Akron Student-Athletes Chase Football And College Dreams Despite COVID-19
When Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine gave K-12 students the go-ahead to play sports this fall, he left the final decision up to each school district.
The Akron Public Schools Board of Education originally decided against letting students play, but reversed its decision a week later. One of the rationales was that for some of these student-athletes, getting to play is an issue of equity.
On a Saturday afternoon, the Kenmore-Garfield High School Golden Rams varsity football team stepped onto the field to practice. After coming close to not having a season at all and losing several weeks of practice time, these student-athletes have an added layer of gratitude mixed in with all that sweat.
Seventeen-year-old senior Tyijonn Gary is this season’s starting quarterback. Gary didn’t mince words when asked what getting to play meant to him.
“Football to me is life,” he said. “I've been doing this since, I was 6, 7 years old, every day, nonstop, and everybody out here be doing the same thing.”
Senior Tyijonn Gary, quarterback for the Kenmore-Garfield Rams. [Jenny Hamel / ideastream]
Having a season his senior year means more chances to make big plays during games, Gary said, which means more film to put on a highlight reel.
“For me, this is my only way out,” he said. “Sports is my only way out. So if I don’t make it to college, you know, I would just have to work a job the rest of my life.”
Kemp Boyd, the Kenmore-Garfield head football coach, said for several of his seniors, football is their best chance to get into a Division II or III university or a junior college.
Boyd said when the Akron School Board first voted against letting fall sports go forward, Gary called him to say he might have to transfer schools.
“He said, ‘Coach, I don't see any other opportunity for me to have an inroad to go to college outside of being able to play football. And if I can’t play, then I'm hurting my chances of college,’” Boyd said. “That's what really made me kind of wake up the next morning and say that I got to start calling some people.”
Kemp Boyd, head coach of Kenmore-Garfield High School varsity football team in Akron. [Jenny Hamel / ideastream]
The young men on Boyd’s team have always seen themselves as the have-nots compared to the haves, he said, and it’s been no different during the pandemic.
“Everything that's getting dictated to our young people is, ‘Hey, you're going to go virtually. And also we're taking away sports from you.’ So for me, that was just an equity issue.” Boyd said.
Coming to the field almost every day also provides a safe haven away from the violence swirling in some Akron neighborhoods, Boyd said. Last month, Akron police reported homicides were up 50 percent since 2019, and gun violence has surged dramatically.
“The young men that I coach, which among a majority of them look like me, they have a higher chance of dying through street violence, through gunshot, than they do to COVID,” said Boyd, who is Black, as are most of his players.
But the Kenmore-Garfield coaching staff and players know COVID-19 is a very real risk as they get together for practice. Coaches wear masks on the field and other safety protocols are in place – including no locker rooms this season. But everyone is on board with the precautions, said senior and offensive lineman Austin Drouhard.
“I think it's a risk everyone's willing to take because when we got the game taken away from us, it really hurt a lot of us,” Drouhard said. “So I feel like having this back, everybody knows the risks and they're willing to work with it.”
Austin Drouhard (center), is a senior and offensive lineman for the Kenmore-Garfield Rams. [Jenny Hamel / ideastream]
Drouhard wants to “go to college for football” and hopes to be recruited. He’s counting on stats and highlight film from this season to make that happen.
“I feel like this is what’s going to get me out of this city,” he said. “I missed my sophomore year and I only have junior year of film. So I need this year for film for colleges.”
Team captain Jonathan Dillworth said all the players, particularly the seniors, are grateful to have their 2020 football season back and are ready to make the most of it.
“It means a lot. It truly does. It's a blessing,” Dillworth said. “I'm a senior. This is my last time, is my last chance. Our head coach is like, ‘How are we going to do, how we're going to react now that we have it back?’”
Jonathan Dillworth (right), a senior with the Kenmore-Garfield High School football team, ends practice with his teammates. [Jenny Hamel / ideastream]