Kirk Preston, student council president and football team captain, straddled the hand-me-down weight bench in the stuffy, makeshift space that doubles as a locker room, his body hunched over a book: By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest Is Changing the World.
“I was looking up on Amazon trying to find books on foreign policy,” Preston said after completing another strenuous workout in triple-digit heat. “It was right in line with some of the books that I wanted to read, so I picked it up.”
Not exactly poolside reading.
Then again, Preston, a junior-to-be, has always preferred hard over easy. Same goes for his teammates. That’s how a group of ambitious, mostly African-American teens has forged a unique brotherhood at the Young Men’s Leadership Academy, Fort Worth’s first all-boy middle and high school, which attracts some of the brightest minds in the city.
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The school has attracted some pretty talented athletes, too, and they’ll be on display as the YMLA Wildcats embark on their first varsity football season. Two-a-day practices started this week.
Preston, boasting a top-of-his-class 4.6 grade-point average and a flair for engineering, has designs on attending the U.S. Naval Academy, or maybe Vanderbilt or Stanford. His dad, Kirk Preston Sr., an elementary school teacher who moonlights as YMLA’s offensive line coach, has his fingers crossed for Rice. But when it comes to talking colleges for Preston and YMLA’s other tie-and-blazer-wearing scholar-athletes, perhaps the most intriguing part isn’t where they’ll go but whether it will be on an athletic or academic scholarship.
“The thing I’m most happy about,” said Joseph Heath, YMLA football coach and athletic coordinator, “is we have a lot of kids that can do both.”
Playing in Class 5A
The school is housed in the outdated Dunbar 6th Grade Center, in the heart of the impoverished Stop Six neighborhood. YMLA is something of an offshoot of Dunbar High School, 1.2 miles away, officially sharing the Paul Laurence Dunbar name preceding YMLA as well as the Wildcats nickname.
YMLA is something of an offshoot of Dunbar High School, 1.2 miles away, officially sharing the Paul Laurence Dunbar name preceding YMLA as well as the Wildcats nickname.
YMLA has little in common with any other Fort Worth schools. First, there’s its classification. The official enrollment number it submitted to the University Interscholastic League was 127.68, and when multiplied by two to account for the lack of girls, it would land YMLA in Class 3A.
However, a UIL rule requires a magnet school of any enrollment size in a multiple-high-school district to compete in the classification of the largest school in that district. So when the UIL released its 2016-18 realignment, the Wildcats arrived in a Class 6A district with five Arlington schools, Fort Worth Paschal, Mansfield and North Crowley, all with at last 2,150 students.
“I had come to peace with being a 6A if we had to be 6A,” Heath said.
An appeal allowed YMLA to slide into 5A and a district with teams like Arlington Heights, Southwest and South Hills, Fort Worth schools with at least 1,000 more students.
Then there’s the off-field challenge: an athletics budget that, since the school’s opening in 2012, has been as bare-bones as can be. The school lacks much of the most basic equipment to support a football program. Coaches have acquired, and often paid for, what little the Wildcats do have.
“Everybody has their own set of problems,” Heath said of other Fort Worth high school athletic departments. “Most of their problems are maintenance problems, like their facilities are old or they need more space. And ours are just problems of things being nonexistent.”
‘We had not a weight’
Turns out, YMLA has been on a “resource quest” of its own.
Heath, a former star offensive lineman at Abilene Cooper, is entering his third year at YMLA after spending seven years at Southwest. The chance to lead a program trumped the fact that he would start with significant disadvantages.
He turned a classroom into a weight room that at the time had no weights and a locker room he managed to furnish with mostly small, square lockers ill-equipped for storing a helmet and shoulder pads. Weight belts hanging on the wall are stamped “Paschal” and “Southwest,” the schools they came from. With the help of coaches and their pickups, the weight room is now lined with rows of aging squat racks, worn weight benches with stacks of rusting weights and barbells that occasionally crack.
“My staff and I have gone all over the district to people who are throwing old equipment away and we’ve gotten it and refurbished it and turned it into our own,” Heath said. “None of this stuff was here. We had not a weight.”
Derrick Adams, YMLA’s offensive coordinator, pointed to an empty Home Depot bag on the floor of a still-unfurnished assistant coaches office, left over from a trip for supplies to build practice equipment such as football chutes made of PVC pipe.
“I’ve turned into MacGyver,” Adams said with a laugh, referring to the TV series featuring Angus MacGyver and his extraordinary problem-solving skills.
One practice field is 86 yards. Another stretches 100 yards but has no goal posts. Neither field has hash marks, numbers or sprinklers, leaving yellowed grass, cracked dirt and potholes. A lone blocking sled sits in the corner of the longer field. (Dunbar donated a water cow so the players can at least easily rehydrate during practice.) Coaches launder uniforms using a single washer and dryer, both of which can handle only small loads and look to be 20 years old.
But complaining isn’t in the YMLA handbook. Coaches and players chalk up the challenges as opponents to tackle head-on, even if dummies for tackling aren’t included.
My staff and I have gone all over the district to people who are throwing old equipment away and we’ve gotten it and refurbished it and turned it into our own.
