On a late August morning, an apprehensive first-time visitor to Newark’s South Ward is heading south on Chancellor Avenue in search of number 279. The destination: one of the city’s most historic and storied schools.
The walls at Weequahic High School have witnessed both ends of the inner-city spectrum; the devastating ramifications of crime, poverty and blight as well as the intellectual development, maturation and ultimate achievement of titans in the diverse fields of film, philosophy, arts and, of course, sports.
Some of those accomplishments prior to the 1967 Newark riots and the concerted efforts of alumni and faculty to rejuvenate the school were the basis of the 2009 Zach Braff-executive produced, award-winning documentary, Heart of Stone.
On this day, it is the Indians football team which brings the guest to the 80-year-old institution that has provided diplomas to standouts like former NBA player, team executive and basketball ambassador Al Attles, who also competed on the high school gridiron, and three-time NFL Pro Bowler Al “Bubba” Baker, currently the owner of Bubba’s Q, a hot spot for barbeque aficionados just outside Cleveland.
Upon arrival the man is confronted by a pair of burly football players en route to practice. Each is clutching an orange, brown and white helmet with the school’s trademark Indian head logo. The man politely asks when and where the team will be practicing.
The reply was not only informative and engaging, but included pleasantries: “Sir”, “Thank you” and “Have a nice day”.
In addition to providing the requested information, the two gentlemen offered to escort the visitor to the team or present the head coach to the stranger -- right there in the parking lot.
Although the squad has been in organized contact for merely a few short weeks, it is this level of class and respect that new coach Brian Logan and his stellar staff, which includes three police officers, a movie producer, two ex-NFL players and a former high school head coach with 60 years of experience, are committing every iota of effort and drawing on each conceivable applicable life experience in order to instill in the players.
Does winning games play any significant role for this squad which posted a 4-6 record a season ago? In speaking with its hierarchy, it’s hard to get a firm grasp on the answer.
Most of the coaches provide the obligatory “Yes”, but it is perfectly clear that W’s on the field pale in comparison to imparting life’s most important lessons and ensuring that the same ills which afflict seemingly every inner-city school -- drugs, gangs, bullying, homelessness, scarcity of food, single-parent households -- don’t stand in the way of a productive life for the Indians’ 30-plus players.
While Coach Logan has embarked on just his first season as the Indians head man, the 1982 Weequahic graduate possesses stellar coaching credentials, including a state title won with West Side in 2007. But it wasn’t his accolades as a star high school running back or the 13 successful seasons spent at West Side which sealed his candidacy.
The key characteristics of Logan, who is also a leader within Newark’s DARE program, are a keen understanding of the obstacles that face today’s youth in Brick City, a stellar reputation for shaping young minds, an ability to motivate, educate and navigate kids along the right path and perhaps most important, a strong sense of compassion.
“Coach Logan has a tremendous respect for the development, protection and safety of young men,” said athletic director Gary Westberry. “He has been exposed to a lot of kids falling to gangs and losing their lives unnecessarily. It really impacted him and bothered him to see these things happen.”
Logan has the ability to change lives, and like most successful mentors, has the blessing and support of his wife; whether the call for help from one of his players rings out during the school day or 3 a.m. Whatever or whenever it comes, coach is there. The “after-hour” calls range from evictions to gang violence and just about every horrific possibility in between.
Men like Logan realize their role as “coach” consists of somewhere around five percent X’s and O’s and 95 percent everything else. The role requires them to be parts therapist, doctor, psychologist, chauffeur, tutor, father… and the great ones relish the task and are proactive in the lives of their players.
They delve deeply, yet delicately, because they realize that the really important stuff, the difference-makers lie well beneath the surface and will not be provided easily or voluntarily.
“(Logan) has done so much for these kids…putting food on the table, giving them clothes to wear, getting them ready for school, getting book bags for them… just things they need to survive,” said defensive coordinator Tony Woods, a former 10-season NFL standout who amassed a career-high 141 tackles with the Seattle Seahawks in 1988.
This is a labor of love for coach and his way of providing hope to the community that shaped his life in so many positive ways.
“We want our piece of the pie,” Logan said. “Our piece is to see our youth have an opportunity to go on and further their education… to meet new people, establish relationships.”
It is Logan’s commitment to his kids which spawned an A-list of Newark-bred cohorts to hop aboard and launch an all-out assault on the perils which emanate from nonchalant student-athletes and their coaches who enable such behavior.
