Respect On & Off The Field

By John W. Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

About 200 athletes from the city of Worcester cram into the bleachers at what Burncoat High fans call, alternatively, “The Pit” and “The Green Graveyard”—rather foreboding nicknames for foes entering their championship banner-lined gym.

On this November afternoon, the athletes hardly appear enthused about what is labeled quaintly as a “Wellness Seminar.” In reality it is a no-nonsense after-school presentation of some hard-core rules that must be obeyed or else. Jeff Lane, assistant athletic director for Worcester public schools, lays out what behavior is out-of-bounds (being in the presence of any banned substance, for example) and what is expected of student-athletes in terms of attendance and academic achievement. Conform or you’re gone is the clear message.

Before the high schoolers sign up for winter sports, Lane asks them to listen to two visiting scholar-athletes from Holy Cross. The kids woof, whoop and applaud as if their Patriots just hit a winning three-pointer. Ann Ash Zelesky, a basketball and softball coaching legend at Worcester’s St-Peter-Marian Central Junior-Senior High School and now Holy Cross’ associate athletic director, introduces the Crusaders, baseball co-captains Matt Perry ’10 and Ryan George ’10.

Perry and George are not there to talk about batting stances and curveballs. Their tips are far more important—and will have a far greater impact on these students’ lives. They have come to the school as part of a Holy Cross program called “Respect: The Right Way to Play,” and their pitch is simple: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” as Aretha Franklin shouts out in song.

“First, respect the game,’’ advises George, a pitcher. He quotes former major league Astros philosopher Craig Biggio, who once spoke, “I owe a lot to the game of baseball. The game of baseball owes me nothing!”

“To me,” George explains, “that means you should work extra hard to improve your game and that you must always remain honest with yourself, always doing the right thing. From that comes respect for your teammates, coaches, officials and opponents.”

Perry, the reigning Patriot League Player of the Year, emphasizes the respect owed your opponents. “They’re giving 110 percent too; they are playing for the love of the game too. You should show opponents respect before a game and after a game, win or lose,” Perry says. “The way you play and act is how you gain respect.”

The high school athletes then recite in harmonic unison “The Pledge to Respect,” a newly created oath that is the keystone of this collaborative program between Worcester and Holy Cross. It begins: “The foundation of a healthy team and community is each individual’s differences and talents.” (See entire pledge on Page 47.)

Bringing students together
Crusader disciples are spreading the gospel of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” throughout Worcester’s seven high schools, speaking at the schools before the start of the fall, winter and spring sports seasons.

“Respect: The Right Way to Play” seems to work because the college athletes share their personal stories with high school students who look up to them as role models. They connect right away.

Mandy Correale ’10, a biology/health professions major, plays third base in softball. During another one of the program’s visits—this one to Worcester South—Correale declares to students that they must show respect if they want to earn respect.

Josh Jones ’11, a 6-foot-7-inch basketball forward, holds open his right hand high to the crowd. Slowly he closes his five fingers into a fist. “When five players come together like this,’’ he says, “they become a lot more powerful.” He tells the athletes to “control their emotions that may result in bad decisions, to compete hard but respect opponents who are trying to win. Keep a level head when you miss a shot; don’t celebrate wildly when you make a shot. Be respectful. Be a role model.”

“Kids may think that coming to a college like Holy Cross is unattainable,’’ says Devin Brown, a second-year guard out of Baltimore City High School. “They see us as we are now and assume that’s how we’ve always been. But, for a lot of us, that’s not the case.”

Brown tells students of his personal struggles, his mistakes, and how he attended Notre Dame Prep School in Fitchburg, Mass., after high school to reach his goal, Holy Cross. “The beginning of your life doesn’t tell the end,” he says. “Respect yourself and know there’s always room to reach your potential.’’

Andrew Keister ’11 has a very compelling story to tell the students. Diagnosed with leukemia in the third grade, he explains how he endured three years of treatment before he was declared cancer free. He relates how he would watch NCAA tournament games from a hospital bed, dreaming of someday making it to that level.

“Respect yourself. Keep yourself in line, in the classroom and on the court, so you can help your team,” he says. “I was told by Division 3 coaches I couldn’t play even at that level though I was 6-foot-10 and 210 pounds in high school. I never gave in. I kept my grades up so I’d be in a position to succeed.”

