Tom Archdeacon: Thurgood coach a nationally known comedian

Thurgood Marshall High School assistant basketball coach, and track coach, Ray Wortham (stage Ray Jackson) is a stand-up comedian when he's not coaching. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Thurgood Marshall High School assistant basketball coach, and track coach, Ray Wortham (stage Ray Jackson) is a stand-up comedian when he's not coaching. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

One of my favorite football practice field moments ever came a decade ago at Colonel White High school.

From the sideline, I had watched as a pair of defensive backs messed up for the third time in a row. As they were grousing at each other, one of the Cougars’ assistant coaches called them over to the edge of the field, not far from where I stood, studied the pair with a long silence and then finally said:

“OK, which one of you is the one with the pretty momma?”

The two were taken aback and finally, after staring down and pawing at the ground with his cleats, one kid hesitantly raised his hand.

The coach nodded and said: “OK, you go on back out there.”

Then, with perfect timing, he turned to the other kid and said: “You — drop down and give me 10.”

As the kid began his push-ups, the coach saw me watching, grinned and winked.

I was unfamiliar with the guy, so later I sought out Kerry Ivy, another assistant I knew, and asked about the coach who had just turned the bungled defensive session into a perfect Saturday Night Live skit.

“Him?” Ivy said with a laugh. “That’s the comedian.”

He wasn’t just talking about someone able to come up with a one-liner and a laugh around the practice field or in the classroom, he was referring to a guy who has taken his funny business to stages not only across the Miami Valley, but on to Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Atlanta and New York.

Along with being a longtime Dayton-area teacher and coach, Ray Wortham is a stand-up comedian who goes by the stage name Raymond Jackson.

Over the years he’s opened for well-known comics like Dave Chappelle, Steve Harvey, D. L. Hughley and Cedric the Entertainer, as well as musicians like The Manhattans, The O’Jays, George Clinton and the local group, Touch.

Sunday at Wiley’s Comedy Joint, he’s combining his two worlds — learnin’ and laughin’ — for a special cause.

He’s putting on a comedy fund-raiser for the Thurgood Marshall girls basketball team, which is hoping to compete in a big hoops tournament in St. Louis over the Martin Luther King weekend.

Wortham is a volunteer coach with the Thurgood girls team — he’s also the Cougars’ head track coach — and he teaches classes in entrepreneurship and runs the Jobs For Graduates program, which teaches life skills and employment tips.

He has a special affinity for teenagers from the under-served neighborhoods and that’s why he’s embraced this cause.

Not only does the national tournament attract numerous coaches looking to give out scholarships — and the Cougars, who were 17-3 last season, have some worthy players — but the whole experience of traveling to another city, staying in a hotel and being fussed over at a showcase event is something many of these kids never would experience otherwise.

“It will just be so cool to see these kids get that kind of exposure,” he said. “There are not a lot of things you will remember about high school when you get older, but when these kids come back for their 10- and 20-year reunions, they won’t have forgotten this.”

Coach Kahlil Franklin said the team needs to come up with $4,500 to $5,000 for the trip. To raise the money, the girls have worked concessions at high school and University of Dayton football games at Welcome Stadium, had bake sales and a raffle.

Tickets for Sunday’s comedy show at 7:30 p.m. cost $10 in advance (call 937-224-5653) and $12 at the door.

Wortham’s willingness to do a charity show taps into the same reason he serves as an unpaid volunteer coach.

“It’s for the love, man,” he said. “It’s to help somebody else out because once somebody helped me coming up, too.”

Belmont class clown

Growing up on Smith Street in West Dayton, Wortham said he was always “kind of known as the silly guy.

“I was quiet, but I was the jokester, too. I was basically the class clown. But at the same time I was able to stay on point and get good grades and play sports.”

From Belmont High he went to Central State and after that began a series of coaching jobs, mostly football and track, at Belmont, Jefferson, Dunbar, Trotwood-Madison, and Colonel White, which then became Thurgood Marshall.

Along the way he was convinced to test his comedy chops at open mic nights around the area. Although he adopted the stage name Raymond Jackson, he said everyone knows who he is: “It’s the worst kept secret in town.”

He said several aspects of doing stand-up remind him of playing sports.

There are the nerves, the adrenaline rush, being able to focus and perform when the bright lights come on and being able to adjust to the moment — be it a changing defense or a demanding audience — at hand.

He admits black and white audiences are different.

“Blacks want their jokes like their drinks, straight and right now,” he laughed. “White audiences will give you a little more of a chance. Some comics gear their shows strictly to a black audience and others to whites. I feel good when I can get them all together and make the whole thing work.”

He said his biggest challenge when he first started was when his mom, Mary, showed up in the crowd. He said he didn’t feel comfortable with a lot of the “weed and sex” jokes.

Now, he said, he’s more at ease if she’s there: “My show is still adult, but not as adult as it once was. I used to be rated X. Now I’m kinda PG-18.”

He’s in his 40s now, and although some of his material has changed with age, he said it doesn’t affect his craft:

“The good thing about comedy is that there is no age limit. It’s not like I’m a rapper or anything. I can keep performing.

“It’s kinda like you saw with Jordan and Kobe. They came into the league dunking hard, but as they got older they developed a jump shot.

“You can’t keep doing all that jumping, you use finesse a little more. It’s still a beautiful thing to see, there’s just not quite as much shock and awe and ‘Wow!’ ”

‘Keeps you relevant’

A few years back Wortham said he toyed with the idea of going full-time into comedy. He didn’t, and as he sat in the Thurgood gym the other afternoon, you saw a couple of the reasons high overhead.

Banners honoring some of the individuals and relay teams who won state titles on his track teams were mounted high on the gym wall.

Just as important — while not nearly so trumpeted — have been the many students who come through his classes.

“Unlike a lot of other comics, I have a job I still really like going to,” he said. “I really like watching the growth of kids, seeing how they develop from when they first came in. And then to see them when they come back years later, that’s pretty cool, too.”

He uses humor in the classroom and when he’s coaching and he said he takes special satisfaction in “being able to make older people laugh and make kids laugh, too.

“Being with kids really keeps you relevant with what’s going on with their age group and everything they’re into: Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, all of that.

“When I’m around kids I’m always learning, too.”

But there have been times when he learned a lesson on stage, as well.

“I was down at Wiley’s several years ago and this motorcycle gang came in,” he said with a grin. “I told some type of joke where I referred to one of their guys being a woman. Next thing I know they all jumped up and were moving forward.

“And I was like, ‘That’s it for me!’ I got off the stage.

“There would be no more biker gang jokes from me.”