“His dedication has attracted other coaches to want to work with him,” said strength and conditioning coach William Lee. “His honesty and integrity speak for itself. A guy like that, you want to work for.”
Lee sports shoulder-length dreadlocks and is part humanitarian, part sadist. A typical Lee-led workout regimen includes the standard stretching and push-ups, but also two hours of lifting and 1,000 jumping jacks.
“I remember the first time coach Lee called out a thousand jumping jacks. I walked out of the gym and said he has got to be crazy,” said Robin “Binky” Brown, a movie producer who doubles as the team’s assistant quarterbacks coach. “But, everybody got into chorus and they did what they have to do.”
Lee’s military-like workouts are not strictly intended to strengthen the body, but also bolster the mind and heart.
“We are going to demand (our kids) say, ‘Yes, sir’, ‘No, sir,’” said Lee. “We are going to put so much pressure on the student-athlete to be respectful and disciplined. That it is going to carry over to the community, home and classroom…We have one rule: do right. If you do right, then you can’t do wrong.”
While Lee can be construed as the “bad cop” for his hard-nosed, tough-love spirit, there is no doubt who wears the badge as Weequahic’s “good cop”. His name is Frank Verducci, and he’s been a fixture on the Newark high school sports scene since 1953.
Verducci is a slight man with a yoda-like mind and presence. The lifer has made the rounds -- at Central High, Barringer where he coached Hall of Fame linebacker Andre Tippett -- and now with Weequahic.
Yet it’s not only his thorough football knowledge that earns him respect. What solidifies the deal is his calm demeanor; familiarity of what drives the student-athlete and compassion for the kids who, despite the best of intentions, will make mistakes.
But don’t misjudge Verducci’s big heart for weakness. Like the other coaches, his goal is clear: to create responsible individuals who are disciplined, confident, hard-working, possess high-moral character and leave as well-educated, classy men.
He uses the great game of football to provide these most vital life lessons.
“Football is the vehicle that will take you where you want to go,” Verducci said. “You have to use your brain, you have to have heart and a lot of courage.”
He will stop at nothing to reach the mark, and due to his methods he is seemingly the most appealing of any of the Indians leaders.
“He told me he is an old-school guy and he doesn’t do handshakes,” senior quarterback William Robinson said. “So every time I see him I give him a hug, I really respect him. He is always encouraging people.”
Al Attles and Al “Bubba” Baker are two shining examples of star athletes who not only maximized the tutelage they acquired on Untermann Field, but also the pearls they extracted from teachers and faculty within the class rooms at Weequahic.
Attles had a standout 11-season NBA career and subsequently became one of the league’s first-ever African-American head coaches. In 1975, he, along with sharp-shooter Rick Barry, led the Golden State Warriors to an NBA championship and then went on to serve the team in a variety of capacities.
Today, at the age of 75 he remains one of the game’s most respected gentlemen, active in the organization as a Community Ambassador.
Standing 6-foot-7, Baker was an imposing figure on the defensive line for five NFL franchises. He was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1978, a year in which he compiled an unofficial total of 23 sacks, including five in one game. Sacks became an official stat in 1982.
In addition to being a standout athlete, Baker, like Attles, has always been provided generous support to the community.
While both men reached the pinnacle of their respective playing careers decades ago, each recently recalled their most cherished memories of Weequahic. Not surprisingly, it was their respective victories over arch-rivals Hillside and South Side, (Attles’ team defeated Hillside and South Side in 1954 and 55, while Baker’s victory against South Side occurred in 1974), which remains permanently etched in each man’s mind.
Baker, who was recently contacted at his barbeque restaurant in Avon, Ohio, is able to describe every aspect of the South Side game, especially the tackle-eligible touchdown pass he hauled in from quarterback Lorenzo Hobbs. That score put the exclamation point on the Indians’ win.
There’s no denying the positive impact that the school has had on these two legendary performers, and each appreciates and applauds the positive direction in which the 2011 Indians are pointed.
“I am excited and cheer their effort. They are placing a high priority on character and integrity,” Baker said. “The lessons I learned in the city, and at Weequahic in particular, have allowed me to hone my decision-making skills. That has enhanced my life a great deal.”
Attles, who before his success on the hardwood, found stardom on the football field as an end and kicker, was equally upbeat about the resurgence at his alma mater.
