‘Build the Bridge’ program teaching athletes life lessons

High school sports is about so much more than just competition.

Most athletes, coaches and parents already know it’s about building character, learning discipline on personal fitness or time management, and perhaps most of all, teamwork.

And now it’s about even more than all that.

Partnerships built on the playing field or in the locker room reach much further than just athletics. They bridge great divides in cultural differences, religious or political beliefs, social status and, of course, race.

That’s why a new program, “Build the Bridge Challenge,” comprised of dozens of northeast Ohio high school football teams is so meaningful.

The organizers from Cleveland Heights who dreamed up the program, and the participants — including several local high school teams — deserve much praise.

In response to violent acts across the country resulting in deaths this year of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, Build the Bridge has begun connecting mostly black teams with mostly white ones for workouts, seven-on-seven drills or scrimmages.

Kahari Hicks, offensive coordinator at Cleveland Heights High School, and a few other area coaches started discussing the idea in early June. Via a video and this simple message posted on social media, “Together we can use sports to fight hate,” he invited area coaches to reach out to discuss an initiative.

It didn’t take long.

Since June, nearly 70 teams have become involved in the program, ranging from big to small schools, and including both public and private. From the Mahoning Valley, local involvement has included teams from Warren G. Harding, Niles, Chaney, Ursuline and Youngstown East.

For instance, Chaney, an inner-city Youngstown school, will be paired with Twinsburg, a suburban school.

Mainly the program aims to get teams together that don’t look alike and don’t normally interact. It can involve inner-city, suburban and rural areas.

At the end of the day, the interaction on the field and in the locker room represents a true melting pot.

“Those are the only colors that matter,” Hicks said during a Build the Bridge event at the National Football League Hall of Fame in Canton that was covered by our sports writer John Vargo. “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.”

What a wonderful message that these kids can carry with them beyond the playing field.

Several get-togethers, both on and off the field, are planned, but unfortunately they remain on hold as teams await clearance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aside from drills or scrimmages, coaches say they’d like to invite former Warren G. Harding and Ohio State standout Maurice Clarett to speak about diversity, being unified and the importance of team. There also is a joint team dinner planned in which players will sit down as one.

Indeed, we all are hopeful for an opportunity to participate this year and, of course, for all high school athletics seasons to go forward in 2020-21. But if the COVID-19 pandemic puts a wrinkle in those plans, we urge coaches and teams to go forward later with their plans to gather the teams together. The message these kids can learn would last a lifetime.

“You find out you have a lot more in common than you think,” Hicks said.

It builds relationships and builds understanding across various races, cultures and backgrounds.

These coaches are making a significant change in their players’ lives that will reach far beyond athletics. In fact, it can mean a significant change in society.



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