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Pandemic-ravaged sports seasons create barriers to higher education for Philly athletes

The already slim chance high school athletes have to earn college scholarships is even less likely in Philadelphia schools, especially in the Public League, whose sports seasons were disrupted.

Girard College senior sprinter Margaret Conteh has not been able to compete due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so she has had to stay in shape by her own workouts.
Girard College senior sprinter Margaret Conteh has not been able to compete due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so she has had to stay in shape by her own workouts.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Northeast High senior Shamaad Clack grew up believing, like many young Black men in Philadelphia, that football could save his life and brighten his future with opportunities to earn college scholarships.

He has also, however, grown up fearing some of the city’s harshest realities.

“I see how many teens are getting shot, arrested, whatever the case is,” Clack said, “and I know I don’t want to end up on the news or in an obituary.”

Girard College senior track standout Margaret Conteh grew up in Africa, believing — like many of her friends and family in Sierra Leone — that a college education in America would open doors no one in her family had stepped through. Her mother, Sobiatu Kanu, has worked too many jobs in her life, Conteh says, for her oldest child not to do hers.

“Not going to college was never a choice for me,” Conteh said. “Finishing school, that’s my only job right now, to be honest.”

Statistically, however, the chances any high school athlete earns an athletic scholarship to compete in college have been slim for decades — long before COVID-19 claimed nearly 275,000 American lives, closed high schools across the country, shuttered businesses, and caused record unemployment.

It’s even less likely now for many athletes in the Philadelphia area, especially those in the Public League who haven’t competed since the district closed schools and scuttled sports seasons in March.

For Clack, a 6-foot-3, 290-pound lineman whose broken left femur kept him out his entire sophomore season, that means game film as a junior is all he has to attract college coaches.

At least Conteh, who was so new to track as a sophomore that she stopped and rested about 15 meters short of the finish line in her first 400-meter indoor race, improved dramatically and finished her junior indoor season with the 10th-best 400-meter time in the nation. But she hasn’t competed since, which means college coaches have been reluctant to risk dwindling scholarship money without seeing continued progress, says her coach, Diamond Woolford.

Young athletes across the nation face similar circumstances.

Locally, that means more high school athletes with fewer seasons to prove themselves, competing for fewer available scholarships, in fewer college sports, in what could also become fewer institutions of higher learning in Pennsylvania, as the commonwealth moves toward the possible consolidation of several of its universities.

Still, despite increasing barriers to higher education, athletes such as Clack and Conteh, with help from coaches who believe sports can strengthen communities, are doggedly finding or creating opportunities where few exist.

“While some are stuck on people being upset because kids aren’t playing,” said Northeast football coach Eric Clark, “it’s the opportunities that are being missed right now for young men and young women across our whole Philadelphia public school system, which could hurt our communities in the long run.”

Seasons sacked

Weeks of Zoom-based faculty meetings, training sessions, and virtual football coaching had caused Clark, in his first year as Northeast coach, several restless nights since schools closed in March.

Clark, 35, has believed for years that the opportunities afforded him through football saved his life.

Without a football season, however, Clark wasn’t sure if the game could do the same for his current seniors if college coaches didn’t know they existed.

“It was just one of those nights when you just can’t sleep, man,” Clark said in a recent phone interview. “I was kind of feeling helpless.”

“I see how many teens are getting shot, arrested, whatever the case is, and I know I don’t want to end up on the news or in an obituary.”

Shamaad Clack

One restless night in late August, he decided to make Zoom work for him. So he invited college coaches to speak to his team via Zoom, giving his players the opportunity to meet coaches. He wasn’t sure, however, if college coaches would be interested.

To his surprise, he said, college coaches liked the idea because it helped them pitch their programs, schools, and academic programs to potential recruits and parents.

Each Tuesday night for the last 13 weeks, Clark said, a different college coach has visited his team via Zoom. Parents of players have also joined the calls.

“Those nights I got exposure to college coaches I wasn’t getting before,” Clack, 17, said in a phone interview. “Coach Clark opened up a lot of windows for us seniors.”