“It’s good to hear that positive things are being done at Weequahic,” said Attles on the phone from his home just outside of Oakland, Calif. “When you hear that dedicated people are there, I am optimistic about the future of the team and the young men and women who attend the school.”
The visitor to the school gets ready to witness his first Weequahic practice. The players trickle down the stairs which hug the tan, orange and brown field house. Each player is clad in orange or brown shorts, some wearing pads, others not.
There is plenty of good natured horse-play taking place and a few players are tossing footballs.
Then word comes that one of the Indians had gotten into a fight the previous day. That player presents himself with an Ace bandage covering his hand and wrist. It is a stone-cold reminder that all of the hard work, the caring, the programs, the love, the guidance, the time afforded these players, can sometimes provide little resistance to the opponent.
On this day, the outsider keenly observes the controlled agitation of the staff, especially Logan and Verducci, as they confront the young man. Yes, they are mad, but they know they must tread lightly.
After the initial anger and a few words inquiring about the circumstances surrounding the altercation, it is Verducci, who has seen this scene play out time and time again, who provides the young man with a nod, a metaphorical hug of sorts, signifying that although he is not happy with whatever it was that went down, they will make it through this bump in the road together as any family would.
Without the aid of the spoken word, Verducci assures the young man that he is still loved and that this team will not turn its back on him or any other of his teammates, no matter what the circumstance.
Earlier in the day Verducci explained his view on situations just like this one.
“We just hope that they do not make big mistakes where you cannot correct them,” Verducci said. “On a football field you can always correct them…You don’t want to correct them after they go to jail.”
On the field, the Indians will look to regain some of the swagger they enjoyed five short years ago, when they captured a Central Group 2 championship. Tragically, that team was led by quarterback Jamaal Perry, who fell victim to the streets three years later.
But the 2011 version should be competitive and if you listen to their coaching staff, maybe better, perhaps much better than that.
“We are looking to be undefeated, I don’t see it any other way,” said Brown, a 17-year veteran of law enforcement in Newark. “To get into the championship, that is the ultimate goal. That is the standard we are looking to.”
But achievement for Weequahic cannot and will not be measured by wins alone, for there is a much larger, more vital mission shared by the staff as well as the players.
“Success for us is the majority of our team getting over a 2.5 GPA,” said Logan. “It’s college’s coming here to interview our kids, affording them the opportunity to visit universities and to see what’s out there besides Newark. That’s success to us.”
Verducci, who has molded so many lives in the neighborhood, also looks beyond the scoreboard when determining accomplishment.
“Success is for the individual to understand the mistakes that he is making or has made and changes himself to be a better person,” he said.
In short, the message revolves around accountability and funneling all of the kids’ youthful exuberance into something positive for the present and especially for the future.
“Once they start to channel that energy toward a different cause and know that this school is helping (them) get out of here and (allowing them to) one day make something of themselves – that’s a beautiful thing,” said Brian Johnson-Logan Jr., the team’s linebacker coach and son of the head coach.
And the agent for betterment, for change, for a better life is football. Football is the vehicle that gets these and so many other student-athletes on the right path; the one they want and need to be on.
And they know it.
“It’s never really just about football,” senior lineman Willie Knott said. “It’s about getting ahead in life and knowing we can get ahead by playing football, something we love (to do).”
“They always say football is not everything; it starts in school,” said Robinson, a four-year letterman. “That’s why we work hard in the classroom first.”
“Football is the gateway to bigger and better opportunities and we all realize that,” continued Knott.
While the Indians appear initially headed in the proper direction, there is no denying that each of the players comes face-to-face with danger on a daily basis. We see it on the news, in the papers and on the internet; peril lurks everywhere in this and so many other big cities around the nation.
But for this group of 30-something kids, there is an oasis, a utopia of sorts, a place where they can escape reality.
Coincidentally, within that confined area, which is etched in white chalk, there is loads of violence.
“This football field is heaven,” said Logan, gazing at their magnificently manicured field. “This is where we let (out) all of the things that really bother us. This is our outlet.”
The once-apprehensive visitor has wrapped up the trip to the school. He heads north on the New Jersey Turnpike and somewhere adjacent to Newark Airport he reflects on the day and truly grasps why so many people are pulling for the Weequahic High School football team.
But that bunch is far from typical. They don’t care so much about “their” team winning games. Instead, like the coaches he spoke with on this day, they understand that there is something much greater than dominating on the playing field.
And that is winning everywhere else.
Contact Larry Berger at email@example.com.