Cleveland (Ohio) St. Ignatius and Cincinnati St. Xavier will be squaring off this weekend in one of the most highly-anticipated high school football games in the country. But the two teams from opposite corners of the state will be joining together for a greater cause.
St. Ignatius, an all-boys Catholic school on Cleveland's near Westside, recently began a spirited campaign to prevent youth violence. The philanthropic efforts have been spearheaded by players and coaches of the school's nationally-ranked football team. The Wildcats, who have won a state-record ten Division I state titles, are taking advantage of their notoriety to extend their reach.
This Saturday, before the Wildcats and Bombers kick off, the schools will honor youths and families affected by violence with a presentation and moment of silence during pre-game.
St. Ignatius and St. Xavier, both Jesuit schools, each share the motto "Men for Others" with community service as a requisite for graduation at both institutions. With philanthropy and service at the forefront, the campaign against youth violence was quickly embraced by St. Ignatius football players when the idea was introduced by assistant football coach Tyrone White.
White, a 14-year veteran on the St. Ignatius coaching staff, has used his past experiences as a guide. In addition to coaching, White has worked with troubled youth at detention centers and taught in the inner-city where he witnessed first-hand how violence among 15-24 year-olds affects families and the community.
"I've worked my whole life with young people," explained White, who authored a book this summer titled Parenting a Winner: Eight Proven Strategies to Help Your Child Win in Sports and in Life. "I got into this and involved with these families because it served the greater benefit."
When the premise was presented by White to the St. Ignatius team members last month, six players immediately got involved. Their first outreach was to a Cleveland-area youth named Justin Winemiller, who was brutally attacked in early September. Winemiller, a senior at a nearby public high school, suffered a broken jaw and serious facial injuries from the assault. The St. Ignatius players met Winemiller at the Cleveland Police Department where he was reunited with the police officer who broke up the violent melee on Sept. 5.
The players, who helped raise money amongst St. Ignatius classmates, presented Winemiller with an envelope of funds along with St. Ignatius football memorabilia and a sideline pass to the Wildcats' game last weekend against Detroit-area Inkster High School. Inkster, despite being a state away and a first-time opponent of St. Ignatius, had become aware of the efforts and fully supported the cause. Players from both teams huddled with Winemiller and his family and presented them with game balls following the Wildcats' 49-20 victory.
"We saw Justin the previous Friday when we visited him (at the police station) and he then had his mouth wired shut," recalled St. Ignatius senior offensive lineman Kevin Smith, who has been instrumental in the campaign's early success. "Then seeing him at the game with the wires out of his mouth…it was so great to just see him happy."
The players for both St. Ignatius and Inkster made sure the ceremony after the game wasn't just a formality.
"It wasn't just like we handed him the game ball and walked away," reassured Smith. "We spent about 15 minutes with him and I now consider him a friend.
"Hopefully we gave him a sense of comfort he wasn't feeling before."
Another Cleveland area family has also been given tremendous support by the Wildcat football team. Lavell Jordan, a 14-year old youth who had aspired to attend St. Ignatius, was hit in the neck by a stray bullet from neighborhood gang activity and as a result is now paralyzed below the waist. Jordan remains in critical care at a metropolitan hospital, but his mother and her three other sons attended the St-Ignatius-Inkster game as honorary guests. In order to help move the family out of the violence-infested community where they currently reside, St. Ignatius plans to initiate a fundraiser and has set up a bank account to assist the family with expenses.
Although the anti-violence campaign is still its infancy, recent news across the country has further sounded a call to action. In the past several weeks alone, newspapers and media outlets have published the horrifying and heartbreaking stories of the homicides of Chicago teen Derrion Albert, and 20-year old Jasper Howard, a talented cornerback for the University of Connecticut.
"Juvenile homicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States for those ages 15-24," White explained. "For African-American males it's the number one cause. Everyday something is happening."
The recent news has made many student-athletes realize the violence pandemic is real and now is the time to act.
"We started out with six players and now the entire junior varsity and varsity teams are actively involved," said White, referring to the ever-increasing awareness. "The goal is to have all 1500 students at St. Ignatius involved and the same is being pushed for at Inkster and St. Xavier."
St. Ignatius vows to ramp up efforts to not only increase awareness of the physical and emotional scars left by youth violence, but strive for ways to stop it. The school's graphic arts department is putting the finishing touches on a new website called www.standagainstviolence.org and is using social media sites as a way to communicate with juvenile centers, church groups and other organizations. A book is also in the works, with the goal to create lesson plans for teachers using case studies on individuals that have been the target of youth violence as real-world examples. All proceeds would be used to support the anti-violence initiative.
"We must begin to teach character education and begin a response from kindergarten on up," White believes. "It's an area that should be of national concern."
The moment of silence at this weekend's St. Ignatius vs. St. Xavier football game won't likely be mentioned in the multitude of recaps and stories from various media outlets across the country. But it will give players the opportunity to reflect on youth violence and what they might be able to do to put an end to the brutality among their peers.
White perhaps phrased it best.
"They'll understand that when you do good things and have a servant's heart, good things come back to you."