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Program goal is bridge between players

CANTON — The rain finally stopped over the Pro Football Hall of Fame as Cleveland Heights assistant football coach Kahari Hicks started to greet other coaches and see players in different-colored jerseys start to gather.

The second Build The Bridge gathering happened Tuesday morning with a handful of coaches and player representatives from northeast Ohio. Locally, Harding, Niles, Chaney, Ursuline and East are part of the project, pairing teams from schools with predominately white enrollments with those schools that have predominately black students.

Hicks saw how the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor had brought about racial tension throughout the country.

Hicks said his white colleagues reached out and asked what they could do to help. Getting people together was the answer.

Through the Build the Bridge project teams and coaches are paired with one another to do drills together, have meaningful discussions about race relations and get to know each other — finding out they have more similarities than differences.

Each of the three groups made their way through the HOF, seeing the collections of memorabilia. One player was baffled by the leather equipment used a century ago to play the sport they love.

Hicks said there are about 70 teams, even those from as far away as Chicago and Kansas City, Missouri, involved with the project in which Harding and Niles, Ursuline and East and Chaney and Twinsburg are paired together.

“Can people continue to have stereotypes and hatred if they don’t know people?” Hicks said. “It’s really hard to bully someone or treat someone like crap when you know them.

“You need to get teams together that don’t look alike, that don’t normally interact, and bring them together. That’s where the genesis of the this program came from. We want to bring teams that might be inner-city, suburb and rural and bring them together so they could see how each other interact and recognize they like video games, go to movies. You find out you have a lot more in common than you think. We put the challenge out on social media, hoping to bring people together through sport. Within the first 4 minutes of the tweet going out, nine teams had signed up. Now we’re pushing 70.”

Hicks said race is a very uncomfortable conversation to have, but necessary for us as a human race to move forward.

He sees the young people out at this event and how they can shape the future of this country.

“We’re at a time in our country where every time a movement has started, it’s always been young people,” Hicks said. “My father came up through the civil rights movement. He was 20 years old when he made the change. These are young men and women at their prime. They are going to be the ones who are going to be the next senators, next doctors, mayors, lawyers, educators. If we get to these kids now and get them to interact and work together, we can make America what it’s exactly meant to be — a melting pot.”

Football is the true melting pot. It doesn’t matter the color of a person’s skin on Friday night, at two-a-day practices or during offseason training. The color scheme of the uniform is the only thing that matters — just like the black and gold of Cleveland Heights.

“Those are the only colors that matter,” Hicks said. “When you get kids together and put on that jersey, whatever color jersey you’re wearing, it’s the only one that matters. That’s the only color that matters. If all guys or girls are all working for a common good.

“That’s what sports is supposed to teach you. I think when the kids are interacting and they’re putting on that uniform, I think that’s the biggest beauty of playing sports. You’re forced to interact with people you’re normally don’t interact with. You might play on an all-black team. You’re going to play an all-white team. Or, you might be on a mixed team. You have to interact with people who don’t look like you for the greater good. It teaches you how to function in life.”

Football, or any other sport, relies on the unit moving as one. Take an offensive line, if they don’t all move in unison, the quarterback or running back is exposed to the defense. It doesn’t matter who is on the line. It matters how the team function responds as a unit.

“Football is the biggest multi-tasking sport,” Hicks said. “You have to be violent, but you have to be kind. You have to think. You have to work together. When you have all those things and dump that into one pot, I think that’s what put football ahead of the curve. You have 11 people. If something goes wrong, you know exactly where it went wrong. That’s not a black or white thing. That’s called doing for the good of the team so the team can hoist the trophy at the end of the season.

“The kid can get the scholarship to become the doctor that can take care of us. That’s the biggest thing is when you’re on that field or on that diamond, it doesn’t matter if the shortstop is black and you’re catcher is white. When that ball is thrown, that ball better get out of that glove and throw out that guy at second base or the entire team loses. That where sports is huge and football, specifically, if one guys misses a block, the whole play goes to crap.”

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