Teachers of football players who were failing or misbehaving used to ask Fairfax High School Coach Denis Furlong for help. "I'd have to tell the kids, 'Be good in biology or you can't play,' " Furlong said.
This year, perhaps 20 Fairfax teachers have run a reverse play and sought Furlong out to compliment his players' performance in class. The difference is that Furlong now runs a study hall in the school library every night after practice.
As a result, only five of 35 players were declared ineligible when 10-week grade reports went in last month. "Last year we won five games, lost three and tied one, so we didn't qualify for the playoffs. Had we qualified, we would have lost two-thirds of our team because of bad grades. We would have been hard pressed even to field a team for the playoffs, and we certainly wouldn't have beaten anybody," Furlong said.
With the study halls helping to keep more players in uniform, Fairfax this year has won 11 games without a loss and tonight at 8 p.m. it will play Chatsworth High School for the city 3-A championship at East Los Angeles Community College.
Furlong and assistant coach Dave Higuchi say they began the study halls partly because of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education requirement (instituted in January 1983) that student must have a C average with no failing grades to participate in extracurricular activities.
But both Furlong and Higuchi are math teachers and after their scrupulous disclaimers, suspiciously academic-sounding statements tend to crop up in their conversation.
"We wanted to teach kids what a library is all about, that it's comfortable, and they can read there," Furlong said.
"The days of going to college on your ability to throw and catch a football are gone," Higuchi said. "Tenth-grade kids don't see any relation between football, college and grades. By 11th grade their GPA is so bad colleges won't look at them. They get serious in 12th grade--but then it's too late."
"As Harry Edwards said, 'You're more likely to be hit by a falling star than become a superstar,' " Furlong added.
"The thanks for our program won't come now, if it ever comes it'll be in five years when some kid calls us up and says, 'Hey, you were the first guy who made me sit with a history book and read this stuff,' " Furlong said.
A wet and windy afternoon finds the Fairfax Lions in white practice suits and gold helmets clapping and roaring on the field, with Furlong and Higuchi shouting, "Let's go, gentlemen!" as they run around the track. But at 5:30 p.m., after showers, 25 players are bent over history and algebra books. The only sounds in the calmed library are scratching pencils, an occasional wave of deep-throated giggles and whispered conversations as the coaches tutor and the players help each other with homework.
Mercifully absent in the library is bagging, the teen-age art of communicating uniquely through scathing derogatory repartee.
Instead, the study hall "keeps us together," said first-string guard David Kushan, 16, looking up from an American history book one night. "It's made us get better grades because of teasing each other about them."
The study halls protect the players from distractions of television, telephone calls or noisy brothers and sisters. "If I go home right after practice I probably wouldn't do my homework, I'd watch TV, get on the phone or something," said Scott Hamilton, a senior whose GPA rose to 3.0 this year. "Plus with football practice, I'd eat, and probably fall asleep."
History and humanities teacher Catherine Head noted that the players she teaches seem "more conscientious . . . more serious." When players get below a C on any paper, Head sends it for a signature not only home but also to Coach Furlong. "It's not fear when they need Coach Furlong to sign, it's 'Oh God'--they know he'll know they just didn't study. They respect him and know they must be accountable."
Aided Social Ties
And bringing the team in to do homework together for an hour has enhanced its social cohesion.
At last count, Fairfax had, according to Principal Warren Steinberg, students from 51 countries speaking 30 different native languages. Friendship groups along nationality lines are not uncommon. The team's kicker, Luis Calderon, came to the United States from Guatemala when he was 5 years old, and is the only Latino player on the team.
One night, Furlong said, Calderon got up to practice on a library typewriter. As the tempo rose beyond hunt and peck, "the whole room reacted. . . . There was a little bit of giggling, then an 'oh wow' sense went through the room," remembered the coach. Now Calderon helps other players with their Spanish and they help him with algebra and history.