment every day breaks your heart," Ripley said. "A lot of good kids use [after-school] sports to escape that environment, and a lot of officers think we can make a difference in their lives."

They are building trust along with game plans. Perry Hall players gave a cool reception to Boller this fall, his first as a Gators aide. They'd heard he was coming, a cop in coach's clothing.

"That first day, they didn't clap when I was introduced," Boller, 48, said. "Their guard was up, and I don't blame them. They had to see that I'm human, that I can laugh and joke."

And now?

"Now I'm OK," Boller said. "Now I go to practice and they shake my hand and ask me stuff like, `Hey Coach, did anything interesting happen at work today?' or `If I happened to run a stop sign, how many points would I get?' "

Youths who otherwise wouldn't connect with him will do so in the locker room, said Burnett, the Howard County police captain.

"Coaching helps me to mentor these kids without our relationship being adversarial," he said. "Typically, when a police car pulls into a gas station and finds 10 kids gathered there, they'll disperse. But if I pull into the Exxon in Long Reach, three or four of those kids might say, `Hey, Coach, how are you doing?' "

"Then I'll ask, `Why are you guys hanging out here?' "

Having a cop on staff provides the consummate role model, said Long Reach head coach Pete Hughes. But Burnett's clout doesn't end there.

"Before big games, he'll fire up the kids by quoting the law as it relates to defending your property by using any force necessary," Hughes said. "That really gets them going."

Setting them straight

Players respect Burnett both on and off the field, said Diop Wallace, an All-County tackle at Long Reach.

"At first you think, `A police captain as a coach? Now I can't do this, I can't do that,' " Wallace, 17, said. "But he's just like one of us - and he sets an example of what a man should be."

Burnett, 47, has developed such a rapport with his crew that players feel comfortable enough to tell him when a teammate is hanging with the wrong crowd.

"We [coaches] will talk to the kid and try to reel him in," the coach said.

It doesn't always work. Burnett recalls a talented All-County running back at Long Reach who was arrested seven years ago on drug charges and expelled.

"Do I feel like I failed? Absolutely," Burnett said. "The kid had boxes of [scholarship] offers. But I'm told that he recovered and just graduated from college."

Policemen who coach say that football affords them the chance to teach their charges about character, responsibility and respect - principles that would likely not be heeded if addressed by a cop.

"As coach, I can instill a moral philosophy in these kids by going through two-a-days with them, by sweating alongside them," said Bill Tyler, the line coach at Francis Scott Key in Carroll County. That makes more sense, he said, than trying to lecture them in his job as Taneytown's chief of police.

"For some reason, kids are intimidated by police officers," Tyler, 43, said. "Maybe we issued a traffic citation to their parents. Maybe we arrested someone in their neighborhood.

"Every summer, at fire company carnivals, I see parents point to me and tell their kids, `If you don't behave, I'm gonna tell him to lock you up.' "

It's a mind-set Tyler combats each time he steps onto the field.

"I'm giving a face to the police department," he said. "And if I have a face, kids are more likely to come to me with problems, in or out of school."

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