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The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee)
To be a football player at Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, you have to know how to persevere without making excuses. The program, which is in just its second year, doesn't have a locker room, and players cross a busy street every day to get to practice.
"I pray every day that we cross the street and get over here safely," said coach Julius Jackson, who has been leading the team since day one.
The team's nickname is the Phoenix, which is fitting because MASE (6-2, 4-1 8-1A) was able to rise from the ashes of last year's 0-10 season and start fresh.
"To be totally honest, nothing has really changed. We're playing harder than we played last year. Once we got down last year, we kind of gave up," Jackson said. "But I have the same guys. We're a little stronger than we were last year, but other than that, we're doing the same thing we've been doing. It's the same stuff I tried to tell them they could do last year, but they just didn't believe it."
But just as the team, which is riding a three-game winning streak, was set to play the biggest game of the season, against region-leading Freedom Prep (5-3, 5-0), Jackson suspended at least 11 players for academic reasons. That's nearly half the 28-member team.
Jackson said the team hasn't been taking its academics seriously enough. Report cards come out next week, and Jackson, who doubles as the school's athletics director, was blown away by the poor grades that he saw when he checked in Monday. His rule is that any player with an "F" has to sit out for two weeks. He said the soonest a suspended player can play again is next Friday's season finale against B.T. Washington.
"I kind of slacked off on my grades, not taking it 100 percent seriously," said linebacker Tony Rush, one of the players who was suspended. "And now Coach has to shuffle in the people who can play, so it's hard on us, hard on the team. I should have took it seriously."
Jackson has implemented similar policies in previous coaching stops, including his most recent stint at Hillcrest. He said he never has had to suspend this many kids; it's usually two or three.
But he is stepping in to teach a lesson that could come at the expense of a potential region title.
MASE already clinched a playoff spot. Its 4-1 region record is tied with Hillcrest (4-4, 4-1) for second place entering Thursday night's game. A MASE win on Thursday night would leave MASE tied with Freedom Prep going into the final game with a head-to-head advantage. The top four teams in each region make the playoffs, with the top two teams earning home playoff games.
MASE executive director Rod Gaston said he supports the decision to suspend the players and hopes it will be a wake-up call for them. He expects the players to serve their suspensions and bring their grades up so they can come back for the playoffs.
"We're trying to build student-athletes. Football is an extracurricular activity," Gaston said. "The kids have to do what they're supposed to do in the classroom."
Jackson said that two players quit the team when he told them they couldn't play. They asked for a second chance, but Jackson doubled down by repeating the rule to them.
"I feel disappointed for the most part because we had all these people here to help us improve, and it feels bad that we're doing positive this year and we're having so much taken from us because we don't want to put in the extra time to work hard in the classroom," said running back Sidney Hall Jr., who is among the players who still can play.
Said Jackson: "I'm not perfect, but the discipline that we do is important. It's stuff that these kids need to hear. I wish I didn't care so much because ... it would make my life so much easier. Like, 'Oh, if you make F's, you can continue to play.' Some coaches are like that. But the world doesn't work like that."
Parent Tina Malone said that the discipline Jackson is instilling in her son Kenneth already has made a big difference. He has been more focused on his work, and behavioral problems have cleared up, she said. She said the changes came because her son knows he can't play football without giving proper effort in school.
"I really like what Coach Jackson is doing because he always tells them, 'I can get you to college, but you have to help yourself with the grades.' So they're all trying to get the grades. It's making them be more responsible and accountable in the classroom," Malone said. "I am so happy that he is over there because a lot of the kids, including my kid, were getting in trouble at first. But now his whole behavior is changed. He hasn't gotten in trouble this year or all of last year."
Another parent, Chaundra Jones, whose son Caleb plays on the team, said she also fully supports Jackson's decision.
"Football is all fine and dandy, but everybody is not going to make it to the professional level," Jones said. "If my son had a bad grade, I'd be right there supporting Coach Jackson because he looks out for the team. When he started the season off, he strictly told them in the first parents' meeting that his first goal was academics."
Two concepts Jackson has been trying to drill into his players are leadership and accountability. He preaches that their actions affect more than just them individually. One person's decisions can affect the entire team. And in this particular case the effect was multiplied by a number of poor decisions. Jackson wants the lesson to sink in.
"I tell them that that's selfish," Jackson said. "They've been knowing me the whole year. It ain't like I just told them last week. They've been knowing this since before school started. I said it, and I'm not going back on my word. I'm serious about these grades.
"They say they want to go to college but ain't making no grades. Where they do that at? It's going to be a lesson for them. I hope it hurts. I really hope it hurts. Even for the other kids who will be playing. Because they're in the class with these boys. Why are you letting them do all that?"
Jackson said its a lesson rooted in love.
"I feel like I have an impact on their lives, and I want to help them maximize their lives," he said. "I love them enough to tell them yes, but I also love them enough to tell them no."
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