A Holy Cross tri-captain, Keister was named a first-team Patriot League All-Star last season.

On another visit, this one in mid-November, field hockey player Brianna Rush ’11 and volleyball star Angela Chisholm ’11 waltz into Worcester Technical High and captivate students in heart-warming tandem. One starts a thought and the other finishes it to the delight of their audience. And so it goes as the presentation gains momentum.

“These athletes represent Holy Cross so well,” observes Mark Daigneault, assistant basketball coach and a coordinator for the Respect outreach program. “They are leaders who intertwine themselves in the campus fabric and in the community at large.”

Birth of a Program
The program falls under the umbrella of Mable Millner, assistant dean of students and director of multicultural education. Millner believes firmly in people sharing their stories. “If you personalize a discussion, it removes fears and threats and enlightens people about their commonality,” she says.

Millner, who is in her ninth year at Holy Cross, has been encouraging such compassionate conversations on campus and beyond. Her smile is disarming, her positive energy infectious and her intelligence penetrating. On campus Millner has spearheaded peer-education programs, leads the campus “Hate: Not Here” initiative, and preaches understanding as the student body grows more and more diverse. (About 20 percent of the College’s current students come from African-American, Latin-American, Asian-American or Native American backgrounds).

“Understanding our differences enhances a sense of community and that approach seems like a good fit with the overall Jesuit mission,’’ says Millner, a North Carolina native who spent nine years coordinating inner-city programs at Boston University. Students, staff and faculty alike are drawn to her workshops, orientation rap sessions and late-night discussions in residence halls.

She is likewise active in the community, serving as chair of the Worcester City Manager’s Coalition on Bias and Hate and as a member of the city’s Human Rights Commission. The interaction between the city and College is paying dividends.

In 2005, Kolt Bloxson ’06, an ice hockey player and Holy Cross intern working for the Worcester Human Rights Commission, came to Millner with a fresh idea. Worcester was linking up with an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) program called “No Place for Hate.” “Why can’t we do something like that here?’’ he asked.

“Good question,” Millner replied.

The College adopted the ADL concept and created its own “Hate: Not Here” initiative: Thus the first city-college collaboration in the ADL’s national “No Place for Hate” campaign was born. An ADL grant helps fund the ongoing effort to create a national model for such a joint venture.

Last spring, Holy Cross’ Hate: Not Here committee joined hands with the city and its schools, launching the “Respect: It’s the Right Way to Play” program.

Millner and Zelesky joined Frances Manocchio, director of Worcester Human Rights Commission; Colleen O’Brien, Worcester’s director of athletics; Rob Pezzella, an assistant school superintendent and director of safety and violence prevention, and others to formulate plans to foster sportsmanship.

In recent years, Pezzella notes, there had been a growing number of incidents of violence, some racially motivated, involving athletes and spectators at sports events. “Our schools were getting a black eye,’’ he says.

Today banners with the Respect pledge are placed prominently in gyms and fields at Foley Stadium and elsewhere. Banners are signed by the athletes. The “Pledge to Respect” is read aloud before public school games by announcers as players, coaches, fans follow along. The Holy Cross scholar-athletes’ visits to Worcester’s schools help underscore the message of self-respect and respect for others.

Is it working?
Pezzella reports that incidents of violence at games last spring and fall, where the pledge has been recited, is near zero. “Outside of a couple of minor instances of disrespectful behavior, we are seeing that our vigilance in paying off,’’ he says.

O’Brien, daughter of Holy Cross track Hall of Famer Johnny Wallace ’41, concurs.

“The Pledge To Respect, the banners, the Holy Cross athletes relating their success stories, are having a very positive impact,’’ O’Brien says.

“Worcester is changing its philosophy, emphasizing academics first,” she continues. “We run homework centers, coaches volunteer time to help their athletes get into college, we insist on higher academic achievement for eligibility, teachers and administrators are at games to keep a watch out”—and, she adds, “Our coaches know that their win-loss records are not as important as helping our kids succeed in life.’’

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

John W. Gearan, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.