YMLA coach Joesph Heath on how the football team has acquired its gear
“When we start doing one-on-ones and start competing, we don’t even care about the field,” said junior wide receiver and cornerback Caylan Ceaser, who has attended YMLA since the seventh grade, has a 3.4 GPA and wants to study physiology at the University of Houston. “We deserve all that, but at the end of the day we’re just competing.”
Help on the way
The good news: District athletic director Kevin Greene says an irrigation system is planned for the 86-yard field, which is also being outfitted with a track where once there was concrete. A portable building was delivered this week for use as a locker room, and larger lockers are coming, too.
YMLA Principal Rodney White said he has had recent discussions with School Superintendent Kent Scribner and has seen layouts for a turf practice field, the kind every other Fort Worth high school has had installed over the past few summers, plus a sorely needed gymnasium.
White, though, preached patience.
YMLA was created to produce academic success, and those needs will be addressed first. The district will break ground next month on a new cafeteria, White said, and the existing cafeteria will be transformed into three science labs.
White said the next bond program should address all the school’s athletics needs, although no bond election is scheduled. Bond programs were approved by voters in 2007 and 2013.
Some at YMLA believe that the district has been reluctant to fund athletics because of doubts that the school would succeed or suspicion that it would soon seek a more desirable address.
91 percent of YMLA students passed all STAAR tests in 2014-15, compared with 68 percent for the district and 77 percent statewide.
Academic success is abundant: In 2014-15, 91 percent of YMLA students passed all STAAR tests, compared with 68 percent for the district and 77 percent statewide. Many in this year’s junior class will take physics, calculus and engineering; as seniors they will earn credits at Tarrant County College. Meanwhile, White said, YMLA is at home in Stop Six.
Success on the football field may be more challenging, but the team has had its moments at the junior varsity level.
A 7-3 season with wins last year against Arlington Heights, Lake Worth and Nolan Catholic suggests that the program can compete. Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine took notice, picking YMLA to finish fifth in the eight-team district, a high honor for any first-time varsity team.
“Varsity is going to be very important because teams have already come up with an assumption that we’re not going to win or even compete with them,” said Tyjuan Battles, a junior receiver and cornerback.
“By them underestimating us, that gives us the ability to prove what we’ve been doing here, working hard, lifting those weights,” said Battles, a team captain and potential Division I prospect who has attended YMLA since the sixth grade, owns a 3.3 GPA and aspires to become a defense attorney. “It’s given us a chance to compete with them, and that’s what it’s all about.”
We are going to get baptized by fire.
YMLA coach Joseph Heath, referring to a nondistrict schedule that includes Waco La Vega, the defending Class 4A Division I state champions and Celina, the 2015 Class 4A Division II runner-up
The Wildcats hope to carry about 35 players on the varsity roster. They open the season Aug. 26 at Chisholm Trail, a Class 5A school in the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw district that opened in 2012.
The second nondistrict opponent is Waco La Vega, the defending Class 4A Division I state champion, which has 63 players on its varsity roster, according to MaxPreps.com. Celina, the third nondistrict opponent, was the 2015 Class 4A Division II runner-up.
“We are going to get baptized by fire,” Heath said.
While most teams on the schedule will badly outnumber YMLA — and the Wildcats will need to play their best players on both offense and defense — it doesn’t mean the team can’t put a scare into its larger rivals in the Fort Worth district. But what about making the playoffs? Preston, in typical YMLA can-do spirit, proclaimed, “We’re going to.”
Heath estimates that 12 players could go on to play some level of college football and that four could become highly sought-after recruits — Preston, Battles, quarterback Bryan Cottingim and offensive tackle Derek Rigsby.
Junior star receiver Draylon Roberson might have been a fifth but decided this week to leave after four years for private school Nolan Catholic. He’s one of several would-be starters to transfer. Players said Roberson feared not drawing the attention of college programs. Heath contends that YMLA football is already on the radar because of the school’s academic prowess.
‘We have a lot of heart’
If YMLA could play in Class 3A, Heath believes he might have something special in the making. A UIL rule that many assume was created to discourage charter schools that emphasize athletics from recruiting top players to form super teams actually stemmed from academic concerns, UIL Deputy Director Jamey Harrison said.
Smaller, rural schools feared that specialty charter schools such as ones geared toward math and science would dominate UIL academic contests.
So the UIL decided such schools would compete in the classification of the highest-enrollment school in their school district. Football, however, is entirely different. Harrison said the UIL has discussed ways to examine schools case by case but has yet to come to a consensus on how to do it.
When YMLA plays its first home game at Clark Stadium on Sept. 9 against La Vega, YMLA’s small but formidable band plus cheerleaders from sister school Young Women’s Leadership Academy will rev up the crowd.
The spirit boosters are welcome, but they won’t help the team compete on an uneven playing field. But as YMLA coaches and players say, no one will feel sorry for them under the Friday night lights.
When everything is failing, the only thing that’s going to keep us going is our heart.
Kirk Preston, student council president and football team captain
“There’s probably going to be teams that are going to be bigger, stronger and faster than us, but we’ve been here since Day One grinding it out, developing our mental toughness, our abilities, conditioning ourselves,” Preston said. “Most importantly, we show up every day, and that shows that we have heart. When everything is failing, the only thing that’s going to keep us going is our heart.
“And we have a lot of heart.”