One of the best stories I’ve read in the last year.
The new pride of Weequahic High
Two men and a football team helped turn around a forlorn school
BY BRIDGET WENTWORTH
The planes fly low over Weequahic High School on their way to Newark Liberty International Airport.
From up there, passengers can see the bright orange helmets of a football team practicing on the blacktop of a parking lot. But they can’t hear what starts as a low hum. It becomes a song – tentative at first, then louder, the players standing next to each other.
They begin to clap in rhythm, gathering around their coach, their voices growing louder still. Prouder.
I’ve got a feeling
I’ve got a feeling, brother
I’ve got a feeling
To sneak in my frat
Ain’t gonna be no s*** like that
Some voices falter. There are tears in some eyes.
The song of defiant brotherhood is the soundtrack to a resurgence at Newark’s Weequahic High that started with a football team and has spread throughout an entire community.
On Sunday, the Indians meet Raritan High School of Hazlet for a chance to win the first state football championship for a Newark school in 31 years. At stake is the newfound pride not just of a group of students but of teachers, parents and alumni.
For a school that five years ago was a place of violence, low morale and poor academics, the comeback started with a weight room and a pact between two men who refused to despair.
THE $40,000 IDEA
Ron Stone was named principal of Weequahic five years ago. In his first two weeks on the job, “the equivalent of all-out gang wars” occurred twice inside the school.
But violence was only one of Stone’s problems. Weequahic, with a student body of 1,000, was also struggling with low test scores and what Stone says was a sense of hopelessness. It was difficult to know where to begin to get it under control.
But he had an idea and a new coach willing to take a chance.
Stone agreed to take $40,000 out of the athletic budget to create a weight room. In return, coach Altarik White, a former star running back and assistant coach at Shabazz High School, promised a winner.
That was easier than it sounded. The Indians play in the Iron Hills Conference, home to suburban schools that often have resources to burn. Weequahic was lucky to win one or two games a year.
Stone and White were convinced a weight room would give the players a chance to build their bodies and their confidence, and to start winning. That might get other kids in school to stop wearing gang colors and start wearing Weequahic’s orange and brown.
“My contention is that success is transferable,” Stone says.
Weequahic, which is 98.7 percent black and 1.3 percent Hispanic, is now passing the language arts portion of the high school proficiency assessment test at a rate of 62 percent, compared with 38 percent three years ago.
Now, every Friday, students and even teachers and administrators do cover themselves in orange and brown. Loraine White, the school’s health and social services coordinator, has been wearing the school colors every day since the playoffs started four weeks ago.
My daughter says the fashion police need to arrest me," she says.
White graduated from Weequahic in 1964 and took a teaching job there in 1969. She made headlines in the 1970s when she coached football for five years.
“I don’t think anybody really realized the depth that the winning football team impacts the people, not just the athletes and the coaches themselves,” she says. “Mr. Stone calls it ‘IP’ – Indian Pride – and it’s something you can’t shake.”
Five years ago, the Indians barely attracted 20 people to their games. When Weequahic faced Rahway at Shabazz Stadium in Newark two weeks ago for the right to play in the Group 2 championship game, there were 4,000 in the stands, Stone estimates, including several generations of Indians football players.
Next year the Indians will play in a renovated stadium, meaning there won’t be any more practices in the parking lot of the elementary school next door.
And one of the busiest places on campus will still be the weight room.
Located on the bottom floor of the high school, it is painted bright orange, and it is filled with free weights, exercise machines and treadmills.
“I have to throw these young men out of the weight room,” Altarik White said. “They can get in there, and feel good about themselves. And get themselves ready to compete.”
Jamaal Perry’s lost week seems like ancient times.
The Indians’ starting quarterback grew up in his grandmother’s apartment in Felix Fuld Court, a Newark housing project controlled by the Bloods and beset by the drug trade.
The three-story brick apartment buildings, known as “Li’l Bricks,” cover one block in a blighted area of the Central Ward. The complex is bordered by vacant, overgrown lots, the backside of a supermarket and a stretch of abandoned, burned-out apartments. There is garbage everywhere.
Perry’s mother does not live with him, and his father left the family seven years ago. When Perry was 14 and a freshman, he skipped football practice for a week and spent the hours after school getting drunk.
When he finally showed up, White shocked him by handing him the starting job. The coach also told Perry he knew what he had been doing for the past week.
That was the moment Perry’s life hit a crossroads.
“If I never played for the football team, I’d probably be doing the wrong thing right about now,” he says. "I think about it a lot. I could have been locked up, probably dead.
“So this football team has meant a lot to me. They’re not just my teammates, they’re my family. And I consider Coach White my father.”
Perry is looking forward to attending a junior college in Pennsylvania and maybe transferring to a Division I school.
His coach says: "I’d love to see these young men go to college and come back and do things for the city.
“I don’t do this for the money. I do this because I get a chance to see a young man like Jamaal, a great young man who was thrown some curveballs in life, swing at those curveballs and maybe even make contact.”
SEEKING A BALANCE
Football isn’t the only sport at Weequahic. The basketball program has become a state powerhouse in recent years.
So it’s no surprise the school plays host to that age-old American high school drama in which the jocks get all the attention while the scholars fight for recognition.
Naomi Adjei is ranked No. 1 in the Class of 2007. She has applied to Harvard, Princeton, Johns Hopkins and Columbia. In July, she won a gold medal in mathematics at a national competition.
Asked whether that was ever announced, Adjei shakes her head, laughing.
“Oh, don’t go there,” she says. “I think Mr. Stone announced it during a faculty meeting. Teachers have asked me why it hasn’t been announced (to students), and I tell them I don’t want it announced. If it was going to happen, it would have happened a long time ago.”
Maybe if Adjei was the placekicker on the football team, she would have gotten her due.
“When athletes do well, you hear an announcement every day,” she says.
But she also admits being thrilled by the success of the football team. She serves as a student trainer, helping players with rehabilitation and treatment before practices and at games.
“I know athletics is a major part of the school and I love doing this,” she says.
Despite the improvements, there’s still a lot to be done at Weequahic. Math scores still lag. Students still bring the problems of the street into the building. Last year, a police officer assigned to Weequahic was shot and killed outside the school.
“Even though the academic performance is improving,” Stone says, “the moral code is still the code on the street: ‘If you disrespect me, I’m going to get even.’ We still have to be aware of the gang influence and the code these kids still hang onto.”
But there can be other influences.
Last year, Joe Hines took Perry and another player to a fancy restaurant during a gathering of top high school players in Texas.
“We sat down and showed them how to eat dinner,” says Hines, a lieutenant with the State Police and the team’s academic coach. “How to order from a menu. Why we left more money than was requested. What a tip is. How to conduct yourself.”
Perry admits he felt stared at, but the lessons stuck when it came time for another dinner, with Chicago Bears defensive line coach and Weequahic alum Don Johnson at the Hyatt Regency in Jersey City.
“We’re used to chicken shacks,” Perry says. “All those forks and knives? But I knew to eat from the outside in.”
Now Perry wants to treat his own family and friends to such a meal.
“We wanted to stretch the realm of possibility,” says Hines, a Weequahic alum. “We wanted to get the genie out of the bottle. It’s hard to put it back once you do that.”