Archdeacon: Area high school football coaches, players tackle a bigger issue

Springfield's Anthony Brown makes a catch against St. Xavier's Alex Kemper in a Division I state semifinal on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, at Alexander Stadium in Piqua. David Jablonski/Staff
Springfield's Anthony Brown makes a catch against St. Xavier's Alex Kemper in a Division I state semifinal on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, at Alexander Stadium in Piqua. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

Jim Place won’t forget the phone call.

“The day after George Floyd was killed, my wife Joanie and I were driving back from Memphis, and I got a call from Al Powell, and he was in tears,” Place said.

“He said, ‘Jim, we’ve got problems in our country, and we’ve got to do something. Let’s try to use football to unify people and bring our community together in a positive way, rather than just watching people tear each other apart.’”

Place was so moved that all he could say, at first, was “Al, I wish I would have called you.”

ExploreLISTEN: Beavercreek mother, daughter on how race should be taught in schools

The 73-year-old Place is white. Powell, who’s 63, is Black. They’re both longtime area football coaches, but more than that they are pillars of the community. Not just the sports community, but the whole community.

What they have come up with – with the help of many high school football coaches throughout the Miami Valley – is something that’s unparalleled in the tri-state area, if not nationally.

Powell said he’s been told that by a few people, including Larry Lee, the former Dayton Roosevelt star who spent 17 years in the NFL as a player and administrator and now is one of the directors of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the non-profit organization that monitors minority hiring and other issues in the NFL.

Lee spoke at the initial unifying effort promoted by Place and Powell, a webinar in January in which 156 area high school coaches took part to discuss social justice, their coaching and their teams.

ExploreLISTEN: 6 local protesters on achieving racial equity

Place said one of the most compelling things said in that session came from Roosevelt Mukes, the Wayne High School head coach:

“He said, ‘We’ve got to get around people we’re not used to being around and talk and have those uncomfortable conversations.’

“Our belief is that contact brings acceptance.”

Jim Place was Middletown’s head football coach from 1986-90. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Jim Place was Middletown’s head football coach from 1986-90. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

That’s been the catalyst for the second installment of their social justice initiative, which takes place today at Welcome Stadium and at Wayne High School.

It’s the Miami Valley Coaches Association “Coaches for Social Justice 7 on 7,” a jamboree of sorts that will involve teams from 28 high schools, including several of the prominent football programs in the Dayton area, as well as schools like defending Division I state champion St. Xavier from Cincinnati, Detroit Southeastern and Lima Senior and also rural schools like Tri-Village and Arcanum.

Some teams have all black players. Some are all white. Some squads are mixed.

Place said several other schools – including Massillon -- have indicated they want to take part next year.

Today, the participating schools will be divided into racially-diverse, four-team pods and will play 7 on 7 football for two hours.

For example, the 2 p.m. grouping at Welcome Stadium features Meadowdale, Tri-Village, Kenton Ridge and Northwestern. At Wayne at 4 p.m., Fairborn joins Lima Senior, Arcanum and Cincinnati Withrow. Meanwhile, in the same time slot at Welcome, Springfield, Dunbar, St. X and Detroit Southeastern square off.

“When you consider the teams that are here and the fact that it’s all free – when schools usually have to pay a couple of hundred dollars to be in a 7 on 7 scrimmage – I think this is going to become the premier event of its kind in southwest Ohio,” Place said.

ExploreHow Dayton area schools teach about race, or not

And that’s not counting the social justice component afterward.

Each football session today will be followed by a 45-minute discussion that will include opening comments by either Place, Powell or Michal Carter, the former coach and current Chief Diversity Officer at Sinclair. Team captains from each program will introduce their school and then, hopefully there’ll be, some insightful conversations.

In the evening, former college and NFL players of note, guys like Keith Byars and Chris Borland, will take part in a celebrity competition that will also include local police officers and prosecutors.

There’ll be free t-shirts and Chick-fil-A is providing food. The referees are donating their time and Kettering Sports Medicine is overseeing any treatment needs that may arise.

A few former players (especially Borland) and people in the community, as well as the Fritz Pollard Alliance, have given donations to help underwrite the costs.

ExploreDayton Daily News podcast explores racism as a public health crisis

At the end of the day, Powell and Place hope the players go home with more than just dried sweat on their face and arms, some new swag and a full stomach:

“We’re hoping by bringing together diverse teams, there’s a chance to meet someone and perhaps exchange some thoughts with someone who’s from a different area than your own,” Powell said. “Maybe they’ll even have a chance to get someone’s name and even a phone number. It’s all about expanding your horizon, expanding your village.”

‘People want to come together’

Place and Powell have a pretty good read on people. Both see life beyond the lined rectangle of the football field.

A University of Dayton football standout in the late 1960s, Place has spent the past 51 years as an educator, administrator and Ohio hall of fame football coach in the Dayton and Cincinnati areas. He has spoken to hundreds of high schools, colleges and civic groups and for a decade has taught character classes to other teachers at UD.

Powell, like his twin brother Alfred, is a respected longtime coach, a mentor of area youth and a community leader. He’s currently an advisor to the superintendent of the Lima city schools. The past few days he’s been on another public speaking jaunt, this time to Mississippi speaking at the Jackson campus of Hinds Community College and at Delta State.

“One thing Al and I believe: people want to come together,” Place said. “We find it over and over again. People want to do the right thing, But they say, ‘Tell me how. I just don’t know how.’”

Dunbar coaches Albert and Alfred Powell
Dunbar coaches Albert and Alfred Powell

Today’s Social Justice 7 of 7 is just one of a few things the pair – with the help of other coaches – has in mind. And Powell thinks the student athletes will respond:

“We have great kids and that’s what we’re trying to showcase. Too often you don’t hear about them because troubles and tragedies involving them steal the headlines and get all the attention.

“But we’re working from the theory that this is the generation that wants to do something about the issues, that this is the generation that wants to make real change.

“We look at these student athletes as young people who have just been waiting to exhale. They’ve been inhaling all this stuff from the older generation and they look at our mistakes and want to do better.

“It’s time for them to exhale and figure this out.

“It time for them to take a deep breath on their own.”

‘It’s the right thing to do’

Powell believes football is a good vehicle to promote social justice and awareness:

“Like most team sports, football it is an ongoing opportunity to teach young people how to advance themselves to help one another,

“And this? This is teamwork at another level.”

He said the coaches have been ‘brainstorming” to come up with other ideas to continue the conversation.

Tentatively, during the Thanksgiving to Christmas break they hope to have another session.

“We’d like to bring in 10 football players from every school to Sinclair and we’ll have some speakers and we’ll talk about what we can do to bring people together,” Place said.

Powell also talked about having another webinar session involving players who have gone off to college and joined integrated programs that were different than their high school teams.

He said they can talk about the pleasant surprises they had and also some of the pitfalls caused by ignorance, bias or just stereotyping:

“These are all things to help us come together and understand each other better.”

Place agreed: “It comes back to that idea that contact brings acceptance.

“I know these aren’t huge things, but it’s something we can do.”

It’s more than that, Powell said:

“It’s the right thing to do.”