Which of the following are things you’ll never see or hear at a high school football practice in DeKalb County:
Player bios that read like answers to a world geography test – Zambia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Honduras, Serbia, Mexico, China.
The snap count being rattled off in Spanish.
A former gang member starting on the offensive line.
Coaches helping players make sure their pads are in the right places.
Players going to tutorials instead of going to practice two days a week, if needed.
If you chose any of the above, you’ve probably never been to a football practice at Cross Keys High School.
It doesn’t take long to figure out why winning football games isn’t the most important thing to players and coaches at Cross Keys High School.
With little to no parental support, Cross Keys coach David Radford and his staff try to create a team environment on the most diverse team at the most diverse high school in the county.
“I’ve been here four years, and our parents never come to games,” Radford said. “A lot of kids, their parents are working to survive and coming to football games is not important. It’s very common on Senior Night for coaches or teachers to stand in for the parents.”
Many of the players are not U.S. citizens and have not been in the country more than a few years.
“You can’t do things the way more successful programs do it,” said Radford, who came from a successful high school program in Arizona. “Your heart has to be in everything you do instead of worrying about Xs and Os. You have to be concerned about the guys beyond football.”
For the past two seasons, Radford has managed to put together a team of about 30 to 35 players, mostly foreign. Most did not know how to play football until they moved to the United States, and most have played only since middle school.
As a result, the Indians have lost 30 straight games. But week after week, the Indians keep coming back to the practice field and to games.
“A lot are not U.S. citizens and where they’ve come from they been through hardships a lot worse than getting beat up on the football field,” Radford said.
“It’s a true testament to our coaching staff that these kids keep coming back,” Radford said. “They get their heads pounded and still come out every Friday night and fight.
Opposing coaches always tell us that they’re impressed by how hard our kids fight. We lost 70-7 last year to Blessed Trinity and the coaches told us they noticed our kids kept fighting.”
It is that spirit that has landed several Cross Keys players college scholarships in recent years. Richard Feacher, one of the top receivers in the county last year, now is a freshman at Furman. Also, Philip People is a senior at Gardner-Webb, and Nico Williams is a senior at Holy Cross.
“I think I can go to college to play football,” said Yonuel Hidalgo, a junior from Mexico. “I hear about others who go to college and think maybe I can, too.”
College scholarships are the reward, not the reason, many players stick with the program at Cross Keys’. If not for football, many of the players would not have a place to fit in at the school.
“It’s fun just being out here and learning something new,” said sophomore Ahmed Mahammed of Ethiopia. “It helps us bond. We’re trying to change Cross Keys history and work hard to win games.”
Defensive coordinator Barry Banks, the school’s campus supervisor, has seen plenty of changes in the 17 years he has been at the school.
“We have a chance to touch these kids who have never played football before,” Banks said. “Because we’re so small, we are able to have one-on-one instruction and see them change over the years. They grow to have confidence in themselves.”
With so many cultures and languages to consider, coaches take the players on group activities to help them bond. The team has been to an Atlanta Falcons game at the Georgia Dome – a first for many players.
Radford, who grew up in Indianapolis, has seen hardship first hand and wanted to try to change his players’ lives like one of his coaches did for him. After Radford got into a gang-related fight after school, one of his coaches was going to take him home. Instead the coach took Radford to his house.
“He told me ‘you can live like you live, or have this,’” Radford said.
Radford passed up full scholarships to smaller schools and walked on at Indiana University.
“Sports save my life and when I came here I wanted to give back. I find it rewarding to be able to help the kids.”