Clark was an assistant at his alma mater, Northeast, for six years before taking over for longtime coach Phil Gormley, who stepped down after last season. Gormley was a position coach at Northeast when Clark graduated in 2003 and earned a scholarship to play football at Towson, where he studied sports marketing and minored in business. He later earned a master’s in secondary education.

Clack has a similar plan to make football work for him. Two surgical screws and six months of painful physical therapy after he broke his femur as a sophomore made him worry that his college football dreams were finished.

“I knew I needed to outwork everybody because I was behind,” Clack said.

A change of position was also needed. The onetime tight end had gained weight and grown three inches, so he asked his coaches if he could move to the offensive line.

By Week 5 of his junior season, Clack said, he was second on the team in flattening defenders. Without a senior season to show progress, Division II and III schools are his main suitors now.

His coach believes that the opportunity alone, no matter the level, is most likely to change lives.

“While the football opportunities are important, our young men are going to college,” Clark said. “There are so many athletes who went to school on an athletic grant or scholarship that never became pros but became very successful citizens in our communities.”

Onus on ownership

Norristown High school track coach Milton Williams, 41, knows how much an opportunity can change a young person’s life.

Long before he became the track coach at his alma mater, Williams was “just a guy walking the halls.”

“Sometimes you hear people say, ‘You could have more talent walking your hallways than you do on your field.’ Well, I was an example of that,” Williams said in a phone interview.

Williams didn’t join his high school track team until the spring of his junior year. By senior year, he was ranked second in the state in the 400 meters. Later, he became an all-American at Lincoln University.

“It gave me direction because I wasn’t sure if I was even going to college or what I would do with myself,” Williams said. “So in a way, the sport actually saved me.”

He’s been a teacher for the last 13 years, five of which he’s been Norristown’s head track coach.

“I think from COVID, we’ve all seen there’s a lot of power in ownership and being able to do things on your own.”

Norristown track coach Milton Williams

Perhaps his late-blooming track story is why Williams — along with area coaches Mike Price and Rohan Grant — organized recent track events to create opportunities for athletes to compete and log official times they could show to colleges.

They have even considered forming an event management LLC that would host track events in the future.

The events helped Price’s prized pupil, his son, stay sharp in the absence of an actual track season. Upper Dublin senior Jayden Price-Whitehead was named the Gatorade Pennsylvania track athlete of the year in July. Grant is the founder of the Southeastern Pennsylvania-based Maveric Track Club, which coached former Dock Mennonite star sprinter Austin Kratz, who is now a redshirt sophomore at Arizona State

“I think from COVID,” Williams said, “we’ve all seen there’s a lot of power in ownership and being able to do things on your own.”

The trio held two socially distanced events with about 20 to 25 athletes. Times for the events — the 100, 200, and 400 meters — were certified by a timing company. Both events were held at Dock Mennonite Academy in Lansdale. The three coaches will look to host more events if there is no outdoor track season.

You have one job

Girard College track coach Diamond Woolford had become friends with Williams from the local high school track circuit.

Once he heard about Williams’ events, Woolford saw an opportunity for Margaret Conteh to compete.

Unfortunately for Conteh, 18, the event Williams had planned was rained out. Winter weather also means fewer opportunities for events, and a pandemic means fewer indoor tracks available for rent.

“I was losing hope at first because I was only practicing,” Conteh said in a phone interview. “and I was just like, ‘I guess I’m never going to get a chance to run.’ But I’m not letting that get to me now.”

Woolford, who also coached Thelma Davies, the most accomplished sprinter in PIAA history, said Penn State has made Conteh a partial offer. Division II Minnesota State has also expressed interest.

Most notable, schools from the Southeastern Conference, among the NCAA’s most competitive in the nation, have also expressed interested in Conteh.

But those schools, Woolford said, want to see continued progress.

A scholarship opportunity to an SEC school could open the kind of doors Conteh heard about as a child in Sierra Leone.

For example, Davies, the only person in PIAA history to win the 100- and 200-meter championships in four consecutive years, is a sophomore superstar at Louisiana State University with a legitimate chance to compete in the 2021 Olympics.

