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VARSITY TIMES

For these players, it's academic

Program assigns study coaches at three local high schools, using better chance at football opportunities as the incentive.

September 19, 2007|Lauren Peterson | Times Staff Writer

Kyle Byrdsong and Marcus Falanai sat at separate tables near the front of the Long Beach Poly football team's film room, each hunched over a textbook and doing his best to decipher the intricacies of algebra.

At another table, near two large and noisy fans that stood opposite a wall with the words "Study, Work and Play Like a Champion" painted on it, Daveon Akinsanya and Garry Phillips were punching numbers into calculators as they pored over a physics assignment.

"I use this period to finish all the hard work. It's like my safety net," Phillips said. "You're going to have to do all this in college, anyway, so you might as well get used to it right now."

Poly, Westchester and Los Angeles Crenshaw football players are learning the lesson first-hand as their schools are among 142 nationwide, and the only ones in the Southland, that participate in Play It Smart, a youth-development and mentoring program sponsored and administered by the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame. The nonprofit program began in 1998 with four schools.

Players' attendance at the 50-minute tutorial session, held daily except Friday, which is game day, is all part of working toward a 3.0 grade-point average before lining up in a three-point stance.

"You use football as the carrot," said Monica Kim, the Jackrabbits' academic coach. "We kind of bank on that carrot, and academically, they know what's at stake."

The Jackrabbits have excelled in football, winning 16 Southern Section titles and 26 league championships since 1980. With the support of Coach Raul Lara, Kim has similarly lofty goals for the classroom.

She requires attendance at the study sessions by all of the school's approximately 200 football players, has implemented biweekly grade checks and uses incentives as motivation.

"She's more strict than our football coaches," said Falanai, a senior tackle working to raise a 2.6 GPA in hopes of earning a college scholarship.

"She has days where she comes and checks up on us in classes. We show up, and she comes through the door like, 'OK, I just want to make sure you're here.' It's kind of annoying, but she does it for our own benefit. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't even be thinking about college right now."

Play It Smart, funded in part by the NFL Players Assn., raises $3 million to $4 million a year to help train and employ academic coaches, like Kim, specifically to help football players.

Any school may apply for the program, but because money is limited to what can be raised each year, approval by the NFF depends upon the degree of impact the program will probably make at a school.

Aimed primarily at schools in the inner-city -- 83% of Play It Smart participants are ethnic minorities -- or with particular academic needs, Play It Smart costs $25,000 to $30,000 a year per school. About $15,000 goes to paying the academic coach, with much of the rest used for training that coach and providing a computerized tracking system to file progress reports to the NFF.

Some NFL teams reward Play It Smart participants with postseason trophies or by inviting them to games, training camps or draft-day festivities.

At the school level, however, rewards are more modest.

After a recent Poly practice, Kim handed out black football-shaped helmet stickers, much like the white ones players receive for solo tackles, sacks and interceptions.

A school's funding for Play It Smart is generally approved by the NFF for two years at a time, with the understanding that participants will eventually begin funding their own programs.

"The whole idea is to teach the schools to fish," said Steve Hatchell, president and chief executive officer of the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame.

According to the NFF, 95% of Play It Smart participants graduate from high school, compared to 85% of athletes not in the program, and 80% of its seniors enroll in either two- or four-year colleges, compared to 62% of their peers.

Currently, six California schools participate in the program. Poly began in 2003 and Crenshaw and Westchester this year.

There are 188 alumni of Play It Smart currently competing at NCAA Division I schools, including four former Poly players at USC, along with one, wide receiver Terrence Austin, at UCLA. There are five former program participants from various high schools playing at California, including former Poly standout DeSean Jackson.

Lara attended a Play It Smart national conference in summer of 2002 and after speaking with Gene Washington, a Poly alumnus and former NFL player who is now the league's director of football operations and a member of the NFF board of directors, was convinced his players could benefit.

Kim plans and supervises players' visits to elementary schools, hospitals and soup kitchens to help them fulfill the school's community-service requirement for graduation. She also makes herself available for four hours each Saturday during the season to work with players on college-entrance test preparation or classwork.

"We're all looking forward to having a great season, with great academics and great play on the field," Poly senior free safety Vaughn Telemaque said. "We want an A-plus."

That sounds good to both coaches.

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lauren.peterson@latimes.com

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