Bridging the gap

Harding, Niles to square off as part of Build the Bridge program

Tribune file photo / R. Michael Semple Warren G. Harding’s Jabari Felton, shown here in a game last season, will be part of a Warren G. Harding team that is taking part in the Build the Bridge campaign to break down race barriers.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series of stories about the Build the Bridge program in northeast Ohio high school football.

Steve Arnold sees his football players a majority of the calendar year.

Off-season conditioning. Practices. Pre-game talks. Being the focal point of a post-game huddle.

The Warren G. Harding football coach knows all the preparation is about achieving the ultimate goal — winning.

There’s more to being a mentor, however, as he sees his players learn, develop and eventually leave the walls of Warren G. Harding High School. Arnold hopes he and his staff have given these student-athletes the intangibles they need to succeed at life.

He started a program last July called KIRM, which stands for Keep It Real Mondays.

After school, Arnold would have speakers from the Warren-area community talk about real-life issues. The discussions were on the same topics that are in the forefront of today’s headlines.

“The conversation stayed within the locker room,” Arnold said. “We had great discussions. A lot of the discussion was about race relations and police brutality. Ironically, that’s what a lot of the discussions were about. When we had a speaker come in, I didn’t know what they were going to talk about. I left it up to them. Whatever you speak about, I want you to be honest. I just want you to be frank with my players. We all know young people can look right through them if you’re not honest. We’ve had people come in and speak to our players. We’re going to continue it when we resume in July.”

That’s a good transition into a project called Build the Bridge, the brainchild of Cleveland Heights assistant football coach Kahari Hicks.

He and Cleveland Heights coach Mac Stephens started reaching out to coaches to bring majority white programs with majority black programs together for seven-on-seven scrimmages, team workouts or other team-building programs, discussions and meals as one unit.

The idea is to bring players and coaches together and help everyone realize there’s more that brings us together than separates us.

Hicks encourages coaches to reach out via Twitter @kahari–hicks to get their team as part of this project, which has drawn in schools all over northeast Ohio.

Teams plan to get together in July, but how and if they get together is dependent on what Gov. Mike DeWine declares is safe for high school athletics going forward as part of the current COVID-19 pandemic, which already canceled spring sports.

Teams are currently in phase two, where they can practice as a group. Currently, there are no seven-on-seven competition, joint practices or scrimmages allowed. Everything has to be with their own teams. Teams in the Build the Bridge project have to wait for the state and the Ohio High School Athletic Association for the clearance to get together.

Harding, which is one of a handful of Mahoning Valley schools currently in the project, is paired with Niles.

Niles coach Jim Parry said he wants to have this coach- and player-led project be a unifier in today’s society.

“The great thing about sports is the barriers that are in society sort of fade away when you get together in a sporting arena,” Parry said. “We want to further that beyond the athletic field, let these kids sit down, eat with each other and just talk and realize these differences that seem to tear society apart, they’re really not. Once we get to understand each other, they’re easily overcome. We have to provide these kids with that exposure. They realize at the end of the day we’re a lot more alike t han we’re different.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic slowing down the sports world since mid March, players like Niles’ Zach Cicero and Harding’s Chester Adams both said playing football is their main goal. They just want to be able to play this fall.

Both are hoping they can grow from this Build the Bridge program.

“I hope that through this event and other things,” said Cicero, a Niles senior defensive end and left tackle, “we’ll come together and not have to worry about arguing and be able to trust each other. It doesn’t matter your skin color or your background, just that we all have the same goal at the end of the day.”

Adams said it’s a great chance for teams to get together and realize we can all learn from what one another has to say.

“To me, I feel like it’s a big step,” said Adams, a senior linebacker. “We’re all coming together, trying to sort our problems around not just the community but America right now. I feel it’s good for people to actually do it and hear what other people have to say and stuff. I feel like it’s a good opportunity to understand one another more.”

That starts with honest and frank discussions.

“Sports are a microcosm of today’s society,” Arnold said. “We know that. Within society, we know there’s racism.

“There’s racism in sports. For the most part, kids go out and play. There’s something special about being in the huddle. You have tall, short, fat, skinny and obviously black and white in the huddle. When you’re holding hands, communicating, you have that (brotherhood) in the huddle, you don’t see color. Talk freely and openly and be honest. Sometimes people don’t want to talk about race relations.”

That’s why there is the Build the Bridge project bringing teams together through sports.

“To be able to get together and do some football things with them and do some things afterward, break some bread and have an open dialogue with their team and their program,” Arnold said. “I think it’s going to be very beneficial to both programs. I’m looking forward to it. Coach Parry is going to be a frank and honest person with his players as well.”

It’s about listening.

“The more you hear you get a better understanding,” Parry said. “That’s where most of our disagreements come from, we just don’t understand the other person, what they’re thinking.”


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