“Even when I was on my way here I thought I would be living in luxury,” Conteh said with a laugh during a phone interview.

“And then I got here and I was like, ‘Oh, my God. This is what y’all were always talking about?,’ ” she added with more laughter. “When I got here my mom was working back-to-back shifts.”

Conteh was born in Yeadon, but her mother, Sobiatu Kanu, now 41, struggled working long hours with children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Kanu, who still works in the same field, was also a single parent without a car caring for a newborn baby. So Conteh was sent to Sierra Leone, at about a year old, to stay with her grandmother, Ferren Kanu.

The sacrifices her mother made, in addition to the ability to set an example for her two younger sisters, is why Conteh is confident that no matter what, college is in her future.

“Regardless of track and field, I’m still a [good] student-athlete at the end of the day, so I don’t think I’ll have a problem getting into school,” she said.

Navigating the NCAA

Like many high school coaches, Malik Jones stresses the importance of academics to his football players. The second-year football coach at Martin Luther King High appreciates how football put him on the path toward education.

The 41-year-old also recognizes the pandemic has narrowed that path.

COVID-19 has imposed consequences upon the NCAA, which has responded with solutions that will likely be felt by high school athletes.

In March, the NCAA extended the current eligibility of athletes as a remedy for time lost while sports were shut down. In a news release, members of the Division I council also said they adjusted financial aid rules to allow teams to carry more members on scholarship to account for “incoming recruits and student-athletes who had been in their last year of eligibility who decide to stay.”

Last month, however, Liberty University rescinded its scholarship offer to Pine-Richland lineman Miguel Jackson, who had committed to the school in July. Jackson was reportedly told that Liberty had several defensive linemen who intended to stay for another year.

Liberty is, however, honoring the scholarship offer to Jackson’s teammate, Harrison Hayes, who had committed to play offense.

As scholarship opportunities dwindle, so too are the number of sports.

In September, the Associated Press counted more than 230 college teams that had been eliminated because of the pandemic. Even high-profile institutions such as Clemson, which Forbes credited in 2019 with average annual football revenue of $77 million, cut its men’s track team.

Fewer athletic opportunities could also be a reality in Pennsylvania.

In October, The Inquirer reported that the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education board of governors unanimously authorized chancellor Daniel Greenstein to plan the integration of Lock Haven, Mansfield, and Bloomsburg Universities into one school, and Clarion, California, and Edinboro Universities into another.

It is unclear how athletics fits into the equation, but if schools are consolidated — athletic departments included — it could mean fewer teams in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.

Jones, who graduated from King in 1998, played football at Bloomsburg University.

Football, he said, saved his life. He also believes it can save the lives of his players. So it’s been especially difficult for him to see the fear in their eyes as they feel time and opportunity pass them by.

“It’s almost traumatic, to be quite honest,” Jones said in a phone interview, “because as a coach, you’re rendered powerless. …They’re scared. They’re a bunch of scared kids.”

Jones, however, has found some measure of control. In addition to hosting weekly Zoom calls between college coaches and his players, he also invited Ben Franklin’s coach and players to join in on a call.

Jones also hosts Zoom calls between his current players and former players currently in college. The inspiration came from his experience in a reading and study skills course in college that, he said, helped him graduate.

This past week, he hosted four former players, including several playing at PSAC schools and one playing at Villanova, for an hour-long talk centered on planning and note-taking. The older players also talked about their experiences in college, juggling practice, study halls, and more. Jones considers turning the calls into a podcast.

For seniors whose recruitment has suffered because of the pandemic or whose grades are punitive, Jones sometimes suggests an unofficial “gap year” approach. He encourages some to pursue local community colleges instead of junior colleges that might provide no guarantee of playing time, can bring in other talent, and burn through NCAA eligibility.

Jones’ plan would be to keep such players near his team, possibly even as volunteer coaches. After a year, he hopes, players who followed that “gap year” approach would then be recruited with the class of 2022.

He said he has even reached out to trade and technical schools for players who aren’t interested in college.

“College isn’t for everybody,” he said, “but education is.”