Above and Beyond Football

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    Photos: Ronniell Garcia
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    Photos: Ronniell Garcia
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    Photos: Ronniell Garcia
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    Photos: Ronniell Garcia
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    Photos: Ronniell Garcia
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    Photos: Ronniell Garcia

By Bruce Newman

“What we’re doing at Robert Sanders is a really special thing. It’s not only powerful for those little kids, it’s powerful for our players too.” —Tobruk Blaine

After taking over at San Jose State in late 2016, Football Head Coach Brent Brennan sought to instill in his players a sense of responsibility to give back, creating a program called Beyond Football with its gaze focused distinctly outward.

And upward. After three years of remarkable community outreach—elevating the lives of boys identified as “at risk” as early as the third and fourth grades—you could call it Above and Beyond Football.

Since 2017, Beyond Football players have served as mentors to a group of 15 boys at Robert Sanders Elementary School, chosen specifically for the problems they faced at home, and often brought with them to the classroom. At the start of last spring’s session, the school’s principal, Julie Howard, ’97 Communication Studies, confided to one of the football players that she had a child who desperately needed a positive male role model.

“He needs it because he has spent the past four years watching his dad abuse his mom,” she said. “And he almost lost his mom twice to domestic violence. Now they’re under protective orders and dad’s in custody. And the player looked right at me and said, ‘Ms. Howard, that was me, too.’”

“What we’re doing at Robert Sanders is a really special thing,” says Tobruk Blaine, who was hired by Brennan to build San Jose State’s Beyond Football program from the ground up. “It’s not only powerful for those little kids, it’s powerful for our players too.” The respect flowed so strongly in both directions that Blaine and Howard frequently were left stunned. “She and I would look at each other at the end of each session,” Howard says, “and think, ‘We don’t know who’s benefiting more right now.’”

Before taking the head job at San Jose State, Brennan helped implement a less ambitious version of Beyond Football as an assistant coach at Oregon State. But having grown up in the Bay Area, he recognized the power of Silicon Valley to amplify the program’s impact. “So the challenge was, how were we going to engage the city of San Jose in a meaningful way,” Brennan says, “and at the same time get our young men to think about somebody besides themselves?”

Initially, the plan was to promote physical activity and sportsmanship on the playground at local elementary schools. But the Spartan players quickly developed a connection to the kids that was far richer and more resonant.

“I think many of our players come from similar situations,” Blaine says. “Some of them were raised by guardians or grandparents. They have family members who were in and out of prison, or are deceased.” And a lot of the newly minted mentors were themselves first-generation college students, from families that had little—and no reason—to “give back.”

That didn’t stop Tysyn Parker, a junior linebacker, from diving into every volunteer opportunity Beyond Football offered him. “I lost my mom when I was three, so I know what it feels like to grow up in a single-parent home,” says Parker, ’20 Justice Studies, who was raised by his aunt. “You don’t have the support like other kids have, and it eats away at you because you want to have a mom, you want to have a dad. Sometimes life doesn’t reward you with that. But you’ve got to take whatever you have and keep going. Your circumstances shouldn’t define who you are. “

Photo: Ronniell Garcia

Nestled against the eastern foothills of San Jose, Robert Sanders Elementary serves free and reduced-cost lunches to nearly 90 percent of its students, and Howard says it’s not uncommon to have four or five families in her district crowded into a three-bedroom house. “So many of our students are living in the now because mom is working three jobs,” says Howard, who is in her ninth year as the school’s principal. “There isn’t a lot of discussion about their future, and what their opportunities could be. So my goal is to bring opportunities to them.”

The only football teams most of the kids know are the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders; when the San Jose State players arrived at Robert Sanders for the first time, not a single child had seen one of the Spartans’ games. The hero worship that kids showered on the players was just for showing up.

“I have a student who is a foster child, so things were always very unstable in his life,” Howard says. “He was moving from foster care back to his mom, foster care back to his dad. It was all happening during this program. This was a little boy who was in my office for fighting, hitting, being disrespectful to teachers. But he knew he could count on his mentor. He was so excited, he would wait all week for him. That was the stability he needed during that time. And now he’s one of the best-behaved students in the classroom.”

When Tre Jenkins, ’23 Forensic Science, a redshirt freshman safety, met the third grader he was assigned to mentor last spring, the boy was too shy to speak. “It was hard trying to connect with him at first,” Jenkins recalls. “But after the first or second day, he was like my little brother. I helped him with his homework, showed him how to manage his time and played games with him.”

After the players were given permission to continue contacting their young charges, Jenkins began receiving text messages from the boy he now calls “my little brother.” He wanted to play the video game Fortnite. “It’s a really strong bond,” Jenkins says. “I like how it betters you not only as a football player, but as a human being.”

In short order, Beyond Football picked up funding from two unexpected sources: Ellen DeGeneres saw the viral video of assistant coach Alonzo Carter doing his MC Hammer dance steps on the sidelines of the Spartans’ practice field, and was so impressed she donated $25,000 to the program during a live video chat on “The Ellen Show.” The mentoring program took another quantum leap when Blaine secured a grant from the Bill Belichick Foundation. With that money, she was able to organize a visit to San Jose State’s spring football game at CEFCU Stadium.

A bus was dispatched to Robert Sanders Elementary to pick up the kids in the mentoring program and their families. After the game, the boys were invited onto the field to spend time with the players and their families. “The piece that was missing was getting the students into the players’ life,” Howard says. “They kept coming here, but it was important to see them in their world.”

That world has expanded as the players learned to look beyond football. “The biggest responsibility we have as football coaches is to teach these young men how to get ready for life,” Brennan says, “and how to contribute in a positive way. So much of that gets lost with the focus on wins and losses.”

At Robert Sanders, the principal rarely gets visited anymore in her office by the boys who were so notorious as third graders she referred to them as “the high flyers.” Once considered beyond help, now they are Beyond Football. “They’re part of a team,” Howard says. “They were selected because we believe in them, and we want them to have every opportunity that every other child has. They are special, and they are loved.”

 

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